The Earliest Examples and Types of Christian Visual Art Church Regulation

Dura Baptistery Yale

Obviously, such definitions and regulations only make sense for a time when Christian images were being produced in enough quantity to make these policies necessary. As we have seen, Christian writers of the second and early third centuries seem unaware of any significant amount or type of Christian art worthy of condemnation. Their objections were aimed at the art of others, pagans or perhaps Christian heretics, and not at their own coreligionists. The warnings against idolatry were warnings against the cult images of other religions, not against Christian artworks. Based on this lack of awareness, we might reasonably conclude that Christians produced very little religions art, or that what they did produce was so innocuous that it neither attracted attention nor raised concerns»

In the third century, however, the material situation began to change. In addition to the modest domestic objects that may have seemed uncontroversial (smalJ pottery lamps with images of the Cood Shepherd, for example), the catacomb frescocs in Rome, relief carvings oil sarcophagi and tomb epitaphs, and early evidence for wall paintings in churches demonstrate that change. Of these, the most important existing example is I he decorated baptistery found in a Christian house church at Dura Europos, with its frescoes depicting biblical scenes (ca. 249 fig. 10). Above the font, an image of the Cood Shepherd and his Hock stand over the smaller figures of Adam and Eve. The side walls contain painted scenes particularly appropriate for a baptismal space: the healing of the paralytic, the stilling of the storm, the walking on the water, and the woman at the well, as well as a somewhat enigmatic painting of three women carrying lamps approaching a tent-like structure (variously identified as the tliTee

Fig 10, Reconstruction of the interior of the Christian baptistery; Dura Eunopos, imid-3nd oen,c.E (Photo: Rights and Reproductions DtpartrrtCnt, Yale Unversily ArL Gallery).

women arriving at the empty tomb; Lhree of the five wise brides carrying their lamps to th e tent of the br idegroom; or virgins escorti n g Ma ry to the temple, an illustration of a passage in the ProtoevurtgeHurtt of James):"

Based on the example from Dura, it seems likely that other early Christian buildings were similarly adorned. We do know that Christian buildings were demolished during the great persecution of the early fourth century, and their walls may well have been enhanced with paintings.13 Despite certain distinctions in style, the similarity between some of the themes found on the Dura baptistery walls and motifs from the Roman catacombs also suggests some common influence and perhaps even some shared models. Although we have no extant examples, it seems possible that certain influential prototypes (illuminated biblical manuscripts, perhaps) provided patterns or cartoons contained in circulating books of artisans1 motifs that could account for some level of consistency:11 In any case, given the certain fact of an emerging and distinctive Christian iconography, church authorities may well have tried to regulate the trend, especially if they continued to be concerned about the snares of the surrounding pagan religions or even secular culture.

Surprisingly, however, we do not have much evidence of such reaction. The earliest known regulation of Christian visual or figurative aTt comes from a canon of a local church council held in Elvira, Spain, about 305 c,e. Curiously, the canon's meaning is a bit ambiguous. Two different translations of a key Latin clause in that canon are possible, resulting in two rather different meanings. The Latin reads: Placuitpic-litras in ecclesia esse non debere, nc quod colitur ef adorn tur itj parietibus depingatur* One possible translation is: "There shall be no pictures in churches, lest what is reverenced and adored be depicted on the walls" while a second reverses the verbs and modifiers of the second clause, that is, ulest what is depicted on. the walls be reverenced and adored The first translation, which seems the more grammatically straightforward, prohibits pictures because of the danger that certain sacred or holy things or persons might be inappropriately portrayed {or even exhibited to view).

If one accepts this as a limited prohibition: then perhaps other images might be permissible (perhaps in other places than the walls of a church), or at least not as problematic. The second translation demonstrates a concern that, viewers might confuse the image with iits ft ode I and mistakenly offer the image some kind of adoration or worship, thereby falling into idolatry, in which case the prohibition primarily attends to the potential for misuse, not exactly on the images themselves. Nevertheless, both translations appear to prohibit art on the walls of the churcht albeit for somewhat different reasons. Furthermore, the


canon offers demonstrable evidence pictures had arriad ir (he church before :hç time of (lonstanlinc.

Subsequent documents continue to show illdt the existente n I religious art was K-s, controversial than how ic was used or understood by those ■- ■- ! 11 ■ viewed it. Authorises fell thai they needed Ui e*eri some leadership or control over a potential]) problematic, but also a potentially useful, resource. Paulinus, the late fourth century bishop o:' Nul.i.

anv, visual art as a waj to enliven the basilica he founded in ho:i

Saint Felix. I «plaining his motives for adorning .1 churn h building i 11 : representations ot living individuals, which he admits was an unusual eu.stnrn, hedairn.s that he did il largely to attract the "rustics' who would otherwise spend their :ime feasting and drinking .it the tomb of the nui i-, i. ralhei iha.ii coming inside ihe ■.hunch-'" Thus, in time, pictorial an was acknowh dged 1o have benefits, especial y .=>-..1 didactic or inspirational aid.

