Art and Idolatry in the Early Third Century Christian Writings

Because Tertulliar, (ca, 200 was deeply concerned about the problem of Christians being ensnared in a polytheistic culture, his treatise On Idolatry extends the definition of idolatry far beyond anything to do specifically with pictorial art. For Tertullian, idolatrous practices include preoccupation with the way one dresses, the foods one eats, or the pursuit of sexual pleasures or material wealth—all things that humans mistakenly lake for having intrinsic value and that they honor more than God. In regard to visual art, for example, Tertullian worries about the temptations that artisans must face and the fact that both their skills and their tools could be misused: "There are also other species of very many arts which, although they extend not to the making of idols, yet with the same criminality, furnish the ingredients, without which idols have no power No art exists that is not mother or kinswoman to some allied art; nothing is independent of its neighbor." ■' Tertullian even urges those in his audience who make their living by craft to use their skills to make useful objects that could not possibly serve the purpose of polytheistic worship. Rather than sculptors, these folks should he plasterers, roof menders, or marble masons in the building trades.

However, recognizing that some fine artisans earn their living by making ostentatious and luxurious objects, he allows that it is better to gild slippers than to fashion a statue of Mercury or Serapis, Tertullian may have had Acts 19:23-41 in mind as he wrote this, comparing the predicament of Demetrius and the other Ephesians whose income depended on making and selling images of the goddess Diana, Tertullian, wishing to support artisans in their work and not to reduce them to poverty, suggests that they find other avenues for their craft and merely avoid making images of the pagan gods.

Clement of Alexandria (ca. 16(3-215 c.E,) approached the problem of figurative art from an angle more characteristically his. Less concerned about Christian engagement with the habits and pleasures of Roman culture than Tertullian was, and not as fundamentally disturbed by the construction of images of the gods as a profession, Clement adapts Platonic teachings to offer a more complex discussion of the inferiority of an image to its likeness, and the potential for the confusion of likeness and prototype on the part of those who view art. Attending to the deceptive power of imitation as well as the attraction of both material and natural objects, Clement sees danger in the human tendency to misunderstand the image—and to fail to distinguish between representation and reality—between the sensible and transcendent realms. And because objects of worship are not always only human-made idols, he extends his concern to include even the mistaken veneration of things found in the natural world, ll was in this respect thai he reminds his audience of the biblical prohibition:

What is more, we are expressly forbidden to practice a deceitful art. For the prophet says "Thou shalt not make ¡i Likeness of anything that is in heaven above or the earth beneath."„. . But as for you, while you take ^reat pains to discover how a statue may be shaped to Llie highest possible pitch of beautyh you never give a thought to prevent yourselves turning out like statues owing to want of .. - Here the host of philosophers turn aside, when they ad mit that humans are beautifully made for the contemplation of heaven, and yet worship Lhe things which appear in heaven and are apprehended by sight— Let none of you worship the sun; rather lot him yearn for the maker of the sun.1'

Clement's objection to images is clearly different from Tertullian's. His concern is not so much the adoption of polytheistic practices or being captive to the alluring aspects of popular culture, but misunderstanding what it is that deserves honor—what the "true image" is. He follows a well-known Platonic axiom that images made by artists (or even things of the natural world) are only reflections of reality and should not be confused with the eternal and ideal Form (or in Clement's case> the Maker) that transcends any earthly creation. However, he also argues that, properly understood, images can serve the useful function of reminding the viewer of a higher tTuth—which is why, although he generally disapproves of jewelry, he lists the appropriate images for Christian signet rings (a dove, a fish, a ship, a lyre, or an anchor) and urges the faithful to avoid seals with images of the gods, weapons* drinking cups, or scenes of sexual intercourse. The former symbols draw the eye and the mind away from themselves and toward the reality they represent, while the laLLer indicate a life of idolatry, indulgence, and even licentiousness. On the other hand, modest Christian symbols on everyday objects of some practical necessity did not constitute a form of idolatry.13

In the Stromateis (or Miscellanies), the last of his treatises and the most esoteric of them all, he continues with that same theme and this time credits Moses with the original formulation, later taken up by Pythagoras:

"Don't wear a ring, nor engrave on it the images of the gods;1 enjoins PythagOTasi 85 Moses ayes before enacted express I y, LliaL neither a graven, nor molten, nor molded, nor painted likeness should be made; so that we may not cleave to things of SeOSe, hut pass to intellectually known objects: for familiarity with the sight disparages the reverence of what is divine:; and to worship that which is immaterial hy matter is to dishonor it by sense,"

Clement's problem with visual art poses a distinct set of issues. In another place in the Stromateis> Clement claims that the injunction an artist breaks is not only that against making idols but also that against robbing the divine prerogative in the act of creation.1 In these passages we see how Clement develops his own version of the doctrine of i nutation, asserting that a work of art is deceptive, intended to fool the viewer into mistaking a mere copy for its model, into confusing the imitation with the reality. Perhaps Clement was cognizant of Pliny's critique of artists of oldh who prided themselves on work so convincingly lifelike that viewers mistook the image for something real, Zeuxis, for instance, is said to have painted a child carrying grapes that caused birds to fly down to pick at the fruit,1*

After Tertullian and Clement, the matter of early Christian attitudes toward pictorial or figurative art becomes more complex, perhaps in part because the art itself has begun to be made and owned by the Christian community. Probably the most vehement condemnation of figurative art prior to the iconoclastic period comes from Origen s argument about Christianity with the polytheist Celsus in the early third century. Grigen's argument is similar in certain respects to Clement's objections to visual art as setting up false objects of worship, although at first it appears to draw a parallel between faithful Jews and Christians regarding the biblical injunction. In his long and complicated defense of Christianity, Origen argues that Christians are at least as enlightened on the matter of the vanity of images as the philosophers were. He also defends the Jews against what was apparently a fairly vicious attack by Celsus on their culture and religion, which he saw as an earlier form of Christianity. Jews, according to Celsusj were "fugitives from Egypt> who never performed anything worthy of note and never were held in any reputation or account."17

Taking exception to this unfair characterization and turning the tables on Celsus by pointing out that he represents a Teligion that worshiped images of "corruptible human beings, and birds, and four-footed beasts Origen offers an example of a particularly praiseworthy accomplishment of the Jews, citing their observance of the prohibition as found in Deuteronomy (4:16-18):

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