Transition to a Christian Aesthetic

There have been two interesting exhibition in the last 5 years examining the transition from pagan to early Christian art: 'Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art' at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth in 2007-8, and 'Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd-7th Century AD' at the Onassis Cultural Centre, New York 2011-12. Both of these exhibitions have published excellent books to accompany them, with some important articles of interest to those keen to understand how Christian iconography has evolved.

I don't want to simply regurgitate the work of the eminent scholars contained in these two books. Far better that you read them for yourselves and let them speak much more clearly than I can. However, reading makes you think and I would like to share a few thoughts that have struck me, for what they are worth.

Firstly, the use of allegory and metaphor. This begins with the teaching of Jesus, where He speaks of Himself as 'the Door', 'the Light', 'the Vine', 'the Good Shepherd' etc. and teaches using parables. The Evangelists present Christ by re-visiting the great figures and events of the Old Testament and showing He fulfils them in Himself, His actions and His words. This process of revelation is something which St Luke records as beginning after the Resurrection, on the journey to Emmaus: "Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures." This is not, however, a mere history lesson or a lecture in theology, rather it is a living encounter that profoundly alters the whole being of those who are caught up in the conversation. As the two disciples record “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 

The earliest Christian art seems to deal with imagery in the same way. Certain typological scenes predominate in the few remains we have, scattered from Rome to Syria: Jonah, Noah's Art, the three men in the fiery furnace, the Good Shepherd. Not only does this reflect the theological approach of the earliest Christian fathers, but also the development of Jewish liturgy for Christian worship where the zikronot or remembrance prayers recited for the New Year seem to have metamophosised into the commendatio animae of the Christian liturgy for the dead. In these prayers the key events of salvation history, for example the deliverance from the Red Sea, is re-capitulated into the present where, for example, the God who listened to Moses in the past will continue to listen to those praying in the liturgy now. 

It was an approach which saw the past as embodying the truth about something that came later, as a series of symbols that foreshadowed the greater events which follow and culminate in the person of Christ. Clement of Alexandria (c.150AD - 215AD), who cautiously embraced the adoption by Christians of pagan artistic symbols such as the anchor, the ship, the Good Shepherd etc. which could easily take on a Christian significance, established the beginnings of the development of a Christian theology of the image. To his way of thinking, refining Philo of Alexandria's thinking of 'true beauty' as a witness to 'divine wisdom', images emerged from previous images bearing witness to their origin. 

Significantly, Man himself is one of these emanated images, one which reveals something of the Divine from which it originates. Christ is the image of the Father, and man the image of Christ. In making this connection, Christian anthropology saw in the human person not some evil matter to be cast aside but an image of God Himself, and this laid the theological foundation for the development of a very radical figurative tradition within Christian culture. The human person as a whole is made in God's image and likeness, and from this flows the imperative for the human person to live a good and virtuous life. This implication of Christian anthropology is taken up by Pseudo-Dionysios who understood the power of the symbol to both reveal and conceal at the same time, to make clear and to obfuscate, to be a gateway into the Mysteries. Beauty not only has to be 'carried' by a symbol to be able to be perceived, but the one looking needs spiritualised sight to perceive it. There is a lot more here, and I recommend reading the chapter by Slobodan Curcic on' Aesthetic Shifts in Late Antique Art' 

What all this shows is that the image in early Christianity was no accidental or casual adaptation of what the first Christians picked up from the pagan world in which they lived. The visual quality of Jesus' teaching quickly found expression in images drawn from the Old Testament, a method which engaged the earliest Christian theologians and which artists used to decorated Christian places from the earliest times. Imagery is, I would maintain, intrinsic to Christian culture from the very outset.

Some of you will no doubt point out that the earliest Christian images we have only date back to the 3rd century and some people have assumed that, given the Jewish prohibition on imagery, Christians only took to making visual images much later and under the influence of paganism. This makes the assumption that if there is no evidence then nothing can have existed. Yet, the few examples we have from the 3rd century are only to be found in a very few place, such as the catacombs of Rome, but this is seen as evidence for a much more widespread use because we expect very little such evidence to survive the ravages of the intervening centuries. If we take into account the very small size and relatively limited wealth available to the Christian community until the beginning of the 3rd century, it would be very lucky indeed that anything visual should have survived prior to that date. That there was widespread use of imagery is suggested by St Clement's commentary about which images is suitable and not for signet rings and the like.

Perhaps one very telling piece of evidence comes in the depictions of St Peter and Paul where the consistency of their dipictions in Christian art is so striking: Paul with his bald head and tapering beard, Peter with his short cropped grey hair and short, curly beard. The most likely explanation for the ubiquity and consistency of these images is that they were based on observations taken from life, not the imaginings of some artist centuries later. This alone would give these particular features such authority to carry them almost without exception across the Roman world. And if that is so, then Christians were making images of their most revered saints almost from the fist. To this we could add the legend of King Agbar and that of Veronica's vale, as well as the persistent rumours of icons being authored by St Luke.

This development of the image would thus parallel the development of the place of relics in Christian life and liturgy. Attachment to images and other remnants of the apostolic age become reflected upon and understanding deepened. The material world is something which Christians see with transfigured sight, with spiritual insight, discerning in a world in which God has become en-fleshed something good and positive, something spirit bearing and glorious. The first centuries saw Christians 'drawing the poison' out of the fallen world in which they found themselves and renewing it by the infusion of the grace of Christ's blood and the blessed waters of regeneration. The material world was not something to be shunned or rejected as evil, nor something to be used casually and without moral consequence.

Rather it was something that was capable of carrying the highest significance in the work of salvation. The imagery that was used around Christian burial chambers or to decorate vessels time and again uses OT imagery that for Christians held deep meaning about salvation. And salvation was what Christianity understood itself to be about. Artistic imagery served that purpose from the outset, and iconography, as it later emerged, has its roots deep within this tradition.

Lazaridou, A. Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd7th Century AD, Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, New York, 2011

Spier, J. et al. (2007). Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art. New Haven: Yale University Press.


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