tri this short fragment of Valentinus's teaching, as reported bv Clement of Alexandria, che Gnostic Christian philosopher Iiis concerns about the problem oí visual representation between general statements about artistic verisimilitude and the impossibility of producing ;l true likeness comparing Mil- Lnadequac es of human ort ir h God's creation of Adam in the image and likeness, thus making a "credible portrait''of a certain kind.

In conclusion, we see that the early church struggled with lhe problem ol artistic representation at all kinds of levels, .1 struggle that no doubl hampered the . 1 r 1 i^i-- and worried the theologians, lilt Mosaic prohibition o:' image was perhaps only one of their considerations. The desire to be distinct from I lie surrounding culture, with itsatmost inherent idolatry, to avoid any visual representations of the Divine nature, .uni in encourage images that were essentially didac tic is evident both in the literary sources and in the extant material evidence. Yet the portrait image did finally appeal toward the end of the fourth centur) and throughout the NM h a:iiJ ^ivili, rapidly becoming an essential form oí

* Christian visual art, at least un a pai with narrative i gery. We must j^k whin theological,, or artistic forces were responsible lor Mm important Iraniilion in the composition of Christian iconography.

The First Portraits

Of course, much oí lh¡- transition took place in Iandern with radical changes in the church's status and support. After Cnnstantine's conver sion to i Christianity :ii JI4C.E!., the circumstances of the church changed abruptly from persecuted cult to state supported religion. The practice o' decorating chambers with biblical narrative scenes was soon expanded to include portraits Mt' the saints, Churches were built and decorated as well, stimulated at first by imperial patronage and money, but also by a gradually emerging argument for the value of visual :irt for the church, ' In addition to the statue oí Christ and woman in Caesarea Phitippi (which causes him to nute that he has also seen portraits of the saints letter and Paul), Eusebius reports that Constantine commissioned sculptural figures oí the Good Shepherd and Daniel for pub-lit fountains in Constantinople." According to (he I ibet Potitiftcûiis^thAi same emperor donated nearly life sized figures of lohn the Baptist and Christ in cast silver to tlx- I atcran Baptistery while the Lateran Basilita was supplied with silver statues of Jesus and his twelve apostles (none nf these are known to exist today ).■*

By the late fourth century1, portraits of Peter and Paul began 10 be included in the iconographie programs of the catacombs and appeared on other media,, such a^ gold glass and gems. In the fifth and sixth centuries, portraits oí the saims aod christian heroes (apostles, martyrs,

Fig I I. Bust of Chnst, Catacomb of Cornrnodilla, Rome, mid- to ate 4th cen C.E. (Photo: Italy/Held Collection. Bndgeman Art Library)

and bishops) were added to the frescoes of the Roman catacombs lotlg after burials ceased in these places» particularly at the sites where their remains were interred. The emerging cult of the saints in the fourth and fifth centuries brought pilgrims to these places, where they might share a commemorative banquet to honor the holy persons near their mortal remains. Jerome, for example, mentions regular Sunday visits to the catacombs when he was a boy in Rome "to pay homage to the sepulchers of the apostles and martyrs," ' The art of the catacombs changed from symbolic and narrative images to representations of the saints buried therein, or portraits of the martyrs, apostles* or Mary in company with the deceased.-

just prior to the emergence of saints' portraits, however, the first examples of portraits of Christ appear, Including one in the vault of a burial chamber in the Catacomb of Co mm od ilia, showing the head and shoulders of Jesus featuring a full dark beard and long wavy hair (fig. 11). Dated to the late fouTth century, his head is framed by a halo and on either side we see the letters alpha and omega. Christ's face seems to float on a patterned, background of squares and rosettes, perhaps meant to represent a coffered ceiling. Elsewhere in this catacomb are images of the denial of Peter and of Christ shown between two martyrs (or

Fig I I. Bust of Chnst, Catacomb of Cornrnodilla, Rome, mid- to ate 4th cen C.E. (Photo: Italy/Held Collection. Bndgeman Art Library)

Ftg. 12. Mosaic Portrait of Christ from Rorr-an Villa at Hinton St Mary; Dorset lal€ 4lh cen-Ci.. London, British Museum (PhotocAuthor).

