The Medieval World, C. 400–1300

Early Jewish and Christian Art

What does the earliest Jewish and Christian art look like?

Most of the earliest Jewish and Christian art dates from the Hellenistic period and takes its cues from Near Eastern and Classical (Greek and Roman) art. Early Jewish artists were forbidden from making any form that could be worshipped as an idol, and therefore avoided representational art. Early Christian art drew its symbols from Jewish tradition as well as Classical tradition. A common subject in early Christian art, for example, is the Good Shepherd. In the Classical tradition, the Good Shepherd represents the mythological figure, Orpheus, who is shown holding a sheep around his shoulders. Early Christian artists used this as a model for early images of Christ in both sculptural and painted form, referring to Psalm 23 which states: “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack” (Psalm 23:1). This is an example of syncretism, an art historical term which refers to the merging of meaning and imagery between different cultures and religions.


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