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Christianity and Its Art in Ancient Rome

Rome, Italy

Ancient Rome was Christian for over a century. Tombs, catacombs, and early Christian art tells the story. When Rome finally fell, the Roman basilica became the design of medieval churches and saints literally replaced emperors atop great Roman monuments.

Complete Video Script

[103, Hadrian's Villa, AD 118–138, Tivoli, near Rome] With its imperial might and all the stories of persecutions and hungry lions in the Colosseum, it's easy to forget that in Rome's later years it was both threatened by — and then energized by — an obscure new religion creeping in from the East: Christianity.

[104, Catacombs of San Sebastiano, first century AD, Rome] At first, pagan Rome persecuted the Christians. They worshipped secretly and buried their dead in underground catacombs scattered outside the walls of the city. The tomb-lined tunnels stretch for miles and are many layers deep. Some of the early Christians buried here had been killed for their faith, and later Christians carved out niches nearby to be buried close to these early saints and martyrs.

[105, early Christian art from Vatican Museums, Rome] Even before Christians could worship openly, they communicated through art — and much of that was funerary art, as seen on these sarcophagi. The anchor was a symbol of salvation before the cross was used. In ancient times, Jesus was portrayed as a good shepherd. And people prayed or praised God with hands raised.

[106] Christianity became increasingly popular. Finally, Emperor Constantine made a bold and perhaps pragmatic move. Following a vision that he would triumph in battle under the sign of the cross, Constantine legalized the upstart religion.

[107] Once legalized, Christianity spread all across the empire. Pagan Europe soon morphed into Christian Europe, as in the year 312, the emperor converted and before long the once-obscure Jewish sect became the state religion of the entire Roman Empire.

[108, San Giovanni in Laterano, 17th century, Rome] In the year 300 you could be killed for being a Christian; in 400 you could be killed for not being a Christian. Church attendance boomed. And Emperor Constantine built the first great Christian church right here: San Giovanni in Laterano…St. John's.

[109] Grand churches sprang up everywhere. San Giovanni in Laterano became the "first Vatican," the original home of the bishop of Rome, or pope. Today's 17th century Baroque church, which sits upon its ancient foundations, is filled with symbols of Christianity's triumph: the gilded bronze columns that once adorned a pagan temple, the original doors from Rome's Senate house, and, in a box above the altar, the supposed skulls of those early Christian pioneers and martyrs, Peter and Paul. With the acceptance and growth of the Church, Christian art and architecture could now blossom.

[110, Scala Santa (Holy Stairs), Rome] As Rome was the empire's capital, it now became the capital of Christianity. It was a magnet for pilgrims. The Holy Stairs were a major stop. They're supposedly from the palace of Pontius Pilate, brought to Rome by Emperor Constantine's mother. Pilgrims, believing Jesus climbed these very stairs, hoped — as pilgrims still do — to be blessed if they scaled them on their knees. And the great art all around them inspires to this day.

[111, Roman ruins near Ghetto neighborhood, Rome] The Roman Empire that had united Europe for centuries was crumbling. Government was collapsing, the city of Rome had been sacked, and marauding tribes ravaged the landscape. But in all that turmoil, one last institution was standing strong against the chaos: the Roman Church.