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The sweep of an epoch in the history of art is usually presented as a chronological account and a systematically categorised list of its monuments. But this approach leaves the context and meaning of the monuments unexplained. It is important to show how the works became tools in late antique Christianity. Art and architecture are autonomous media that convey a message of their own by virtue of their peculiar quality. In other words, early Christian art and architecture are not mainly based on texts, on theological principles and conciliar decisions, although ecclesiastical art may sometimes reflect the content of such texts. Thus, we find a latent tension between the function of art and architecture as a medium, on the one hand, and theological teaching and dogma, on the other hand - and this tension sometimes produces unexpected results.

We also find in art and architecture an inherently creative and often innovative, ultimately incalculable, energy. Art basically gives expression to ambition and desire, rather than to the way things are, and the visual arts have often revealed perspectives that were unavailable to the producers of texts. A work of art or architecture may well confront the viewer with creations, assertions and claims that reflect the patron's wishes in a more or less camouflaged or subtle manner. These assertions and claims are addressed not to the jurist or theologian, but rather to the visually adept observer. It is certainly wrong to assume that Christian art is a mere visual gloss on Christian doctrine

The acceptance of the religious image

How did it happen that religious images were accepted at some point, although every Christian knew that the Old Testament forbade the making of images (Exodus 20.4)? Unfortunately, we cannot reconstruct this departure from the letter of the law in detail, since most pre-Constantine Christian art (insofar as it existed at all) was either buried or destroyed during subsequent eras.1 The Old Testament ban on the making of images was so absolute that neither Jews nor Christians could possibly have ignored it, and any church doctrine that sanctioned the making of images would have been tantamount to a violation of the second commandment.2 The contradiction between the Mosaic ban on images and the figure of a bronze serpent (mentioned in Numbers 21.9) did not escape the notice of Christianity's adversaries. Justin Martyr and Tertullian sought to refute this contradiction by pointing

2 The decorations in both the church and the synagogue of Dura Europos should, however, be noted.

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