Early Christian Views of Visual Art Historical Analyses

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Fig. 5. Jonah at nest; Scene fnonr Jonah cycle, Catacomb of CallistushRome (©The IntematiortaJ Catacomb Soticty: Photffi Estdle Bnetttnani).

Fig. i>, Mqsss Striking the wk in the wilderness Caticoirb of Cal istuSvRorne (©The International Catacomb Society. Photo; Estelle Brettrnan),

The very fact that we may .study Christian art from the turn of the third century is likely due to the fortuitous survival of certain sites, in particular those that were underground (catacombs) and safe from future urban renewal or deliberate destruction during earlier eras of persecution or later periods of Christian iconodasm (especially in the eastern part of the Empire), because (if such vicissitudes of survival, whether the corpus of catacomb art points to a significant change or development in Christian tradition and practice around the turn of the third century may be a debatable point. However, the absence of any significant and definitively Christian artworks prior to this time has often been taken as evidence that, for a century and a half, the church had no large body of clearly recognisable v isual art of its own. If this is so, the painting of these catacombs signaled a watershed moment, when the church changed its habits, traditions, convictions, or values and created a distinct form of art where there once was none—a form based oil a combination of familiar and newly invented motifs.

The positing of such a radical shift suggests a possible theological or social transformation within the community—a change of perspective that allowed something to exist that would have been seen as problematic in the previous era. Alternatively, this shift may merely imply a change in the community's social or economic circumstances. Historians have offered different theories to account for this change of pattern, lb some interpreters, earlier generations of Christians consciously decided that visual an was to be rejected because it amounted to idolatry and was tainted with the vanity of pagan decadence. For these interpreters. Christians were acting like law-abiding Jews, taking the prohibition of graven images to heart, thus neither making nor using fig

Estelle Lasswell Early Paintings

Fig 7. Baptisr- of Christ Catacomb of CalMstus, Rome {©The International Cataoornb Society Photo: Estelle Bremiran).

urative artworks (despite evidence that actually demonstrates a widespread use til figurative art among Jews—see below). The production of visual art at the beginning of the third century consequently indicates a change in attitude toward that prohibition* perhaps capitulating to popular culture, or extending a grudging tolerance to new converts who were less zealous or theologically conscious and wished to continue their traditional pagan practice of embellishing their family tombs (at least) with images.*

A different theory takes a more progressive and positive view of the development of recognizably Christian examples of visual art. Instead of seeing the advent of visual art in Christianity as a signal of the loosening of discipline or a mark of decadence, this view argues that the appearance of art was a natural development of an evolving faith, as it came to have its own modes of expression and communication. If one assumes that such new mod« require a period of gestation before they emerge on the scene, then it stands to reason that Christians first used those symbols and motifs that were available and generally understood, having conic from the icon og rap hie vocabulary of the common culture. Of course* although these "borrowed" images were adapted for Christian use and endowed with meanings that conveyed key aspects of the new religion, Lhey might not be obviously "Christian" to the majority of viewers then or now. Eventual!/ these symbols and motifs would be entirely transformed, and new ones would emerge* about the same time as adherents as well as new converts achieved the necessary social, economic, and intellectual stability necessary to generate a religious material culture of their own.'

Both points of view assume that the apparent emergence of Christian art at the turn of the third century indicates that at that time Christianity became engaged with its surrounding culture in a different way than it had been previously. Either Christian practitioners ceased to be so

Fig 7. Baptisr- of Christ Catacomb of CalMstus, Rome {©The International Cataoornb Society Photo: Estelle Bremiran).

Tig. S.Jonah sarcophagus late 3rd cen, t E„ Museo Rio Cn^tiij-io, Vatican City (Photo: Author).

distinct from certain aspects of pagan society and religion (in particular from its rich artistic tradition)} or they began to produce a distinctive iconography that would clearly identify them, instead of adapting religiously generic images. The main difference between the two perspectives is whether such cultural engagement and/or artistic development is understood as signifying the erosion or the elaboration of a distinct theological identity. In the first view, Christians became more like their pagan neighbors, and in the seconds they became more markedly Christian (at least in their visual art). Both views accept that Christian iconography in the early third century marks a cultural evolution— whether that evolution was a good thing for the religion itself is also the subject of some disagreement.

Other explanations have been offered for the lack of Christian visual art from the first and second centuries, One argument, that the first generations were expecting an immediate end to the world as they knew it, presumes that believers saw no value in (or had no time for) making visual expressions of faith. Only when the parousia (Christ's return) was seen to be indefinitely delayed was there widespread effort to establish the kind of cultural permanence that would include tombs, churches, and collections of sacred te^ts. Another theory,that almost all older artifacts were lost or destroyed owing either to the vicissitudes of persecution (the destruction of Christian objects and buildings) or the consequence of urban renewal (when older and less opulent churches were torn down to make way for new building in the fourth century), is supported by archaeological finds. The Christian building at Dura Europos, for instance, survived because it was deliberately covered over as a defensive move by a Roman garrison, Jin rial places likewise survived because they were left intact, perhaps out of respect, but also because they were underground and therefore not as subject to destruction. In fact, this latter argument also serves to explain the very limited context and geography of those artifacts that can be dated prior to the Constan-tinian era, which brought an end to persecution but also marked the beginning of monumental, large-scale, and significantly permanent building projects, many of them adjacent to or incorporating these very burial grounds.

