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Christian Art: The First Millennium

Course Times & Enrolment

Thursdays from 18th January 2024 (Code AA173-203) Thursdays from
18th January 2024 11:10am - 1:00pm • (10 classes)
LG46 Paterson's Land, Holyrood Campus • Tutor: Andrew Paterson MSc BFA PhD
This course is now closed for enrolments

Course Summary

A survey of the development of Christian art up to 1000 CE, with particular emphasis on the Byzantine tradition, the early Roman church and the art of the British Isles and Ireland. As well as a detailed study of iconography, materials and techniques, the course will focus on questions of the function of art within the Church (including the contentious issue of image-veneration) and the meanings of this art for its original audiences.

Course Details

Pre-requisites for enrolment

No previous knowledge required.

Content of Course

1. Messages of Salvation. The first attempts to translate the Christian Gospel into visual form, in the wall-paintings and sarcophagi from the Roman catacombs.

2. The State Religion of the Roman Empire. The imperial visual language of fifth- and sixth-century mosaics in Rome and Ravenna.

3. Sacred Portraiture. How did the ‘mummy-portraits’ of Roman Egypt transform the classical tradition of portraiture and so prepare the way for the Christian icon?

4. Depicting the Incarnation. How did their original viewers relate to the earliest surviving icons of the Virgin and Child?

5. The Likeness of Christ. What factors contributed to the bewildering variety of likenesses of Christ, and how did Christians arrive at a consensus concerning his likeness?

6. Images ‘Not Made by Hand’ and Images Destroyed. What were the theological arguments for and against the Christian sacred image in the Eastern Church, and how were these resolved?

7. From the Ends of the Earth. Early Christian Art in Ireland and Scotland in the form of stone crosses and illuminated manuscripts

8. The Golden Age of Insular Art. A focus on three masterpieces from the eighth/ninth centuries – the Ruthwell Cross, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells (including a visit to the Centre for Research Collections in the University Library to study facsimile editions of some of the greatest illuminated manuscripts from this period)

9. The Courts of Charlemagne and Alfred. Changes in style and patronage in the religious art of Northern Europe between 800 and 1000.

10. The ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy’. How do the ninth- and tenth-century mosaics of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople suggest a new understanding of the Byzantine icon?

Teaching method(s)

Powerpoint lectures, incorporating class discussion. One group visit to study materials at first hand.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  • Understand the origins, meanings and functions of early Christian art;

  • Distinguish between the visual languages of Byzantine and Insular art in particular;

  • Follow the creative processes involved in the making of mosaics, illuminated manuscripts and icon-paintings;

  • Appreciate something of the theological and liturgical contexts of visual art in the Church.


Core Readings


  • Nees, L. 2002. Early Medieval Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Lowden, J. 1997. Early Christian and Byzantine Art. London: Phaidon.


  • Belting, H., 1994. Likeness and Presence. Chicago , Illinois:University of Chicago Press.

  • Mathews, T. 1999. The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Web Sources

Class Handouts

Course schedule, list of recommended further reading and weekly lecture notes.


If you have questions regarding the course or enrolment, please contact COL Reception at Paterson's Land by email or by phone 0131 650 4400.

Student support

If you have a disability, learning difficulty or health condition which may affect your studies, please let us know by ticking the 'specific support needs' box on your course application form. This will allow us to make appropriate adjustments in advance and in accordance with your rights under the Equality Act 2010. For more information please visit the Student Support section of our website.