Earliest Christian Iconography

On il\' i^-.'it righth the ihree v i M i L under i 11 tree ai a table jet ■■■■ ith Sarahs -i-. whilc Abraham serves [hem, offcring ¡:. pialler ^¡Lli the roasted calf. In front oí the i-.ih.e-, we see an jm (perhapn Jilled wiLh m'Ik. since its color appears '.o be white; (ien lS.Si. In this composition* [ le lll r lí. iilu» have ilea rh idee] t i la J I aCen ¡i i i lI drt ■■■-.lui: the lciiI rj] 11 yu tl: i s mu this li 'vt -^i v-L-i.il set o tí l>y í mandorla mercly gesu res toward Abrahani's proffered platter. Nevertheless, ike particular présentation ut the central vismn in the uppet i euderlng, we mighi con-clutLe tfial [h-L- visual [ratlitiíin has rclietl (>n Jnstin-5 --chcmc, that ihe three are mea ni to represent the Son and tvo angels although uní Ike Rublev's t'arnous image, the three h¿vc 'in wings—or that the image prevenís .1 iubordLnatioiiiíit Trimiy íthe Son and Spirit as inferior tn the Fathí r),although such a ■ onstrual scems highly url kelygiven th> and general . 1111 i - \TUnism ot ihe Roman thurch under Sisáis l[| (who superv. --L-LI die décorai ion of thechunch and dediizated ii :.

Tliis scene úf Abraham1* hospitalité ison v oneamonga ^-hole prt>-grani of mosaics in ^.n ir j Maria Maggiore whii:]i means i luí interpreting ihe meaningof ihis image ought {■••■ inclnde considération of ihe witler tonteé -nul cycle of iconographie pro^ram More ihan Hvcnty years ago> Suzanne Spain argued that the mosaics o:' both i he nave and Iht lriymph¿l .iiili (the apHf rin-.ik - were Il1--!.t-.-.■■lI ,H. li t ti r]J of [ hf [ h irl ten t f i ci'il [ u r y an d ha.d Ci>nla ined a m [] niiTiienl a I figure of Mary with Jesús on her lap) ail point tn ihe broad tln me of prophecy .nul 11111 i I kr. i;n I. in whiçh Sarah serves .i- .i prototype yí NIary.^ I hf ■ th( Tl^MmutiI . includrd in [hi: t]vurall iIl\ o-

ratiorh foretell ihc niiinv incarnai inn ; hrist. í herefore, thcscencof Al^raliam and hii i^ itiore about the prodniie of progen\ lo

Abraham thar a divine thcophany, Al the same time, howevcr, severaI of 11 u1 Dihtr r. 111 k. i k k lha I ap|ïra.r in 11 u- naw |>[] rl ra .i hcavL-r Iv fijjurt" that mighl be inttnded tu represent the visible Divine Word For example, a figure appears in tbe dnuds m vie illuslration of Abraham meeting Melchizedek, in a scent from the nt [acob takinp shcep í'rnm I aban'« ílticks, in a píirtraya] ot the marra coTiiing ut ifu-Israel lies : n l he ^ ilderness.

Abraham a]so appears in scvcral other places in M-k1 mosaics oí Santa \'.!i-.i Maggjorc, induding a scenc on tbc n:.ii:i arch ihal :>Ik.>wh Jnseph and Mary s bet rot bal. their bands being^olned b\ ají ángel. Here Abraham Lisboa n Ln a posture almoit idenlical to his grtermg of the thrce ningeh (tucepl henc his hands -r^, fu- h'^-s be [o re .i ision of a woman holding a thild v, ni: a líalo .n: J ¡s-. uver lu- head, jüit :< < the k'll ni belrcitheil toupie. Spain inlcrpreted Ihis as Lhe linal fulfil]-ment of the promise U> \braham hy onc of his three gnests: "■. m.r w II-^.îrah wi II have a son." The woman holding rhe ( hr^i .-li■ IlI in ihe :i:'.>saic is none other than S.-.uih, holding hei great grandchlld, while Abraham tiiially recognizes ihemeaningof rl^' cvenl lhal place at

Baptistery Marys Dura Europos

Fig. 45. Abraham and hit three visitors, mid-6th cen, C.E. mosaic* San VitaJe. Raiwsnna (Photo: Author).

