consistent with teachings of earlier, pre-Christian philosophers and poets, although they insisted that on all points Christian teaching was fully complete and true.6 Similarly, some Christian writers pointed to Jewish repudiation of images and the prohibition against idolatry in the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:4; Deut 5:8) to defend Christian rejection of divine images and even visual art in general. The third-century Egyptian writer, Origen, for instance, praised Jews for expelling both painters and image makers from their state, and condemning the art that drags the eyes of the soul away from God to the earth.7
Based on such assertions, a modern reader might assume that early Christians, behaving like pious Jews, scrupulously avoided the trappings of the polytheistic culture that surrounded them, especially its visual art and architecture. However, a visit to the excavations below St Peter's basilica in Rome offers a contradiction - an ancient Christian tomb with an overhead mosaic portraying Christ in the guise of the sun god driving a chariot drawn by four white horses. The radiate halo around Christ's head extends golden beams and his tunic and cloak fly in the breeze. In his left hand he holds the orb of the world, a symbol of his dominion. His right hand (mostly missing) must have either held the reins, or perhaps made a gesture of greeting or blessing. Incongruously, however, the space over which his chariot flies is neither a cloudless sky nor a starry heaven, but a lush grapevine (fig. 9).
In this place visitors encounter the vestiges of a much earlier time, when Christians were not yet securely dominant or powerful, and the signs of their existence reflected their tenuous and ambiguous relationships with their nonChristian neighbours. Excavations below St Peter's basilica undertaken in the mid-twentieth century under Pope Pius xii confirmed that the high altar of the original St Peter's was actually set over an ancient shrine of the saint himself. As significant as this discovery was, the simultaneous exploration of a network of pagan and Christian tombs also revealed much about the relationships of Christian and non-Christian Romans in the first three centuries. St Peter's basilica was first built by Constantine in the 320s, to mark and enclose the site where pilgrims came to visit and venerate Peter's grave, situated in the ancient cemetery on the Vatican hill. In order to build this great pilgrimage
6 Min. Fel. Oct. 18-19; Justin, 1 Apol. 20; Clem. Al. Protr. 6.
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