The first Christian art is very interesting but you have to look for it to find it. Indeed, at the beginning, Christians were persecuted and they had to hide their religion. They showed it by small symbols or re-used elements from the Roman Empire. A bit later, they were accepted and used the catacombs for burial, which is where we find lots of example of the first Christian art.
First, the catacombs were used for martyrs. Then, it became a practice to burry the faithful near the martyrs. This was called a burial ad sanctos. The cult of the saint developed a lot, as well as the relics cult linked to it. A new iconography appeared, the martyrs were now saint figures. However, in those new images, the saints are not identifiable by any attributes but only except their names on the artwork.
This artifact is a gold glass with saint Agnes. It was made in the 4th century AD and it is in the catacomb of Pamphile. This technique was frequently used at that time. The gold leaf is scratch beforehand to create the decor. Then the gold leaf is imprisoned between layers of glass. The woman depicted on this glass is showed as an orante. She wears a long tunic and over it she has a shorter tunic which has a belt at the woman’s side. She also has a coat on her arms. Around her, we can see doves on columns. This animal is a common symbol of death in Roman art. Behind her head, there is a nimbus to show her sainthood. Her name can be read on each side of the nimbus, which allows us to identify her as saint Agnes.
As we can see, the iconography is simple. Without her name, nothing will help us identify her. However, her legend is full of details which could have helped us. A man (the son of Rome’s prefect) was in love with the 13 years old Agnes. This love made him physically sick. His father summoned doctors whose told him the cause of the illness. Then, the father sent someone to Agnes in order to ask her to marry his son. However, she refused, saying that she was already engaged to the Christ. This religion was still forbidden in the 3rd century when the story takes place. The father was enraged and asked Agnes to make sacrifices to the Roman gods but she refused. He condemned her to be raped in a brothel, but suddenly the prefect’s son felt better and went to the brothel. When the men were going to see her nudity, a blinding light came and killed the prefect’s son. At the same time, Agnes’ hair grew to hide her body. After that episode, the father asked Agnes to bring her son back to life, which she did. Then he condemned her to die on the stake, but rain arrived and saved her. The father was extremely upset and decided to behead her with a two-edged sword…
As you can see, her legend is full of details but none of them are used on this artifact. This is completely characteristic of the Christian art at its beginning.