Mam re. Thus, Spain argues, Sarah has become Mary's antitype (the "mother of many nations"—Gen 17; 16) just as Isaac is Jesus1™

Roughly a little more than a century later, a portrayal of Abraham and his visitors was set into a lunette above the presbyterium in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (fig. 45), Although in many ways very different from the composition in Santa Maria Maggiore, it also has two parts. On the right is the scene of Abraham's offering of Isaac, with the lamb at Abraham's feet and the hand of God staying his upraised knife. In the center of the mosaic, we see the three visitors seated at a table under the oak tree* The table holds three loaves, marked with crosses (perhaps resembling the eucharistic bread served during the actual liturgy), Abraham holds out a platter with the calf, and Sarah, on the left, watches from a small booth with a bemused expression. The faces of the three at the table are again identical, as are their dress and this time also their haloes.

In this presentation all Lhree visitors gesture to the bread on the table, as if calling our attention to it. And, while the other hand of the guest on our left is hidden, the persons in the center and right make particular gestures of blessing with their right hands—their index and third fingers are extetided while the fourth and fifth fingers curl down to touch the palm or thumb. The equality of the three and their function as symbols of the three distinct persons with one shared nature may be intent ion ally expressed by the composition. 1 lere, however, the iconography also points to the importance of the eucharistic offering made directly below> at the altar in the center of the presbyterium. Across from the lunette of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac is one that shows both Mechi/edek, the priest-king, offering his gift of bread and wine (Gen 14:18) and Abel offering his lamb (Gen 4:4) before an altar prepared as if for a Christian liturgy.

But even earlier than these scenes of Abraham and his visitors, Christians employed visual representations for God the Father that were both less symbolic and moTe anthropomorphic, although still being curiously abstract—a disembodied hand, reaching down from the sky. Pos-

Fig. 45. Abraham and hit three visitors, mid-6th cen, C.E. mosaic* San VitaJe. Raiwsnna (Photo: Author).

sibJy drawn from Jewish prototypes (the divine hand also appears in the synagogue at Dura Europos), it frequently appears in scenes of Abraham's offering of Isaac and the giving of ihe tablets of the law to Moses (fig. 46) and continues into the fifth and sixth centuries/' Gregory of Nyssa describes a pa in ting of the sacrifice of Isaac in some detail, including Isaac s bound hands and piteous expression and, as he says, "already the edge of the sword touches the body, when a voice sounds unto him I Abraham | from God, prohibiting the deed."" Gregory's description does not tell us how God's voice would be portrayed, but we might assume it was indicated by a hand reaching down from the sky/:i

Oddly, the divine hard rarely appears before the sixth century in scenes of Jesus' baptism, where the descending dove is shown according to the narrative, although it appears somewhat later, beginning in the .sixth century. This is particularly interesting since, in the two prior cases (the offering of Isaac and the giving of the law), the voice of God is no more significant to the narrative than it is in the story of lesus' baptism, and because in Western medieval and renaissance art, the iconography of lesus' baptism became a prime locus for iconography of the Trinity (sometimes with a hand of God, but often with an anthropomorphic figure of God at the top of the composition).54 In Lhe fourth-century mosaic in the dome of the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Fonte in Naples, however, the hand also appears out of a dark starry sky, holding a wreath of victory over a large chi-rho (fig. 47). The divine hand also appears in the seventh-century mosaic in the Basilica of San ApollSnare in Classe (fig. #7, p, 167), as well in scenes of resurrection or ascension, on ivories, and on pilgrimage flasks (ampullae) from the Holy Land. Probably borrowing from earlier imperial imagery, the hand also appears on the coins or medals showing the apotheosis of Constantino

Paul inns of Nola described a different strategy for avoiding anthropomorphic images of God in the late fourth or early fifth century. In

Fig 46, Moses receiving the law and Abraham orfenng Isaac from a 4th cen.C.E iaroophagut in the Mus*» Pio Crisiiano,Vatican Giy (Photo: Author).

