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The rapid succession and violent overthrow of the imperial leaders, military disasters, growing inflation and taxation, along with the abandonment of traditional religion, opened the door for new trends in philosophy and religion that offered an escape from the realities of a harsh world.The Greek concept of a man-centered humanistic art was fading.Art shifted away from Hellenistic skills including foreshortening, atmostpheric perspective, and re-creating reality, toward a two dimensional symbolic approach with a more rigid style.
In this paper I will focus on the image of the Good Shepherd.
In the Catacomb of Callixtus, a third-century fresco depicts a youthful shepherd as a symbol of Jesus.
The space surrounding the figures and objects is sketchily indicated, everything is flattened, schematized.
Clearly, for the artists who made these images, material reality counted for nothing, and one can only suppose that this habit of shutting their eyes to the physical world was a whole-hearted adoption of the new faith, in which the spiritual world was man's sole concern." (The Catacombs, p.73 ) The visual aspect of religion was very important, especially in an environment in which, for the most part, people did not read.
This symbolic and syncretic religious art becomes an easy way to spread teachings, especially among a people that are used to seeing their gods as the Greeks and Romans.
There are many instances of pagan images being either adapted to Christian use or placed alongside Christian images.
In late Rome, amidst a growing trend toward abstraction, classical forms and values were yielding to a symbolic realism in imperial secular art, setting the stage for later abstract spiritual values in Christian artworks.
The late Roman world was experiencing a variety of problems.
"The profession of shepherd was associated with the Orphic cult leader Orpheus" (The Beginning of Christian Art, p.58) In early Christian art, the shepherd figure was sometimes portrayed as a man with a sheep on his shoulders; Christ as the shepherd leading the stray sheep back to the fold.
Interestingly, this pose of the youth carrying an animal on his shoulders appeared in Archaic Greek sculpture as early as the sixth century BCE.