Christian art of the first millennium deserves to be better known and better appreciated – that is the simple driving idea behind Art for Eternity , a three-part television series for BBC4, scheduled for transmission a few weeks from now. When I was commissioned to write and present the series, earlier this year, I felt both daunted and excited. It would be a challenge to make three hours of television about an area of art history on which I had rarely written and was (to put it mildly) less than expert. But it was also a great opportunity to experience at first-hand numerous extraordinary works of art about which I had read or heard, but had never actually seen.
The two principal series that I had made previously for the BBC – A History of British Art (1994) and Renaissance (1999) – had both taken the Christian art of the late Middle Ages as their starting point. The aim of this new series was to treat that, instead, as an end point, and in doing so to celebrate the interwoven traditions of earlier Christian art in their own right – rather than seeing them (as they are so often viewed) as mere preludes to the glory of Renaissance and later Western art. Much of the art that is explored will be unfamiliar to a British audience, partly because Britain’s greatest repository of the great traditions of Christian painting, the National Gallery, itself starts with the art of the early Renaissance. Art for Eternity is a necessarily modest attempt to reveal the splendour and beauty of what came before – a kind of odyssey to the origins of Christian art.
The journey of the series – which runs, broadly speaking, from the third century AD to the early years of the fourteenth century – starts in ancient Rome. It is there that one can see the very first stirrings of an art created to articulate and spread the message of the Christian faith – the acorns, so to speak, from which the great oak tree of the whole Christian art tradition would grow. It is one of the peculiarities of the early Christians that, for some two hundred years, they appear to have created almost no visual imagery at all. This is perhaps because they feared persecution and had no fixed, safe places of worship to adorn with the images of art. Another explanation might be that they wanted to remain true to the humility and simplicity of Christ’s own life as it is described in the gospels – and therefore consciously eschewed splendid images and idols because they associated such things with the cults of Rome’s ancient pagan deities.
Whatever the reason, no Christian art survives from before the third century and its earliest incarnations are extremely simple and symbolic: a fish, a bird of paradise, or schematic figures of the three wise men. These images were found in the catacombs of subterranean Rome, a fact which contains its own significance. The catacombs were burial grounds and the Christians celebrated death, especially the death of martyrdom, because their God promised a resurrection of the body.
In Rome, too, it is possible to see with great vividness how the art of Christianity was transformed and aggrandised as Christianity itself became the favoured religion of the Roman state. This happened in the time of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, although the best place to see the process in action is the fourth-century mausoleum of his daughter, Costanza. This beautiful but starkly simple circular structure contains some of the very earliest examples of how the art of ancient Roman mosaicists might be applied to Christian subject matter. Here, for the first time, the image of Christ as king of kings, resplendent in regal vestments, is pieced together in the tesserae of mosaics.
One of the great fascinations of early Christian art is the way in which it embodies – and attempts, in a multitude of different ways, to reconcile – the dichotomy that lies at the heart of the Christian faith itself. Looking at this art, we can see the artists responsible for it – who remain, tantalisingly, anonymous – wrestling with the notion of a God who came down to earth and lived the life of a suffering, mortal human being. The artists and architects of imperial Christian Rome strove to find ways of expressing Christ’s power and majesty, rather than emphasising his humble status as Man of Sorrows. They invented the basic structure of the Christian church and in doing so invested it with their own ideas of how to express both Christ’s magnificence and the concept of His universal justice. This why they modelled it on the basilica, the Roman architectural form used for courts of law – and it is why they placed the most imposing images of Christ at the far end, in the apse, the place where, in the Roman legal system, justice was meted out.