addition to his useful I y distrut ting and didactic gaJ iery of biblical scenes and portraits of the saints, Paulinus also commissioned an apse mosaic that portrayed the Trinity for his basilica at Noia in the early fifth century. Conscious of the error of representing the infinite and unknowable divine nature as having human features but still wanting to find a way to enlighten and inspire his congregation, Paulinas substituted symbols for figurative representations of God. In a letter to his friend Severus, Paulinus poetically praised the result:

The Trinity shines out in all its mystery. Christ is represented by a lamb, the Father's voice thunders forth from the sky, and the Holy Spirit flows down in the form of a dove, A wreathfa gleaming circle surrounds the cross, and around this, circle the apostles form a ring, represented by a chorus of doves, The ho| y uni ry of t he Tri 11 ity merges i n Christ, but t he Trinity has its threefbld symbolism. The Father's voice and the Spirit show forth God, the cross and the Jamb proclaim the holy victim. The purple and the palm point to kingship mnd to triumph. Christ himself the Rock, stands on the rock of the church, and from this rock four plashing fountains flow, the evangelists, the living streams of Christ,"

The Trinity, portrayed as a lamb, dove, and something that would have symbolized a voice (or perhaps the hand of God), was based 011 the biblical descriptions of Jesus' baptism (including John's reference to Christ as Lamb of God> John 1:36). Paulinus1s reference to the image of a voice is similar to Gregory of Nyssa's description of the scene of Abraham offering Isaac and, based on the frequent portrayals of Abraham and Isaac with the hand of God, it seems reasonable to assume that the divine voice was represented with a hand in both PaulinuiTs apse and Gregorys painting. However, according to Paul in us, somewhere else within the composition a cross represented Christ* twelve doves the apostles, and the four rivers of paradise the evangelists. Hie Bishop of Nola, proud of his portraits of saints arid prophets elsewhere in the church, also chose to substitute symbols for portraits of the apostles or evangelists in the apse of his basilica. The use of doves to represent the apostles can be seen elsewhere, for instance in the early sixth-century mosaic from the baptistery of Albenga, which also uses a triple chi-

Fjg. 47. Dome mosaic showing the hand of God holding a wreath from the 4th cen. C£ baptistery of San Giovanni in Fonts,Naples (Photo; Author).

Fig. 40. Limb of God. mid*6th ten, c £ mow t n The preiby-te>7 vdult V uie. FWnn.* (Fti gio; Author);

rho monogram to symbolize the Trinity. And, just as the lamb often represents Christ (as in Paulinus's basilica and in the dome of San VStale—fig. 48), sheep or Jambs frequently stand in for the apostles as well, as in the apse of the Basilica of San Apoilinare in Classe (fig, p. 166), or in the sixth-century apse of the Basilica of Saints Co a mas and Damian in Rome.

Arguably a different kind of noncurative presentation of the Trinity is the image of the empty throne with a crown or cross set upon its thick cushion, with a descending dove often hovering above. One of the earliest examples of this comes from the mosaic program of Santa Maria Maggiorc^but stunning examples may be seen in Ravenna, in the Bastlica of San Vitale, and both the Arian and Orthodox baptisteries (fig, 49). The absence of a figure referring to the Holy Spirit in this case, however, is inexplicable if this is a symbol of the Trinity, although the throne may be understood as a symbol for God. The image may be a more specific reference to the kingdom of heaven, and the ascended and enthroned Christ as the Lord of that kingdom, with its parallel in

Fig. 40. Limb of God. mid*6th ten, c £ mow t n The preiby-te>7 vdult V uie. FWnn.* (Fti gio; Author);

Fig. 50. Cain and Abel ^resenting their gifte to God, 4th cen, cr. sarcophagus relief, Museo Pio Gnstianov'Vatican Gty (Photoc Author),

more figurative images of the enthroned Christ, like that seen on the lunius Bassussarcophagus (fig. 14, p. 34).

