Erich Lessing/Art Resource

The Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, constructed circa 532–537

The two massive volumes of The Eerdmans Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art and Archaeology, each over seven hundred pages long, offer a comprehensive survey of the visual and material aspects of Christianity in its first centuries—roughly from 200 to 600. These dates do not include the earliest Christian communities, for it is only around the year 200 that recognizably Christian objects first appeared. By 312, with the conversion of Constantine, we are already dealing with a fully visible religion, in the grip of the problems raised by its own success.

Only a generation or so ago, the mention of early Christian art would have conjured up a predictable set of images: a few catacombs; a few majestic basilicas in Rome, like Santa Maria Maggiore; the twilight glories of Ravenna; the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul; and perhaps a few distant views of flat and faceless ruins in North Africa and the Middle East.

Nowadays, our interest in Christian art is no longer confined to a few well-known monuments. Instead, our eyes are challenged by innumerable objects: newly discovered floor mosaics scattered from southern Britain to the edge of the Sahara and from the Balkans to the Negev; entire curtains and vividly embroidered caftans preserved in the dry sands of Egypt; red-glazed pottery from North Africa, where martyrs with the rippling muscles of classical athletes confront their customary lions; and, from everywhere, accessories—earrings, bracelets, necklaces, even little dolls carved in bone and lovingly wrapped in cloth of gold, some of them found, rather poignantly, in the sarcophagi of the great.

This decentering of early Christianity, away from Christian Rome to a wider realm, has led to a dam burst in our study of the early church. The Eerdmans Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art and Archaeology has taken its measure. It is a guide to a new world; indeed, so broad is its range of reference that it is almost a guide to late antiquity as a whole. Christian objects and themes hold center stage, but the entries make plain that Jewish and pagan art and practices always had a major part in the evolution of Christian culture.

Its editor, Corby Finney, has chosen his contributors from the top ranks of American and European scholars. The encyclopedia is dedicated to the memory of a great scholar, Ernst Kitzinger (1912–2003), who inspired Finney along with many others of his generation, and whose breadth of vision is reflected in this book. Its consistently satisfying articles suggest fresh approaches to every aspect of early Christian art and archaeology. It is tantamount to providing a gazetteer of all the sites where early Christian artifacts have been found, where early Christian monuments can still be visited, and where significant collections of early Christian objects can be seen.

The slim third volume contains a series of stunning color plates (including many objects seldom presented in standard handbooks). It also includes maps that plot the sites mentioned in the encyclopedia. To look at those maps is to make out the contours of a Christian world profoundly different from our own—still hesitant in Western Europe beyond the Mediterranean but thriving throughout northern Africa as far south as Ethiopia, and in the Middle East as far east as Iran and Central Asia. Belonging to no single continent, the early Christian world floats over the modern map of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, like the gigantic cloud of a once-vibrant galaxy.

The encyclopedia is a triumph of intellectual generosity. Reading the long entry on wooden objects of all kinds (from funerary beds to the brisk little slide-top cases for weighing scales used by jewelers and moneychangers in Coptic Egypt) by Lois Drewer of the Princeton Index of Christian Art, who died in 2011, I was reminded of the many unstinting and unselfish circulators of precious pieces of information. The credit for this achievement must go to Finney. His many contributions set the encyclopedia on the right course. They show how early Christianity was linked to the world around it. They describe beliefs that Christians often shared with non-Christians and practices held in common with their neighbors (such as merry religious processions).

Above all, Finney refuses to give early Christian texts more than their due. Instead, he takes us into a world winking with visual messages, all the more effective for being mute. He draws attention to the murmurous populations of invisible creatures—demons and angels—that pressed in around Christians, Jews, and pagans alike, spurring a frenetic search for protection, remedies, and authorized experts—holy persons, priests, magicians. To be without an amulet in early Christian times, whatever one’s religion, was as ill-advised as forgoing a flu shot or daily multivitamin today.

Some exquisite little objects—such as the carved gemstones on which Finney is an expert—were not treated as mere ornaments. Pressed to the skin on rings or held close to the chest on necklaces, they glowed with occult energies. They kept evil powers at bay. They drew to themselves the hidden energies of good powers. It is not surprising that so many were found in catacombs and cemeteries. They had followed their owners into the darkness of the grave. What they said—what their exact theological message might have been—was less important than the mute comfort that they bestowed simply by being there.