Tig. S.Jonah sarcophagus late 3rd cen, t E„ Museo Rio Cn^tiij-io, Vatican City (Photo: Author).

Jonah Sarcophagus Vatican

Despite these various theories, many historians sti 11 assume that the first- and second-century church consistently repudiated the creation of figurative art for theological reasons. As Mary Charles Murray so clearly showed nearly a quarter-century ago, leading historians of Christianity as well as many important art historians often assumed that the religion was, from its origins, characteristically hostile to all kinds of pictorial art. She cites articles and books published from the 1950s to the date of her own article in the late 1970s by such prominent academics as John Reck with, James Brecken ridge, Ernst Kitzinger, and Henry Chad wick, scholars whose work is still very influent iaL" For example, in. his now classic study, Byzantine Art in the Making, first published in 1977, Kitzinger wrote at the end of his lirst chapter:

There is no evidence of any art with a Christian content earlitr thtin the year a,d, 200. In all likelihood this is not merely due to accidental losses. The surviving monuments of Christian pictorial art which tan be attributed to the first half of the third century bear the marks of a true beginning. Moreover, one can find in Christian liUTature of the period reflections of a changing attitude toward linages and their role in religious life. That attitude was undoubtedly negative prior to this period.

Fig 9. Jesus healing and working wanders, Christian sarcophagus ear y 4th cen. C.e.. Museo Rio Cr st ano, Vatican City (Photo; Author).

Jesus Healing Sarcophagus

As evidence of this negative attitude, many of these historians of the past century, like the iconoclasts of the eighth, collected ancient written testimonies that could be interpreted to suggest that the early church was officially anti-image* This historical perspective was examined and refuted by Charles Murray, followed in detail two decades later by Paul Corby Finney. Briefly, however, the sources that historians most often cite as evidence of early opposition to pictorial art are short excerpts from the writings of Tertullian and Clemen t of Alexandria* For instance, Henry Chad wick, in his widely read The Early Church (first published in 1967}, wrote; "Th e second of the Ten Com man dments forbad e the making of any graven image. Roth Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria

Fig 9. Jesus healing and working wanders, Christian sarcophagus ear y 4th cen. C.e.. Museo Rio Cr st ano, Vatican City (Photo; Author).

regarded this prohibition as absolute and binding on Christians. Images and statues belonged to the demonic world of paganism." Actually in reference to a rather polemical aside by Irenaeus, although identifying his ¡informant by name, Chad wick continues, "In fact, the only second-century Christians known to have had images of Christ were radical Gnostics, the followers of the licentious Carpocrates

In this short quotation, Chad wick claims that the so-called Second Commandment (Lxod 20A-5a; Deut 4:16-19; 5:8-9) was normative for the early church in respect to visual images. Here Chad wick repeats the predilections of earlier scholars and takes early Christian an icon ism for granted. Chadwick further cites the writings of Tertullian and Clement to imply that Christian teaching at the time generally forbade *images and statues" of any kind as belonging to the demonic pagan world. However, the actual sources themselves are far less clear about the matter of visual art in general than they were about idolatry, specifically.

For example, an often-cited excerpt from Icrtullian's treatise On Mod-asty has been judged to condemn any use of religious pictures (in this case, of a shepherd) on chalices used during the eucharustic meal," The text, however, actually denounces those who favored a laxist approach to forgiveness after baptism, in particular the author of Lhe treatise The Shepherd of Hermas. Since Tertullian associated such eucharistic cups with this treatise (because of the shepherd image), he assumes that those who had such implements believed that they could be forgiven transgressions such as drunkenness and adultery. Tertullians objection to the image on these cups was an objection to what it signified (a lack of moral rigor), not to its mere existence as a piece of art.

Furthermore^ Chadwick suggests that the production of visual art occurred first within heretical sects, specifically among Gnostics. His evidence for this association of art and heresy comes mainly from Irenaeus's treatise Against Heresies, written in the late second century, l isted among the many undesirable practices and traits of the Car-pocratians, such as practicing sorcery and astrology, Irenaeus also accuses them of making and honoring images—according to him, a practice peculiar to this sect. Irenaeus even notes that they had a portrait of Jesus, fashioned by none other than Pilate and honored with garlands and other unnamed traditional pagan offerings (probably lit candles and incense):

They al so posses * i magetij Mime o \ t hn in jmi nted, a n d n ihers fb rmed \ rom d i f-ferent kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Chri.it was madt: by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images and set them up along wirh the images of the philosophers of the world; that is to say, wit)] the images of PytliEigoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest- They also have other modes of honoring these images, iifter the same manner of the Gentiles.

While this short excerpt demonstrates Irenaetis^s assumption that honoring portrait images was a reprehensible characteristic ot" certain heretics, he offers no general condemnation of visual art, whether secular or religious, narrative or iconic. What he apparently objects to is the inclusion of lesus with the other philosophers, and the crowning and honoring of their images.

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  • ida koivunen
    What was the christian view on visual arts in the 1950's?
    8 years ago

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