Despite these efforts to arrive at typological, symbolic, or n on figurative visual images of God, the Divine Word, or the Trinity certain attempts also were made in the fourth century to portray the triune God in the form of three hum an-appearing males. Some examples of these images showed the Trinity receiving the offerings of Cain and Abel. For instance, oil a sarcophagus now in the Vatican Museo Pio Cristiano, a bearded male wearing a tunic and pallium and seated on a rock receives an offering from the two brothers; one has a basket of fruit, the other holds a lamb (fig, 50). The bearded figure makes a gesture of blessing over Cain's offering of fruit and grain—the same gesture made by the figures in the hospitality of Abraham mosaic described above (two fingers extended, the other three curled back to the palm). Behind his head are cut (in low relief) two other faces that might be interpreted either as onlookers (two angels?) or the other two Persons of the Trinity. If this was intended as a representation of the Holy Trinity, then the Fathers older (bearded) visage, as well as the distinct ions among all three profiles, may be significant, perhaps implying a subordinationist or Arian Trinity. Or, if this is an image of God blessing the offering of Cain, then

Fig. Cpok surmounted on throne, early 6th cen- CE. mosaic m Uie dome of the Arian baptistery Ravenna (Photo: Author).

Fig. 50. Cain and Abel ^resenting their gifte to God, 4th cen, cr. sarcophagus relief, Museo Pio Gnstianov'Vatican Gty (Photoc Author),

Early Christian Art Cain And Abel

Fig. 5 . 4th cen. Cf. sancopha-gu5 in the Musée de l'Arles Antique [Photo; Author),

the story in Genesis has been undermined in the image for some unknown reason.. Later, as in the mosaics programs of San Apollinare in Classe or San Vitale, only the offering of Abel is depicted (while in a fourth-century fresco of Cain and Abel in the Via La tin a Catacomb, God is not depicted).®6

Strengthening the identity of the above image as a portrayal of the Trinity (as opposed to God and two angels) are the representations of the Trinity on two other sarcophagi from approximately the same date (early to mid-fourth century}. These images appear to depict the Trinity creating Adam and Eve, One of these is now in the Klusee de 1 "Aries Antique (and may be the older of the two), and the other is in the Museo Pio Cristiano in the Vatican. Both of them, double-registered sarcophagi, have the image of a seated male in the upper left corner, joined by two other standing male figures, perhaps meant to represent the Holv Spirit, the Son (figs. 5 J-52). In both cases, the "Father'1 has a Fi& 5Z""Dogmatic Sarmpha-

' t & gusT 4th cen-c.e. Museo Pio full beard, but, in one instance (the Aries example)n the "Son" is beard- oh stiaro. Vatican City Photo:

less while the "Spirit" has a clipped beard and shorter hair than the Author).

Fg, S3. Detail, Aries sarcophagus, the Trinity Cresting Adam and E-;e (Photo; Author).

Fig. S4. Detail, the Trinity Creating Adam and Eve. Vatican Dogpiat c Sarcophagus (Photo: Author).

Father (fig, 53), On the Vatican sarcophagus, the Son and Spirit bear more resemblance to the Father (fig. 54). Before this group are two diminutive nude figures, Adam and Eve at their creation, The Son puts his right hand on the head of Eve in each of the scenes (in one case Adam is still lying on the ground), and the Father makes the now-familiar gesture of blessing/-' On the Arks sarcophagus, the apostle Paul also appears in the scene, as if presenting the "old Adam" to the "new Adam "

The images of the Trinity are presented in some cases as identical an d i n others as having different fac i a l types -eith er olde r and be a rd e d or younger and beardless. The fact that the central figure is seated while the others stand suggests that these latter two are the ones engaged with the world as agents or messengers of the Father (his "right and left hands*'}«H Given the date of the images (mid-fourth century), the explanation for their age or facial distinctions may depend on whether the prevalent theology emphasized the identity and coeternity of the Persons of the Trinity or tended to subordinate the Son and Spirit to the Father. A Nicaean version of this iconography arguably would show the three faces as identical, while a pre-Nicene version would present the Son and SpiriL as younger than Lbe Father. The Son or Logos figure may also be shown as identical with or older than the figure of Christ elsewhere in the composition, artistically capturing another theological idea. On one hand, the flesh taken in the incarnation must be

Fig. 55. Adan- and Ewwith Ctrist/Logos or 4th cen.C.E Christian sarcophagus in the Mu5eo Pk> Cristiano.Vatican Oty (Photo:Author).