Christianity had long been treated as a quintessentially European religion. In the study of early Christian art, all roads were assumed to lead to Rome. This is no longer the case. The astonishing increase in our knowledge of the churches of Syria, Jordan, and Israel has made us realize that the center of gravity of early Christianity lay not in Rome or Constantinople but in the Middle East.

For this reason, the present-day conflicts in the Middle East are both a human and a scholarly tragedy. Just as we have begun to realize the true nature of this non-European, Eastern Christianity, its riches are endangered by violence. Christian communities that had preserved the monuments and the manuscripts of an early, pre-Western Christianity have been shattered. Even in times of peace, artifacts of the first great age of Christian art vanish every year. Now the frenzy of looting and the sale of antiquities have been made even more fierce by war.

In the Nile valley a Christian landscape, long overshadowed in the Western imagination by temples and pyramids, has begun to emerge. The restoration work conducted by Elizabeth Bolman on the great Red Monastery at Sohag in the middle Nile has only recently turned what had been a dusty, smoke-blackened ruin into a brightly colored palace of God. Its near neighbor, the White Monastery, was once one of the greatest churches in Christendom. Long after the Muslim conquests, its library of a thousand carefully produced parchment volumes dwarfed the libraries of Dark Age Western Europe.

Still farther south, the newly discovered, lavishly illuminated Garima Gospels—produced in sixth-century Ethiopia—show how, through the spread of Christianity, a touch of the “perennial Hellenism” that Ernst Kitzinger valued so highly in the art of Byzantium could reach a Christian kingdom established on the African side of the end of the Red Sea.1 Much further north, east of Budapest, beyond the Danube frontier of Rome, a skeleton was found at Hács-Béndekpuszta that still clasped in its hands a leaden tablet inscribed with verses of the Gospel of Saint John taken from the Gothic translation of the Bible made by Bishop Ulfilas. They are the prayers of Jesus for protection for his followers (John 17: 11–12): “Holy Father, keep them in my name…I have guarded them and none of them is lost.” The part-runic Gothic writing, held in the grave, gave mute protection to a “barbarian” on the edge of the steppes of Eastern Europe, in the same way it would in the catacombs of Rome itself.2

Altogether our notion of early Christianity has been dramatically widened. Old boundaries have been erased. Old compartments have fallen open. But the biggest change of all, perhaps, is that we have realized that early Christians did not spend all their time being early Christians. The model study by Éric Rebillard has shown that Christians could have many identities.3 Some were more salient than others; but very seldom would one identity alone be exclusive.

Rebillard shows that though they might be urged by their religious leaders, in times of crisis, to stick to their Christian identity above all others, most early Christians were usually happy to get along in many roles unconnected with their religion—as members of families, as neighbors, as fellow workers, and as good citizens. The writings of the Early Church Fathers that urged a radical rupture with the pagan world lie heavy on the shelves of modern libraries. But at the time, they represented the shutting of stable doors long after the horse had bolted.

This approach is particularly applicable to the study of early Christian art. In previous generations, the notion of the “Church of the Catacombs” predominated. Christians were thought of as frozen into a single, embattled identity. Christian art was held to reflect this defensive position. Every catacomb fresco was interpreted as relating directly to some uniquely Christian belief or practice. Non-Christian images were carefully assessed for some hidden Christian meaning.

It is far from certain that early Christians ever lived this way, even in times of sporadic persecution—and certainly not after the conversion of Constantine in 312. Few but the most scrupulous were shocked by the abundance of non-Christian imagery found in Christian settings or by Christian practices that were continuous with those of Jews and pagans. They were not embarrassing exceptions. They were the rule.


The Eerdmans Encyclopedia is full of just such imagery, frankly accepted as part and parcel of the visual world of ordinary Christians in every region. Let us take North Africa. This Christian region produced the austere writings of Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine. Yet it was here that a splendid marble sarcophagus was discovered in 1975, in Lamta near Henchir Sokrine in Tunisia, which showed at one end, without a trace of discomfort, a landowner returning from the hunt and at the other Christ giving His Law to the Apostles.

