Early Byzantine Depictions of Christ – The Constantinian Shift
By using the term “Constantinian shift” I am denoting the evolution of Christianity that transpired in the period between Constantine’s reign and the writing of Augustine’s City of God; it is the era of the alliance between Christianity and political power. During this period, Emperor Constantine grantedreligious freedom to Christians by the legalizing of the Christian faith with the Edict of Milan (313), which was soon followed by Emperor Theodosius making Christianity the state religion (381).
This imperial underwriting of the Christian faith lead to a significant shift of the attitude towards the nature of Christianity, changing it from the status of a derisory religion-on-the-margins to an attitude of establishment and conventionality. It allowed the Christian faith to flourish and become more popular, leading to more public displays of Christian art, including images of Christ. This reversed the need for cryptic and allusive depictions of Christ such as those to be found in the catacombs, dramatically shifting the tone in how Christ was artistically portrayed.
After his conversion to Christianity, Constantine was a prolific erector of religious edifices and his establishment of Byzantium (later renamed Constantinople) as the Roman Empire’s new capital had extensive effects, amongst which was the growth of Constantinople into a hub of artistic patronage, leading to the appearance of new Christian basilicas and novel iconography. The heart of the basilica, the apse, provided a perfect place to depict Christ with the eye being ineluctably drawn to the nave.
One of the earliest extant apse depictions, if not the earliest, of Christ is that found in the church of Santa Pudenziana (see figure 1). Here Christ is dressed in imperial garb and sits enthroned on a chair overlaid with pearls and gems. He is surrounded by his apostles, who are subordinated to him by being seated at a lower level. The book Christ is holding contains the words: “I, the Lord, am the preserver of the church of Pudenziana.” What is unique about this depiction is the appearance of Golgotha, a conquering cross, the four-winged beasts of Revelation, and the heavenly Jerusalem. In short, Christ is here depicted as the divine savior who shall return at the end of days to set up his kingdom.
While the portrayal of Christ as miracle worker gained popularity in the first century of the Byzantine era, the depiction of Christ as shepherd slowly began to disappear in the fourth century. Any images of Christ which did utilize these motifs underwent a noticeable change. An example of this is the early-fifth century image of Christ as a shepherd in Ravenna (see figure 2). Here Christ is a shepherd, but draped in clothing too ostentatious for a simple shepherd. The nimbus around his head and the golden imperial clothing portrays him as the divine shepherd. With its noticeable use of gold, this mosaic is characteristic of Byzantine art, though the illusion of a three-dimensional space is a holdover from the Classical era of art and is soon discarded in Byzantine art in favor of more symbolism.
While there are many beautiful mosaics from the Byzantine period, I will just show this last one (figure 3). Here is a beardless and short-haired Christ in the style of the early catacomb depictions. Yet here he sits enthroned upon a globe, with the book in his hand probably being the Book of Life, signifying that he is ready to judge the world. Christ is seated between two angels, with the one on the right being St. Vitalis who is receiving a crown (of martyrdom), and the one on the left being Bishop Ecclesius who is offering up his church to Christ.
 For the latest examination of Constantine’s relationship with (and influence on) Christianity, see Charles Matson Odahl, Constantine and the Christian Empire, second ed. (New York: Routledge, 2010). Other useful reading material on Constantine and Theodosius can be found in Bill Leadbetter’s articles: “From Constantine to Theodosius (and beyond),” in The Early Christian World, Volume I (Routledge, 2000), pp. 258-292; “Constantine,” in The Early Christian World, Volume II (Routledge, 2000), pp. 1069-1087; and “Constantine and Church,” in The Early Christian World, Volume II, pp. 1075-1081.
 For some useful literature on early Christian art and architecture, see Robin Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art (Routledge, 2000), pp. 8-94;Mathews, Clash of the Gods (Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 94-95; Richard Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, fourth ed. (Penguin Books, 1986); Michael L. White, “Architecture: The First Five Centuries,” in The Early Christian World, Vol. II (Routledge, 2000), pp. 693-746.
 For an explanation on the disappearance of the shepherd motif, see Boniface Ramsey, “A Note on the Disappearance of the Good Shepherd in Art,” Harvard Theological Review 76.3 (1983): 375-378. The thrust of his argument is that the Christ as shepherd motif was subsumed under the Christ as teacher motif, due to Christ’s role as a shepherd being largely thought of as a didactic role. Additionally, since the church was now legitimate in the eyes of the Roman Empire, there was no longer a need for a shepherd to protect them.
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