With great freedom, Christians offered to believers and to the world great examples of artistic expression. Christian architecture comes into a flowering in late antiquity, at least in the central cities:
When the Edict of Constantine allowed Christians to declare themselves in full freedom, art became a privileged means for the expression of faith. Majestic basilicas began to appear, and in them the architectural canons of the pagan world were reproduced and at the same time modified to meet the demands of the new form of worship. How can we fail to recall at least the old Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, both funded by Constantine himself? Or Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia built by Justinian, with its splendors of Byzantine art?
Architecture seems to have sparked something deeper, and many saints contributed to the public aural arts:
While architecture designed the space for worship, gradually the need to contemplate the mystery and to present it explicitly to the simple people led to the early forms of painting and sculpture. There appeared as well the first elements of art in word and sound. Among the many themes treated by Augustine we find De Musica; and Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, Prudentius, Ephrem the Syrian, Gregory of Nazianzus and Paulinus of Nola, to mention but a few, promoted a Christian poetry which was often of high quality not just as theology but also as literature.
Poetry is often overlooked as Christian art. But this list hardly goes deeper than the surface, and of course, we have many anonymous works.
Their poetic work valued forms inherited from the classical authors, but was nourished by the pure sap of the Gospel, as Paulinus of Nola put it succinctly: “Our only art is faith and our music Christ”.(“At nobis ars una fides et musica Christus”: Carmen 20, 31: CCL 203, 144)
Gregorian chant is compiled by the “Great” pope, and a significant foundation was laid for the Christian music of the West.
A little later, Gregory the Great compiled the Antiphonarium and thus laid the ground for the organic development of that most original sacred music which takes its name from him. Gregorian chant, with its inspired modulations, was to become down the centuries the music of the Church’s faith in the liturgical celebration of the sacred mysteries. The “beautiful” was thus wedded to the “true”, so that through art too souls might be lifted up from the world of the senses to the eternal.
Pope John Paul II’s Letter To Artists is available in its entirety online here.