between Peter and Paul). Another such image, also dated to the late fourth century, was found at Ostia Antica, made of opus sectile (colored marble). Like the Commodilla image, Christ's head, here framed by a simple nimbus, also has a dark heard (but in this image with a pronounced fork) and long dark curly hair. The face of Christ alone, without any background or context, had become a subject of art and perhaps an object of devotion,75 A third famous late fourth-century portrait of lesus comes; not from Rome at all but from a mosaic pavement in the Roman villa (01 perhaps small house church) discovered in the 1960s at Hinton St. Mary in Dorset, England, and now in the British Museum (fig. 12). A medallion in the center of this large mosaic shows JesuS with quite a different facial type lhan that of the Com mod -i I hi or Ostia images. This portrait of Jesus, which may have been placed originally in the domed ceiling, shows him beardless and wearing a rather mild expression. His hair is light in color and pulled back from his face. Instead of a nimbus, he has only a chi-rho monogram behind his head; on either side are pomegranates, the symbolism of which is somewhat unclear—perhaps of his passion or of abundance in the resurrection, At the comers of the mosaic are personifications of the four seasons—a popular secular theme in Roman art, especially pavement mosaics. Adjacent to this composition is another, smaller mosaic portraying the mythological figure Belkrophon slaying the Chimera (or perhaps a Christianized version—Christ slaying I he Chimera)/1

A statuette, now assumed to be a portrait of Christ seated and holding a scroll, was discovered in Asia Minor and is now housed in Rome's Museo Nazi on ale (fig. 13). The work generally has been dated to the late fourth century, although both its date and its identification as an image of Christ have been questioned/5 The beardless, youthful, and almost feminine appearance of the figure has recently been discussed in some detail and certainly offers contrast with the images from Commodilla and Ostia in particular.76 The figure in this case bears more resemblance to the figure of Christ on mid-fourth century sarcophagi, including the tomb of Junius Bassus, now in the Vatican (fig. 14). Although the original context of this statuette is unknown, it appears to have been designed to be an independent work of art, not a part of a group or larger composition.

Ftg. 12. Mosaic Portrait of Christ from Rorr-an Villa at Hinton St Mary; Dorset lal€ 4lh cen-Ci.. London, British Museum (PhotocAuthor).

Concurrent with the development of visual art for the church, along writh explanations of its potential value, was a fading concern about idolatry in the late third and early fourth centuries. This may have been because the su r roun ding culture was g ra d ua lly becom ing Chr istian (and Fig 13. Statu ette of stated thus less threatening), or because Christ as lead«;early to mid

. l-i-» i i .-I ¿tn cen. C.E., Museo Nazionale the traditional gods were steadily ^Terme), disappearing from the scene, or tame (Phota Author), perhaps, even more significant, , \

because Lhe focus of theological condemnation moved from the 1 ^

dangers of idolatry to the controversies about the person and nature(s) of the savior. The demons that entrapped the people into worshiping the vain and empty creations of human hands now had another way to drag the unwary into perdition, through ^ jAy ■■ ' ''■ ■■ ■Jp j false teachings rather than through the worship of false gods or the \

veneration of idols. Pagan gods jtjj : j J j j j were no longer the competition I * i Jr ^

and threat that they were in the first centuries, and the secular world was something to be accommo- \f ||

the beginning of the eighth century and the outbreak of iconoclasm, portraits of the saints, Mary, and even Christ were hardly a matter for concern.

Instead, images of saints as well as scenes taken from the Bible became more and more popular for church decoration. Intended to inspire awe as well as to teach, the artwork in church was as much a mode of theology as the writing of treatises or delivering of homilies, and it was as effective a means of nurturing devotion or pious emotion as any of the rhetorical arts. Howrever, even though the material evidence certainly demonstrates

Fig. 14. Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, 357 C.E., Treasury of" St. Peter's Basilica, Rome (Photo; Scala/Art Resource, NY).

Fig. 14. Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, 357 C.E., Treasury of" St. Peter's Basilica, Rome (Photo; Scala/Art Resource, NY).

that portraits of the saints, Mary, or Christ had arrived, al least tine provincial but famous bishop at the turn of the fifth century was worried about how the existence and popularity of such images still might lead his congregation astray. Noting that some of the better educated pagans in his city had turned the tables and actually were chiding Christians for being "adorers of columns, and sometimes even of pictures" Augustine grants that such things are taking place ("would to God that we didn't have them") and notes that the practice is defended by what will become Lhe standard Christian agument: '"We/ they say, 'donbt adore images, but what is signified by the image.'"77 Augustine objects to such an argument by pointing out that it would be wise]" to pray directly to the saint rather than to the image of that saint, an argument that might seem eminently sensible if posed to a congregation that was unattached to such visual and material aids to prayer. Whether his congregation was persuaded or not (we have no surviving icons from Hippo) is ultimately less interesting, however, than the fact that, according to Augustine, Christians are being accused of the very acts their authorities had formerly ridiculed in others.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment