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.
Until Constantine the Great made Christianity one of the Roman Empire's state religions with the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, Christian art was restricted to the decoration of the hidden places of worship, such as catacombs and meeting houses."In imperial Rome, citizens had the legal right to bury their dead in underground rooms beside the Appian Way, the city's chief thoroughfare.
By the late second century some of the tombs displayed Christian symbols and subjects, suggesting the increasing confidence of the new religion in an otherwise hostile Roman environment."(Western Humanities , p.149) Most of the early representations in Christian painting were derived from Roman art, stylized to fit into Christian beliefs."There are several reasons for this use of a common visual language; central to all of these reasons is the fact that adaptation to the surrounding culture was necessary for the survival of the new religion, and a primary cause of its triumph over the Greco-Roman religion." (The Begining of Christian Art , p.27) The catacomb paintings were rich in images, using iconography and symbolism to convey the ideas of Christian resurrectrion, salvation,and life after death.
A similar depiction can also be found at Dura Europas, in an ancient Christian meeting- house.
Christ the Good Shepherd of the Twenty-third Psalm was often depicted as a beardless youth derived from the pagan god Apollo and with other ties to many Mediterranean mythologies.
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.
" (Byzantine Art in the Making, p.114) The Arch of Constantine and the statue group known as The Tetrarchs are examples of the collapse of the classical art forms in official works of late Roman art.
Both exhibit "characters with stubby proportions, angular movements, and ordering of parts through symmetry and repetition " (Art History, p.283) Symbolic importance was stressed rather than laws of nature.