There are other examples of this easy mixture. Karissimus—the Dearest One—was buried at Tharros on the west coast of Sardinia. An inscription was placed on the little table beside his tomb, at which his friends and the poor would gather to dine in his honor. The inscription merged many worlds. He was both a Christian and a generous man: “A good provider for his friends, he [also] kept the commandments concerning [care of] the poor.”

Beneath the inscription is an image of a circus horse. Flanked by a palm of victory, it trots swiftly with the chi-rho (XP) monogram—the first two letters of the Greek Christ—branded on its rump. Karissimus, or his family and friends, chose an image associated with the ancient mystique of the hippodrome to emphasize his victory over death and the good cheer that his modest foundation provided both to themselves and to the poor. To have given a voice to persons such as Karissimus is one of the principal achievements of this encyclopedia.

Above all, we must remember that, particularly in its early centuries, Christianity was not only a church—it was also a movement. It was exciting. It generated an effervescence that could hardly have been contained by the single-minded intensity of its own leaders. Like a mountain river in flood, sweeping stones and gravel along its bed, Christianity sucked into itself much of the visual language of the ancient world—symbols that expressed the hope of victory, of protection, of good fortune, and of blessed rest.

To see these images merely as inert “pagan survivals,” as some academics term them, indicating a lack of full commitment to Christianity on the part of laypersons such as Karissimus, is to see them the wrong way around. Only these well-known images could do justice to the excitement of the new religion. It was precisely by its untidiness, its lack of consistency in tying itself to a single identity, and its opportunistic openness to current modes of expression that Christianity, as a movement rather than simply as a church, made such progress at the end of the ancient world.

Three centuries is a long time. By the reign of the emperor Justinian (527–565) the erratic energies of a religious movement had settled down into the balanced grandeur of a state church. Great Christian basilicas replaced the forum and the temples as the centers of civic life. It was now official policy to provide peripheral communities with proper Christian churches. An entire prefabricated church, made from seventy-seven tons of marble (much of it quarried close to Constantinople), has been found in a sunken wreck off the southern coast of Sicily. It was probably earmarked for the territories of North Africa recently conquered by Justinian.

Justinian himself placed a masterpiece of early Christian art in the middle of Constantinople by building the Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom (now known in Turkish as the Aya Sofia). The high dome of the Aya Sofia still dominates Istanbul. But it is now a carefully patrolled museum—a silent, empty, somewhat dusty place. It takes some effort to recover the sheer headlong energy that went into its construction. In throwing up such a gigantic monument, Justinian showed the hubris and tenacity of Peter the Great when he punched a window to the West by throwing St. Petersburg across the marshes of the Neva.

Risk accompanied every stage of its construction. It began, in 532, with the explosion of an urban riot that almost toppled the young emperor from his throne. The former Church of Holy Wisdom vanished in the firestorm ignited by that riot. It had been a large but tame building: a traditional basilica—a great barn of a thing, straight as a ramrod with an apse at one end.

What the inhabitants of Constantinople now got from their emperor was a church that made the head swim. Every rule had been broken. The long side walls hinted at the clear lines of a basilica but, as in a dream, they were twice as high as those of any known church. Multicolored marble tumbled down the walls in a heart-stopping avalanche of stone. At every corner of the building, where one might expect a clear right angle, semicircular apses made the entire floor seem to dance. Vast columns threatened to disintegrate under the sheer weight of a dome so large and so high that locals would tell visitors from the provinces that it was held in place by an angel. The distance from the dome to the floor was 182 feet, forty feet higher than the Pantheon of Rome.