All this can be seen in the wonderful fifth-century church of Santa Maria Maggiore, which also contains one of the earliest mosaic cycles depicting the infancy of Christ. Here Christ the child appears dressed in the purple robes of an emperor – an image intended among other things to put down the widespread belief, recently condemned as a heresy, that He in his infancy was not God incarnate but a purely mortal being. Roman Christian art is full of echoes and adaptations of more ancient Roman models and stereotypes. The Christ we see in Roman mosaics often resembles the youthful god Apollo. This is true also of the great mosaics of the Byzantine tradition, which developed across the East after Emperor Constantine moved the seat of the Roman empire to Constantinople. The power and spirit of the pagan world persists, transformed, in such Christian imagery.
One of the principal aims of the series is to explore some of the least visited corners of early Christian art, and for me one of the greatest revelations came when I travelled to Egypt to look at the art of the Christian Copts. This was a tradition with which I was previously unfamiliar – and about which precious little has been written – yet which includes some of the most profoundly moving works of Christian art ever created. It is a tradition that survives only in fragments, many preserved in Cairo’s Museum of Coptic Art. This is where the earliest examples of the Coptic style – withdrawn, solemn but tremendously vivid images of Christ and his Apostles, the Virgin Mary and the saints, dating back to the fifth and sixth centuries – may be found. But the real treasure, the culminating masterpiece of this much vandalised and fragmented art tradition, is to be found in the wild and mountainous landscape of the south eastern desert. Travelling there, I visited the ancient monastery of St Anthony – the first Christian monastery ever established – and was quite simply stunned by the painted decorations of its great church. Only recently discovered and restored, after centuries of neglect, this cycle of frescoes is like nothing else in the Christian art tradition: stark but simple images of monks, priests and martyrs, with wide and staring eyes; a Madonna and Child painted in a style of such almost abstracted power and force that it resembles nothing so much as a late Picasso (who himself looked back to the art of earlier periods for inspiration, but could never have known this particular image); a depiction of the Vision of Ezekiel that might evoke comparisons with the sharp, dream-like paintings of the Dada and Surreal movements of the early twentieth century.
One of the most fascinating things about the art of the Copts is that it was created by a Christian community that has never enjoyed any great worldly power, that has suffered persecution throughout its history. It stands, in this sense, at the very opposite end of the spectrum to the glittering mosaics of Christian Rome or Byzantium. Coptic art, an art created in the humbler medium of fresco, its colours those of earth and stone, is an art rooted in a very different sense of poverty and humility – and a strong sense of the vanity of the things of this world.
Another main ambition of the series is to trace the connections between all of the roots and branches of early Christian art. I have tried to show the links that join Roman Christian art to the art that developed in the Byzantine empire – the Eastern tradition of Christian painting and mosaic, rarely treated on British television before, to which we have given an entire programme, the second in the series. The series also argues that when one looks at the art and architecture of the Gothic cathedral from the perspective of earlier Christian art, its essential achievement – which was to shape a brilliant synthesis of earlier Christian ideas and imagery – is suddenly thrown into much sharper focus.
In the third and last programme of the series, I travel to Italy to look at how the art traditions of what is often called “the early Renaissance” – including some of the greatest masterpieces of world art, such as the crucifixions of Cimabue, Duccio’s great altarpiece, the Maesta , and Giotto’s majestic frescoes in the Arena Chapel – can be far more rewardingly viewed as the culmination of all that has preceded them, rather than as the prefigurations of something else. Instead of thinking of such work as “pre-Renaissance”, I believe it makes far more sense to see it as a golden age in itself – an age when currents of art and spirituality from the ancient world, from the world of the Northern Middle Ages, from the world of the Byzantine East, came together in new and sometimes almost unbearably moving forms.
Above all, I hope to show that the achievements of Christian art during its first thousand years and more are still capable of speaking to anyone, of whatever faith (or even of no faith). This is an art that communicates a religious message, certainly, but it also speaks to the most fundamental and universal human emotions: the fear of death; the love of a mother for her child; the agony of seeing those who are loved subjected to the violence of war and persecution. It might have its eyes set on another world, beyond time and space, yet it also remains rooted in the perpetual facts of human existence. I really believe that it is – in both senses of the phrase – an art for eternity.