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Images and Symbols


Early Christian art continued to use the symbolic language prevalent at the time, but unlike the art of the classical world, this language was enlisted to serve the new faith as an instrument for the dissemination of knowledge. The new symbolic language created by Christianity was based on traditions that originated in the Ancient Near East and on expressions from the popular artistic lexicon. Thus scenes from the classical repertoire as well as biblical themes from Jewish art made their way simultaneously into the new imagery. At time, the scenes preserved their original forms and were only interpreted as having Christian meaning; in other cases, new and altogether different compositions were created.

The Holy Land may have been an important religious center, but from an artistic perspective, it was rather provincial in comparison to the major centers of Christian art, Rome and Constantinople. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the large religious buildings of the land were magnificently adorned. The tiny, schematic scenes that decorate some of the surviving everyday objects may indeed be just a hint of the former splendor.

The few copies of Scripture and illuminated manuscripts that have been preserved attest to the treasures stored in the libraries of the large monasteries. An additional (and clearly Christian) visual expression of that time was the icon. Icons are scenes painted on wood, mainly depicting saints and other holy figures, which in many cases became objects of cultic worship in their own right.

Within the broad circle of Hellenistic cultural influence, still felt in this region, syncretism was prevalent, which led to the creation of new artistic streams and the mixture of styles and formulae from different cultures and languages. Identical daily objects were created by the same craftmen for customers of all faiths. A fine illustration of this are the amulets of that time, such as those bearing the image of the Holy Rider.

Pottery stamp depicting Mary and Jesus with two angels
The infant Jesus holds a book with a cross on the cover.
Surrounding the scene is a Greek inscription, part of which is missing:
"Blessing of Our Lady, Mother of God, Mary."
This object was used for stamping bread or tokens.
Deir Dusawi, east of Gaza, 6th century
Israel Antiquities Authority, 70-5196
Drawing: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem / by Pnina Arad


In the Days of Jesus |In the Early Church |Pilgrimage |Images & Symbols |Monasticism in the Holy Land

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