10: Early Christianity

Christ Pantocrator
The oldest known icon of Jesus
Sinai Peninsula, 600s or 700s

Key Terms

  • canon
  • gospel
  • Messiah
  • Eucharist


  • To sketch the beginning of Christianity and the reasons for its growth
  • To present the major features of Early Christian art and architecture
  • To outline the consequences of the Fall of Rome
  • To explain the theology of Augustine of Hippo and Boethius (of Ravenna)
  • To demonstrate the ascendancy of Byzantium through the architecture of Hagia Sophia
  • To describe the Early Christian art and architecture of Ravenna
  • To explain Eastern monasticism
  • To document the persistence of Byzantine culture
  • Know and understand the significance of the icons, St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai, and the Church of the Hagia Sophia.
  • Know the contributions of Augustine and Justinian.
  • Know the terms associated with the monotheism, polytheism, and henotheism.

I. Historical Context –
The Rise of Christianity and the Decline of Rome

The Nicene Creed

  • A. 312: Constantine, Under this sign, you will conquer
    • 313’s Edict of Milan caused bureaucratic problems for the empire
    • Christianity needed to be standardized
    • Additionally, the power of the Roman Empire moved to Byzantium
    • Byzantium was renamed Constantinople (present-day Istanbul)

  • B. 325: The Council of Nicaea
    • Bishops and royal guests met in Nicaea
    • They created a statement of belief to create a Christian orthodoxy
    • This was the Nicene Creed 
    • Statement of faith repeated by a billion Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and other Christians every Sunday (see clip on sidebar)
    • Establishes God in three “personae,” the trinity
    • Caused other forms of Christianity to become heresies

  • C. 380: The Edict of Thessalonica
    • Theodosius I is the last Roman emperor to control the Latin West
      and the Eastern Greek empire
    • He passes the Edict of Thessalonica establishing Nicene Christianity 
      (i.e. Catholic Christianity) as the official orthodoxy

  • D. 381: The First Council of Constantinople
    • The First Council of Constantinople establishes Constantinople as the New Rome
    • The original Nicene Creed is refined
      • The Holy Spirit proceeds “from the Father”
      • The “four marks of the Church” are added
    • 410: Rome falls to Gothic control
    • 476: the Western half of the Roman Empire has been dissolved

  • E. New Seats of Power
    • 410: Rome abandoned
    • Constantinople becomes a trading and economic hub
    • Ravenna becomes a Western site of political power

II. Politics

  • Constantinople becomes the center of growth and prosperity for the Roman Empire
  • Justinian is made emperor in 527 and seeks to develop the empire even more
    • Smuggle silkworm eggs out of China
    • Constantinople flourishes as a trade city with water and land routes
    • Justinian revises Roman law into the Code of Justinian
      • Added to the code are laws persecuting pagans
    • Justinian and Theodora, his wife, sponsor Christian building projects
    • Justinian also closes the last Platonic Academy
  • Marks the end of Ancient History and the beginning of the Dark Ages

The Hagia Sophia

III. Religion and Architecture

Saint Catherine's Monastery

  • A. Eastern Art and Architecture
    • Church of the Hagia Sophia
    • Justinian’s most famous building project
    • Greek for “Holy Wisdom"
    • Inspired by other significant architectural sites
    • Use of light to symbolize divine wisdom

  • B. Western Art and Architecture
    • The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna
      • Features a blending of late Roman, Barbarian Gothic, and Byzantine art
      • Christ as the Good Shepherd
      • Different baptisteries for the different Christian groups that met there
    • Saint Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai
      • Associated with Moses
      • Isolated location, dry weather led to excellent preservation of artifacts
      • Extensive collection of Icons
      • Home of the Codex Sinaiticus, early New Testament in Greek

  • C. Icons
    • Glimpses of religions mystery
    • Debate in the 8th and 9th century over whether or not depicting Christian figures should be permitted
    • Many icons destroyed in the debate
    • Collection at Saint Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai is the most comprehensive


The Heavenly City outshines Rome beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity

City of God

IV. Texts and Religion

  • A. Augustine
    • b.354 in North Africa and converted to Christianity as an adult
    • Wrote about the majesty of God and the flawed state of humanity
    • The City of God - how Christianity should affect how we live
    • Confessions - autobiography, reflection on God’s mercy, spiritual growth

  • B. Boethius
    • Boethius of Ravenna blended paganism and Christianity
    • The Consolation of Philosophy - human freedom
    • Hope of Christianity and sorrow of Rome in its decline

V. The Persistence of Byzantine Culture

  • Christian Russa established a school of icon paintings
  • Russian churches show Byzantine influences in architecture and art
  • When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, Greek scholars came west to Italy
    • When they shared their knowledge with Europe, classical learning reached the west
    • This occurs at the start of the Renaissance