Out of the decaying civilization of Rome sprang into life that remarkable growth known as Christianity. It was not welcomed by the Romans. It was scoffed at, scourged, persecuted, and, at one time, nearly exterminated. But its vitality was stronger than that of its persecutor, and when Rome declined, Christianity utilized the things that were Roman, while striving to live for ideas that were Christian.
There was no revolt, no sudden change. The Christian idea made haste slowly, and at the start it was weighed down with many paganisms. The Christians themselves, in all save religious faith, were Romans, and inherited Roman tastes, manners, and methods. But the Roman world, with all its classicism and learning, was dying. The decline socially and intellectually was with the Christians as well as the Romans. There was good reason for it. The times
were out of joint, and almost everything was disorganized, worn out, decadent. The military life of the Empire had begun to give way to the monastic and feudal life of the Church. Quarrels and wars between the powers kept life at fever heat. In the fifth century came the inpouring of the Goths and Huns, and with them the sacking and plunder of the land. Misery and squalor, with intellectual blackness, succeeded. Art, science, literature, and learning degenerated to mere shadows of their former selves, and a semi-barbarism reigned for five centuries. During all this dark period Christian painting struggled on in a feeble way, seeking to express itself. It started Roman in form, method, and even, at times, in subject ; it ended Christian, but not without a long period of gradual transition, during which it was influenced from many sources and underwent many changes.
ART MOTIVES: As in the ancient world, there were two principal motives for painting in early Christian times religion and decoration. Religion was the chief motive, but Christianity was a very different religion from that of the Greeks and Romans. The Hellenistic faith was a worship of nature, a glorification of humanity, an exaltation of physical and moral perfections. It dealt with the material and the tangible, and Greek art appealed directly to the sensuous and earthly nature of mankind. The Hebraic faith or Christianity was just the opposite of this. It decried the human, the flesh, and the worldly. It would have nothing to do with the beauty of this earth. Its hopes were centred upon the life hereafter. The teaching of Christ was the humility and the abasement of the human in favor of the spiritual and the divine. Where Hellenism appealed to the senses, Hebraism appealed to the spirit. In art the fine athletic figure, or, for that matter, any figure, was an abomination. The early Church fathers opposed it. It was forbidden by the Mosaic decalogue and savored of idolatry.
But what should take its place in art. How could the new Christian ideas be expressed without form? Symbolism came in, but it was insufficient. A party in the Church rose up in favor of more direct representation. Art should be used as an engine of the Church to teach the Bible to those who could not read. This argument held good, and notwithstanding the opposition of the Iconoclastic party painting grew in favor. It lent itself to teaching and came under ecclesiastical domination. As it left the nature of the classic world and loosened its grasp on things tangible it became feeble and decrepit in its form. While it grew in sentiment and religious fervor it lost in bodily vigor and technical ability.