Earliest Christian Iconography

Fig. 55. Adan- and Ewwith Ctrist/Logos or 4th cen.C.E Christian sarcophagus in the Mu5eo Pk> Cristiano.Vatican Oty (Photo:Author).

F^g, 56. Detail,Adoration cf the magi on the Aries Sarcophagus (Photo: Author).

acknowledged as younger than the Eternal Word, but, cm the other hand, the "face" of Christ is the "image" and revelation of God. The face of Adam (and also possibly even Eve) may also bear a likeness to the Logos or Son, as well as to Christ, the new Adam (compare figs. 54 and 55).

fust below these Trinity representations, on both of the sarcophagi, are representations of the adoration of the three magi. In parallel position to God the Father, Mary is shown* seated in an almost identical chair, while a male figure, perhaps Balaam, Joseph, or even the Holy Spirit stands behind in the position of the same figure above (fig. 56). The juxtaposition of these images suggests the Story of the original creation and the recreation of Adam in the incarnation; thus, the whole composition may refer to the economy of salvation (old and new creation, old and new Adam—which may account for Paul's appearance on the Aries sarcophagus). In addition to this, however, at least one interpreter argued that this image of the magi also suggests the doctrine of the TVinily, either thai they symbolically represented the Trinity (in their number and appearance) or that they, themselves, had a theophany of the Trinity (each of them seeing a different Person)."

This tradition has been hard to pin down> but it may be related to an Armenian Infancy Gospel that recounts a legend of the three, each having a different vision of the Christ child (as incarnate Son, heavenly commander, or suffering sacrifice—a vision that emphasizes different aspects of Christ rather than the three Persons iif the Trinity)/'" We should note that in the iconography of the two sarcophagi the first of the magi points to a group of three stars or disks, rather than to a single star, but that his pointing index finger also draws our eyes up to the image of the Trinity on I he upper register. The iconographic message is conveyed through I he arrangement and relationship of the images of creation and incarnation, fall and redemption. Mary and Eve are above and below, just as the Logos who presents Eve to the Father can be seen as a child on the lap of the new Eve, his mother Mary. That child, the new Adam, is then greeted by a trinity of guests, not unlike the angelic visitors to Abraham, but in this case the visitors are mortals and the host is divine.

Such a dogmatically sophisticated Sonographic program suggests that at least some artisans, clients, or viewers were conscious ol the way visual art may convey a complicated idea in a visual rather than verbal idiom. It also tells us that making an image of God (or at least a visual metaphor lor Gnd) was not universally held to he impossible or blasphemous. At the same time, the iconography of God did not present a portrait of God so much as a representation of God doing a particular work—creating Adam and Eve or receiving the gifts of Cain and Abel.

Even so, at the end of the fourth century, the anthropomorphic pictorial representation of God the Father goes underground until the seventh or eighth century in the West and almost permanently in the East. At the same time, the portrait of Christy along with images of the saints, begins CO emerge and in a short time becomes a dominant motif of Christian iconography. The representation of the hospitality of Abraham remains, especially in the East, but it is understood to be a symbol of the Trinity and not an actual representation of it, while the image of God as bearded older man disappears for several centuries. A condemnation of any presentation of God in actual visual art is specifically argued, finally, in the early eighth century in John of Damascus's treatise On Holy Images:

For if we Wire to inakeim image of the invisible tiod, we would really sin;. fur it is impossible to depict one who is incorporeal and formless, invisible and uncirtumscribabk* And again: if we were to make images of human beings and regard them and venerate them lis gods, we would be truly sacrikgions. But we do none of these things. For if we make an image of God who in his ineffable goodness became ineamate and was seen upon earth in the flesh, and lived among humans, and assumed the nature and density and form and color of flesh, we do not go astray For we long to see his form; as the divine apnslle nays, 'now we see puzzling reflect]tins in a mirror. For the image is a

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