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8 Books on Ancient Christian Art

A friend asked me to recommend titles on pre-Constantinian Christian art, to prepare for a trip to Europe. I thought I’d share the list with you. I focused on books that are readily available. Some of the best titles, alas, are out of print, with not a single used copy available on the Web. If you know of other titles, let me know. These are in no particular order. (UPDATE in 2010: a few more recent titles here)

Antonio Baruffa. The Catacombs of St. Callixtus. Decent illustrations and intelligent but non-technical interpretation. This book is unabashedly Christian — theological, and even devotional.

Jean Daniélou. Primitive Christian Symbols. Awesome — erudite essays, but minimal illustration.

Robin Margaret Jensen. Face to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity. Beautiful in every way. And you can’t beat the price.

Robin Margaret Jensen. Understanding Early Christian Art. See above. This scholar’s got the goods.

Orazio Marucchi. Manual of Christian Archeology. This is the classic textbook. Still in print. Still useful.

Herbert Musurillo. Symbolism and the Christian Imagination. An extremely rare, but wonderful book.

Erwin Goodenough [ed. Jacob Neusner]. Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period. This is a one-volume abridgement of the 12-volume set. Some of the best Christian material ended up on the cutting-room floor, and what’s left you really have to sift. Goodenough goes a little overboard on the Freudian and Jungian stuff. But it’s useful for placing Christian art in its cultural contexts, both Jewish and pagan.

John Lowden. Early Christian and Byzantine Art. Gorgeous plates, but uninspiring text.

2 thoughts on “8 Books on Ancient Christian Art

  1. Hmm – I really like Clash of the Gods by Thomas Mathews. Kind of Technical, but a really great book if you read carefully on – shall we call it – enculturation? How do Christians teach Christ to a non Christian and mainly illiterate world? They use the image-language of the pagan world.

    The Jensen book may be much the same (I’ve got it on order but haven’t read it), but Mathews was there first.

    He also explodes the idea that the image of Christ is adoped from the Imperial image. Another nail in the “It’s all Constantine’s Doing” read of the 4th century Church.

  2. Matthews debunks some of Andre Grabar’s CHRISTIAN ICONOGRAPHY but Grabar’s EARLY CHRISTIAN ART in the Arts of Mankind series has wonderful illos. For completeness, also consult Richard Krautheimer’s EARLY CHRISTIAN AND BYZANTINE ARCHITECTURE from Pelican.

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