Such usefulness wa¿ again issei - «.-■ H - two centuries later, io two well known < pi siles of Gregory tili ( ireat lo bishop Sercnus ol Marseilles. In these I ■ -11 1 - i ■ i i. i ^ ad -.ishes hi¿ brother bishop fui banishing images from churchy in Il¿3- ..hócese (one oí the first known instances nl iconodasm directed at i hristian images), yet praises him I'm hn firtn stance against i■-1111Gregory acknowledges that even though images have lhrir dangers, i hey should have not been destroyed, for art also has ils positive uses;

Tor pictoriul n |'u on is ma(k use of in thunchcs for i; :- region; tbu1

sufh íií iin1 L^nyuni ■ I Loiters may it k-.m read b* looting at [he ^aJL wtul they cannnl read tri bnoks. Your fraternih :her<iorc should hiitf Ixilh pre-sjrtfLl [hf Lrïijtgjfs und |>rk>hUnited Lh:- people faun ;idi>ral ion of think tu that per&uni ignorant oí letürs may hav¿ iflmilhing so ihat they may Rüther i ■■ -^uvli ol the mi i ■■ and the people might not sin through jlLojjooii of ,i pictured yçarorso later,írrcgorydiw:^^il..I that Serenushad disregjarded his exhortation (using the excuse that he thought Gregory's letter had been forged . an*l he ii:< ii url an even stronger statement: "For il his been reported to us that, inflamed with inconsiderate amI. vk>.i have broken images of saints ,!■- though under tin.- plea 1 .11 liiov should not ht: adored. And indeed, in ih.ii you forbade them to be adored we pr lise you; but we blame '.mi I aving broken lhem.",: And, reiterating his pi->i 111 about 1 Iil value oí pict11 res for the illit erat e peciaI ly for the " n ,1: ions, ' that is* L h e 111 -.. -. I non-Latin readeri Oi Speakers )„ Gregory furthermore noted thai s.uri pictures 'of saints stories" had a venerable and ancient precedent ] le concludes his argument by claiming that ^^j J: images lIso raised the viewer s senstbilit) beyond tin- sensible objects ntoward the Divine through an awakening of love for that which ihey portrayed- l.eaving aside the problem of what image Gregory might have meant when he referred to reading by "looking at the walls," it is clear that he considered certain "appropriate" images of things deserving of devotion when he made his case for the value of visual images. Since Gregory speaks of saints' stories, we may assume that what he refers to are representations of biblical stories or episodes from the lives of saints.

The issue, then, was about how images were actually regarded, not about their existence per se or even their placement in churches. Given that the ecclesial authorities (at least initially) supervised the construction and decoration of the earliest Christian catacombs in Rome -it seems logical to assume that someone officially approved the decoration of the Christian building at Dura—we may conclude that the kinds of images produced for and placed in these spaces wrere judged acceptable by local church authorities at the time, The elaboration of Christian buildings gained enormous momentum in the fourth century, initially fueled by the patronage of Emperor Constantine. By Gregory's time, the view that the images had no place in the church would likely have been regarded as out of step as well as unpopular, which is perhaps why a significant part of Serenus's congregation went into schism against their bishop.

J n the mid-fourth century, however, the motifs and themes of Christian art had iust begun to change,deemphasizing the symbolic and narrative art of the third and early fourth centuries in favor of the more dogmatically derived representations of Christ's passion, enthronement, and triumph. The visual art was still edifying, but those previously popular biblical narratives that: showed the Old Testament heroes or the works of Jesus (for example, his healing or wonderworking) were gradually supplanted by images of Jesus handing over the law to his apostles or being judged by Pilate, The depiction of Jesus1 mission or divinity was thereby changed from an emphasis on the deeds of his earthly ministry to an emphasis on the events of his passion, ascension, and judgment. By the end of the fourth century, this development went another step further, when explicitly devotional images of Christ and pOTtraits of the saints also began to appear. These images had a role in the developing cult of martyrs and saints, not only by honoring a holy person with a portrait, but also by playing a part in the cult itself', in parallel development with the cult of relics, which started to appear at the shrines of martyrs.

As we have noted, the earlier symbolic and narrative images, perhaps even the dogmatic images of the later fourth century, were not intended to attract prayer or veneration. Their purpose was to symbolize or illustrate a key aspect of Christian belief (such as the love of God or Christ for the individual believer, the resurrection of the dead to Paradise) or to offer a visual reference to a biblical story that might convey central Christian beliefs or values, or to serve as christological or sacramental


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