Jesus as Savior and Healer The Beautiful Youth

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These issues lay right at the heart of the development of Christian art that first emphasized Jesus' work on earth, as a savior who performed certain deeds. These deeds, as they were represented in visual art, were directly related to specific textual narratives. The art of the early fourth century did not try overtly to display Jesus' divine nature, or to suggest that he showed forth the visible face of God, but rather it concentrated on narrating the actions or the stories that were told about him. For instance, the earliest representations of Jesus display no haloes or even other signs of divinity that were already in use for images of the gods or of the deified emperor, or even the golden or purple robes associated with royalty or the supreme deities of the Greco-Roman pantheon. The earliest images of Jesus showed him dressed much like the other figures in a composition, in simple tunic and pallium and sandaled feet. He is not shown larger than life" but rather as of the same stature as his disciples and followers. The only props he holds or attributes associated with him usually are related to Lhe narrative itself (baskets of loaves for multiplying or iars of water for transforming). His posture is far from imposing, since lie usually stands or walks among a crowd of others, rather than riding a chariot or sitting upon a throne. Apart from his significantly distinctive facial appearance, Jesus looks like the other figures in the compositions.

Of course, there were some interesting exceptions, at least at first— and perhaps their very rarity proves the rule. In the famous early fourth -century mosaic said to be of Christ Helios in the dome of the mausoleum of the Julii in the excavations under Saint Peter's on the Vatican (fig. 66), we see a figure that may have been meant to represent Christ as Sol or perhaps as a rival to Sol riding in a chariot, surrounded by a golden sky and adorned with a radiate halo. This rather glorious

r^. 66. Christ as Helios. Mausoleum M (or the Julii), 4th cen.C.E mosaic,Vatican Necropolis (©The International Catacomb Society Photo: Estelle Brettman).

F-g, 67- Columnar sarcopha^js in the Museo Pio Cristiana Vatican Oty (Phgto; Author).

Fg. 63. Good Shepherd star Liiitte, pcobabl/ 3nd cen. C.t., Miiseo Pio CristianG,'Vatican City (Photo:Author).

image corresponds with biblical language about Christ as the light (for example, John 1:1-5 and Eph 5:14) arid with some textual references to Christ that employed solar imagery, including Clement of Alexandria's description of Christ as the "Sun of Righteousness" who rides in his chariot over all creation and "who has changed sunset into sunrise and crucified death into life.11"

But while Jesus1 stance, stature, dress, and general demeanor in the earliest iconography could be interpreted as a clear emphasis on his humanity, certain key aspects of his facial type are absolutely distinctive and, perhaps in a different way, offer a visual construction of his immortal nature. In contrast to later depictions of Christ as a dark, bearded judge as found in Byzantine icons, the art of the catacombs and the early sarcophagus reliefs almost always shows Jesus as a beautiful youth, beardless and with long curly hair. He has a gentle expression, smooth oval face; he appears to be both graceful and rather sweet natured (fig. 67). Tn this respect, Jesus' iconography looks

Fig. 70.Christ as Orpheus from the Catacomb of □omit lla, Rome (©The Inter national Catacomb Society: Fhoto: Estelle Brettman).

Fig 69. Orpheus on sartopha gus fragment, 3rd cen. CJE.MuM Pio Cnstianoi Vatican Gty (Photo;Author)

much like that of the earl ier images of the Good Shepherd (fig. 68)> which symbolically represented Jesus as a loving caretaker of souls. More significant, however, is the similarity of Jesus' facial features Lo those of the gods Apollo, Orpheus, and both Dionysus and Hercules in their youthful presentations (fig. 69). Ill some cases, he takes oil other attributes associated with them, like the radiate halo of Sol or the lyre of Orpheus (fig. 70). Jesus1 representation also parallels that of certain heroes, many of whom became deified eventually (for example, Melcager or Bellerophon). These, too, are usually shown beardless and youthful, and sometimes writh long, flowing, or curly hair, their bodily postures effete and languid. The most important difference between the representations of Jesus and those of these gods or heroes, however, is thai white Jesus is sometimes shown as a nude child, as a youthful adult he is fully clothed in the relatively simple garb of an ordinary Roman male (usually a tunic or a tunic and pallium).29

In these early fourth-century depictions, Jesus works wonders (multiplies loaves and changes water to wine), teaches, heals (the parti lytic, the man born blind, the woman with the issue of blood), or raises the dead (Lazarus, Jairus's daughter). As noted, prior to this time, certain visual metaphors had been far more popular, in particular the Good Shepherd, which was not a portrait of Christ, but rather a representation of his attributes and a reference to the common