Jeffrey Spier/British Museum

An agate gemstone depicting the Crucifixion, circa fourth century

Justinian was said to have first entered his new creation with a shout: “Solomon, I have outdone you!” It was remembered against him. The Temple could never be replaced. He should not have pushed his luck. Sure enough, risk dogged the new shrine. In 558 earth tremors shook down part of the dome. When the building, covered now by a safer dome, was reconsecrated in 562, Justinian approached it as a penitent, not as a new Solomon. He was now a tragic figure, a sick man who had outlived his glory days. Rumors of his death had caused a rush on the city’s bakeries for fear of a bread shortage in the crisis that might have followed. To prevent panic, the town council ordered the city to be illuminated all night with torches and oil lamps, as if for a festival. But the darkness was coming. The next year Justinian lunged, as winter approached, on an unexpected pilgrimage across the grim plateau of Anatolia, to seek healing at the pool of the Thousand Angels at Germia (Gümüşkonak, southwest of Ankara). He died in 565, leaving his city with a monument so gigantic, so beyond scale, as to remain as much a puzzle as a source of pride.

In Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine Aesthetic Experience, Nadine Schibille brings special skills to bear in an attempt to recapture the impact of this enormous building on sixth-century Christians. An expert on glass, she sees the secret of the Hagia Sophia in “a distinctive and conscious light management system…innovative and unique.” In most churches, light was filtered through thin panels of alabaster. Mysterious pools of subdued light focused on special spaces such as the apse and the altar. Not so with the Hagia Sophia. Seventy-five windows in the dome and semi-domes alone were made of entirely transparent glass. Further reflected by gold-glass mosaic, light streamed in through clear windows to fill the entire building. Far from being a place of shaded opulence, the Hagia Sophia was, as it were, a gigantic explosion of pure light.

And what did light mean to a sixth-century Byzantine? Here Schibille draws with great skill on contemporary Byzantine writings. Light was no quiet thing. It was not the mere absence of darkness, as it might be for us when we flood our rooms with cool electric light at the turn of a switch. Light was a life force in its own right. It drove out darkness, as surely as an amulet or an exorcistic ritual drove out demons. “Life” and “Light”—both attributes of Christ—were regularly stamped on little terracotta lamps, many of which would be placed (as mute protection against the darkness of death) in early Christian graves. When the city of Constantinople put on its night-long display of light in response to rumors of the emperor’s death, it was the life force of old Justinian himself that was being conjured up and put on show by the flickering lamps.

For philosophers of the Neoplatonic school such as Plotinus (204/5–270), light did even more than this. Light redeemed matter. It gave life to mere color, by raising it to ever-higher levels of pure vibrancy. It was the touch of light that caused the multicolored, veined marble that sheathed the sides of the Hagia Sophia to come alive—to open like a meadow in full flower. Light was the point at which our world joined the unimaginable. It “lay at the limits between the physical and spiritual,” as Schibille writes. Light was God made palpable. Justinian, an emperor of almost eerie ambition, had placed God Himself in a golden cage.

But I would also suggest that not every early Christian harbored such grand thoughts as the littérateurs and philosophers studied by Nadine Schibille. Many worshipers looked for something different. Philosophers privileged light. But others most admired the brilliant, waving colors of the church’s marble interior. To meet God directly, in a blaze of light, was often more than they quite bargained for. The light-filled dome of the Hagia Sophia was almost too big for them—too distant, too off-scale.

Rather, many preferred to enter the church as if it was a magic grove made up of multicolored columns. Some believed that no one could ever count these columns correctly: there was always one more than there should be. They hoped to find in such columns some holy relic, some angel, some ancient prophet lying in the almost living depths of the marble. In later centuries, Russian pilgrims trooped around the vast church, doggedly looking at eye-level for such places. It was the same with pious Turks when the Hagia Sophia became a mosque in Ottoman times. The seventeenth-century traveler Evliya Çelebi cast a dutiful eye up to the dome, then settled down to locate innumerable healing spots: a miraculously cool window; a sweating column that oozed perspiration in all seasons, and that was bound with bronze lest it be scraped away by the faithful in search of remedies; a spot beneath the dome where sufferers from amnesia regained their memory.

These accounts come from a later time. But one can suspect that many contemporaries of Justinian felt the same. They lived in a state of unrelieved tension between abstract grandeur and a humble, almost fussy concern for safety, joy, and peace in this world and the next. Such persons—and not some icy stereotypes of the modern imagination—are the early Christians whom The Eerdmans Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art and Archaeology has brought to us, in all their colorful abundance.