The battle between the late Roman Empire and the Early Christian Church raged almost unabated for nearly 300 years and did not end until Constantine the Great legalized the practice of the religion in 311 AD. Some scholars argue that the burning of Rome was actually initiated by Christians and others argue that Constantine decision was actually a political one simply because he foresaw Rome´s decline and needed a new political device to retain control. While the actual reasons for the shift in power will probably remain for eternity in shadows, the fact is that once the Church did gain political control over the far flung Roman Empire they used this control to dominate every single aspect of life and this is extremely evident in its control of the art world.
On the surface all people in the Medieval world believed that the Christian God and a literal Heaven and Hell actually existed and that the only way to achieve one and avoid the other was through the Catholic (which literally means “Universal”) Church. Any variation by spoken word or act from these teachings could and very often did lead to exile, excommunication and even torture and execution. The Church´s control over art however varied from time to time and region to region. Most early Churches forbade any images, whether graven or painted, to be placed in churches simply because they believed that these images would lead church goers to adore the art more than they would the teachings. Priests, especially from the Dominican sect (who later led the Inquisitions) literally swept the land of any form of art that could be seen to contain “Pagan” images or symbolism.
But pagan images and symbolism can be found throughout much of early Medieval art and many art researchers are using the services of the pale-forensic scientists to uncover not only these images but how they avoided the religious laws of the time. One of the largest differences between the Christianity and Pagan religions their contrasting opinions on sexuality and this early art demonstrates that “Christian” artists disagreed with the Christianity on this issue. The early use of the fish in Christianity is a great example and many of the greatest art pieces owned by the Vatican have many examples of sexual symbolism which were much more Pagan than Christian. The reason for this is fairly simple to understand when you consider that throughout history artists have been radical thinkers and seldom allow themselves to be cornered into dogmatic thinking. The fact is that while most people during this period were outwardly Christian, Pagan traditions were still a large part of life in most communities, especially outside the larger urban areas.