Fig 69. Orpheus on sartopha gus fragment, 3rd cen. CJE.MuM Pio Cnstianoi Vatican Gty (Photo;Author)

Fig. 70.Christ as Orpheus from the Catacomb of □omit lla, Rome (©The Inter national Catacomb Society: Fhoto: Estelle Brettman).

biblical symbolism of the Shepherd, even though the Shepherd's posture and countenance were quite similar to Jesus in the New Testament narrative scenes. As we have noted* this facial type is a remarkable contrast with the apostles or other figures in the composition who are presented as typical Roman males with clipped boards and short hair. Jesus' appearance in contrast to these others is almost startling and the nearly inescapable conclusion is that lie was either a type of, or even the replacement for the young savior gods of Greco-Rom an religion. In many ways, the story of his virginal birth, miracles, wonders, sufferings, and resurrection from death make him their competition as much as their counterpart.

Early Christian writers were aware of the parallels between jfesus and these heroes and savior gods. Justin Martyr had acknowledged the similarities and even argued that they demonstrated that Jesus was in no way inferior to these gods. In fact, he asserted that die parallels showed Jesus to be truly superior, if for no other reason than that these other gods were invented by devils and those who believed in them were influenced by demons (who deliberately wanted to mislead people), and thus they even had imitated Jesus (in anticipation). But, in any case, Justin could insist that anyone who could believe all these things (heroic deeds or wonders) of gods invented by poets certainly could credit them to Christ, the one who did them "truly";

And whin we say also that the Word, who is the first ■ born of God, was produced without sciiuai union:, and that he, Jesus Christ <>ur teacher was crucified and died* and rose again, a nil ascended into heaven* we propound nothing different from what you believe re^arjin^ those wttoiX) you esteem sons of Jupiter. For you know how many sons your esteemed writers ascribe to Jupiter: Mercury the inter preting word and teacher of all; Aesclepius, who though he was a tireat physician, was struck by a thunderbolt, and ^o aseended to heaven; and Bacchus, too, after he had been torn limb from limb; and Hercules, when he had committed himself to the flames to escape his toil; and the sons of Led a, and Dioscuri; and Perseus, son of Danae; and Bellerophon who, though sprung from mortals rase to heaven on the horse Pegasus .., and What of the emperors who die among yourselves, whom you deem worthy of deification. . H ► Aild if we assert that the Word of God was born of God in a peculiar manner, different from ordinary generation, let this, as iiaid above, be no ordinary tiling to you, who fiay thai Mercury is the angelic word of God. But if anyone objects that he was crucified, in this also on a par with | the mftering of those reputed Sons of Jupiter ot yours ... and if we even affirm that he was born of a virgin, accept this in common with what you accept of Perseus. And in that we say that he made whole the lame, the paralytic, and those bom blind, we seem to say what is very similar to the deeds said to have been done by Asclepius.J"

Part of Justing apologetic strategy was to undermine the discounting of Jesus' wonders (since people were willing to believe the in of the other gods), while at the same time showing that these works by themselves were not the sum of Jesus' divinity or the only measure of his legitimacy as the Son of God. Still, the similarities were obvious to many people at least, and the iconography of Jesus may have reflected that awareness.

But, as we have discussed, in whatever way Jesus and his companions are depicted in the fourth-century catacomb paintings or sarcophagus reliefs, they appear more as actors in a scene than as pure portrait types. Their faces are not revealed as the visages of holy persons, and the iconography is not intended for veneration. These figures are inseparable from their specific narrative compositions, which are meant to teach or reveal some meaning found in the details of the story itself. This was also the function of the various characters or episodes from the Hebrew Scriptures that referenced a particular story that also served as a typology for or pre figuration of a Gospel event, a specific Christian sacramental practice, or God's promised deliverance of the faithful from danger and death," The frontal, static, or formal port rait-type images, intended to invite prayer rather than provide edification, appeared somewhat later in Christian art. In these earlier images Jesus'" face is more often in partial profile than facing forward, and even those other figures |Adam and Eve or Daniel, for instance) h who are more often presented fro 11 tally, are yet characters within a sacred drama.

