The emergence of Christian visual culture

Most historians agree that few extant examples of recognisably Christian art and architecture can be identified and dated prior to the beginning of the third century. Although older scholarship sometimes argued that this 'late arrival' of Christian art was due to Christians' original resistance to visual art or specially constructed worship spaces, more recent studies have pointed to the difficulty of distinguishing pagan artefacts from Christian ones or secular domestic architecture from house churches, noting the gradual transition from adaptation to innovation discussed above.10 Scholars no longer insist that early Christians were uniformly opposed to figurative art or church buildings, and thus had none. Instead, the absence of artefacts from the first two centuries maybe explained partly as a problem of identification. The absence may also be explained by the vicissitudes of survival. Many of the earliest datable artefacts and iconography probably endured because they were made for subterranean burials or were covered by later structures, while a great many others perished through urban renewal, the ravages of war or weather, and even iconoclastic attacks at various points in history.

What has survived has a limited provenance and milieu. The great majority of Christian artefacts come from a funerary context, especially from the Roman catacombs. Notable exceptions include terracotta lamps, finger rings, glasses or tableware that were moulded, etched or stamped with Christian motifs, dated as early as the late second or early third century. Clement of Alexandria even provides a list of appropriate motifs for signet rings, including a dove, fish, ship or anchor, but he bans images of swords, drinking cups or portraits

10 Breckenridge, 'Reception of art', 361-9; Grigg, 'Aniconic worship', 428-9; Murray, 'Art and the early church', 304-45.

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