Thus, the figures in this kind of art take defined roles in their story sequences, and those roles are repeated and standardised. They are never distinct from the general composition or presented as subjects to be seen alone, apart from the crowd around them. However, we do see some facial and bodily distinctions that in themselves became fairly predictable. In the extant iconography of the third and fourth centuries (especially in the sarcophagus reliefs): lesus was most often represented as a beardless and beautiful youth with curly, almost shoulder-length hair. This image most frequently appears in compositions showing him performing miracles, wonders, or healing the sick, where he looks more like the savior gods of antiquity or of the mystery cults than any other divine prototypes from the pagan art of Late Antiquity When he performs certain wonders, like the changing of water to wine or the multiplication of loaves, he often does so with a wand (tig. 67). This prop associates him with the wonderworking figures of the Old Testament (especially Moses), or even with magicians known to viewers from their surrounding culture or even some mentioned in early Christian literature (for example, Simon)/: This Christ also holds the wand when he is shown raising the dead, Lazarus» or lairus's daughter (fig. 71). When he is shown as healer, Jesus generally has his right hand upon the suppliant, a gesture also associated with baptism and the reconciliation of sinners

Fg. 71. jesus raising Lazarus deta I fnorn a 4th cer. C.E. sarcophagi, Museo Pió Cristiano, Vat can City (Phcrtoc Author).


The predominance of this Jesus type in the carl [est iconography suggests that visual art, ¿it least, emphasized Jesus' role as healer and wonderworker during his earthly ministry, which, according to early theologians, showed forth the power and glory of God as well as Christ's role of savior. At the same time, certain key events of Jesus1 earthly life, winch were equally important for revealing his divinity, appear to be missing, For example, almost 110 visual representations of the transfiguration, Last Supper, crucifixion, resurrection, or ascension appear in Christian iconography prior to the fifth century. Pictorial references to Jesus' nativity do occur with some frequency but seem more focused on the adoration of the three magi than, on the incarnation (compare figs, 56 and pp. 128 and 192). Toward the end of the fourth century, iconography of the passion begins to appear, hut extant examples omit the actual crucifixion, which rarely appears before the sixth and seventh centuries. Instead, they focus on Jesus7 arrest and trial. An empty cross appears as a triumphant symbol, surmounted with a wreath of victory and the chi rho monogram (fig. 96, p. 188). Arguably, one exception to this Surprising fto us) lack of dogmatic images is the relatively frequent appearance of Jesus'baptism by John, where he is represented as a small nude child instead of a thirty-year old adult (compare Luke 3:23; fig, 72), In most examples, the dove descends into the picture, thus joi ning a narrative scene with a theological statement about the identity of the one being baptized.

The lack of artistic portrayals of the key creedal professions of lesus virginal birth, salvific death, and resurrection in the early period could suggest that the doctrinal emphasis oil the human incarnation, suffering, and passion of Christ, so central in the literature of the first three centuries, was bypassed in the art altogether, or that the visual tradition balanced (ot challenged ) the literary with images that represented lesus*

earthly works—his teaching, WOtldm, and miracles—rather than attending solely to his nature(s) or divine status. However, a conclusion that the evidence of visual art emphasizes his humanity rather than divinity is challenged by the lack of artistic representations of lesus engaged in more mundane human activities (for example, eating a meal or fishing with his companions). Rather, artworks portray him performing wonders and healings and raising the dead—activities that still show aspects of his divine character and power Such images may have been modeled on imagery of other gods performing great deeds (especially 1 Iercules)> which was available and familiar to third-century artisans during a time when the visual vocabulary needed to represent the distinct doctrinal aspects of the Christian religion was still undeveloped. In other words, the earliest artistic compositions borrowed from and adapted the art of the surrounding culture, and they conveyed the message about the work and the person of Jesus through the established and available savior types.

For this reason, Jesus' image looks very much like one of the youthful gods, and the iconographic focus on certain aspects of the story—Jesus" signs, wonders, and miracles—was a way of establishing him as a savior god, who could have a personal relationship with an individual or intervene in a particular historical circumstance. Such gods were more accessible and immediate, present to their devotees in times of need or stress, and certainly relevant to the hopes for a blessed life after death. Many of them were said to have died, descended to the underworld, and risen into heaven, and so the analogy is that much more apparent.3' Certainly, hope for a similar resurrection, from death (promised through faith in lesus Christ) was especially relevant for the art, most of it created for a funerary context

Fig 72. Baptism or" Jesus. detai fnam a 4th «ft c.e.ijrcop'ii-gj^ Mus<o Pio Cnstiano. Vstican City (Photo: Author).

Indo Greek Art

Fig. 73. Portrait head of Socrates* Greco-Roman, Imperil. LaterAntonine Period, ca, 170-1based or. Greek orgnal. Fouid r Attica, Athens (said to be from), ^useun of Fine Arts, Boston [Photograph ©2C04 Museum of Fine Arts. Boston)

Jesus as Teachert

Fig. 73. Portrait head of Socrates* Greco-Roman, Imperil. LaterAntonine Period, ca, 170-1based or. Greek orgnal. Fouid r Attica, Athens (said to be from), ^useun of Fine Arts, Boston [Photograph ©2C04 Museum of Fine Arts. Boston)

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