primitive christian art

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by Robin Jensen



Early Christian Art and Divine EpiphanyRobin M. Jensenrobin m. jensen is Luce Chancellors Professor of the History of Christian Art and Worship, Vanderbilt University. Abstract: Drawing upon the work of art historians, historians of ancient Christianity have incorporated the evidence of early Christian visual art in their studies, primarily in order to identify the iconographic content, formal style, and social or religious context of the artifacts or monuments under consideration. This essay argues that, while their standard motifs and compositions undoubtedly served a didactic purpose and reected the cultural, ideological, or exegetical location, practices, or commitments of patrons, early Christian art also served an epiphanic function; it presented the divine image to viewers in an external and accessible form. Thus, by attending specically to the relationship of image and observer and the setting in which these objects were viewed, it is possible to see them, like later icons, as devices that facilitated meditation, prayer, and even visionary encounters with the holy. Keywords: icon/image, idol/idolatry, prototype/gure, portrait, theophany, veneration

In a letter to his friend Sulpicius Severus, written in either 403 or 404, Paulinus of Nola described the mosaic that he had commissioned for the apse of his episcopal basilica. Although the mosaic no longer exists, Paulinus gives us a pretty good idea of how it must have appeared from:The Trinity shines out in all its mystery. Christ is represented by a lamb, the Fathers voice thunders forth from the sky, and the Holy Spirit ies down in the form of a dove. A wreaths gleaming circle surrounds the cross, and around this circle the apostles form a ring, represented by a chorus of doves. The holy unity of the Trinity merges in Christ, but the Trinity has its threefold symbolism. The Fathers voice and the Spirit show forth God, the cross and the lamb proclaim the holy victim. The purple and the palm point to kingship and to triumph. Christ himself, the Rock, stands on the rock of the Church, and from this rock, four splashing fountains ow, the evangelists, the living streams of Christ.1

His description makes it clear that Paulinus credited visual arts potential to reveal something about the nature of God. It is also evident that Paulinus intentionally avoided an anthropomorphic representation of any of the Trinity. Rather, the three are shown as a voice (probably visually represented by a disembodied hand), a dove, and a lamb or cross. Even the Apostles are depicted

Toronto Journal of Theology 28/1, 2012, pp. 125144

DOI: 10.3138/tjt.28.1.125


Robin M. Jensen

as doves and not as men. Yet, Paulinus has no doubt that viewers will understand what they see, and that it is meant to represent or reveal God: to be an epiphany of sorts. Until fairly recently, historians of early Christianity have paid relatively little attention to visual art as a mode of theological expression, and even less to the ways that seeing visual art could have shaped the beliefs or piety of viewers. When they have done so, the text historians have tended to rely on the studies of art historians who, by profession, ordinarily are more interested in formal, compositional, or stylistic developments than in the artworks possible reection of certain theological teaching or its devotional functions. Nevertheless, those art historical studies laid important groundwork, identifying, dating, describing, and cataloguing iconographic themes, especially from the most extensive corpus of evidence that comes from the Roman catacombs and sarcophagi. As such, many of the best have became standard references for traditional text scholars who occasionally incorporate visual art into their analysis of early Christian theology and practice.2 While text scholars reliance on art historians works should be regarded as the respectful acknowledgement of one scholarly guilds expertise by another, in the last three decades or so, both groups have raised pertinent questions, opened up the terms of the discussion, and blurred the edges of formerly distinct disciplinary elds. Analyses that focus on the social context and function of the monuments and urge that visual art be studied independently from the patristic textual canon in order to avoid text-skewed interpretations have challenged older studies, which examined the remains primarily in light of traditional Christian doctrine or sacramental theology. Some of these reappraisals have concluded that the extant evidence demonstrates a distinction between popular and ofcial Christianity and the existence of a subgroup of Christian believersthe illiterate or disenfranchised members of the communitywho were more likely to be users or viewers of art.3 Other examinations have attended to Christian arts emergence from and continuity with Greco-Roman religious art more broadly, arguing that boundaries should not be drawn too sharply between rank-and-le Christians and their non-Christian neighbours, or between popular and ofcial expressions of theology or modes of worship.4 Simultaneously emerging with these generative and even compelling theories of how early Christian art reected social and cultural location, values, and religious practices is a burgeoning interest in the theology of eastern Christian icons.5 The enormous interest in and literature on the subject is a phenomenon unto itself. Yet most of the attention has focused on Byzantine Christian iconography, but rarely considering the formative and even mystical dimension of viewing images in general, or the possibility that early Christian art served a similar purposeto serve as a focus for contemplation or meditation on the nature of the divine Being. It was not to be the recipient of adoration itself, but to mediate the prayers and reverence of the faithful, effectively transmitting

Early Christian Art and Divine Epiphany


Figure 1: Early Christian sarcophagus, rst half of the fourth century. Now in the Museo Pio Cristiano, Vatican. Photo: author.

them from the image to its prototype.6 To this end, this essay considers how early Christians might have regarded their visual art and proposes that the act of viewing generated a certain kind of subjective epiphanic experienceone that was cognitively different from hearing a sermon or reading Scripture and more like having an eyewitness encounter with the holy. Thus, along with examinations of the stylistic, iconographic, theological, sociological, and contextual dimensions or function of early Christian artworks, it seems appropriate to consider their possible spiritual or visionary purpose, and to start by considering a concrete example. A marble sarcophagus was removed, probably sometime in the mideighteenth century, from Romes Catacomb of San Sebastiano (gure 1). Dated to the 330s, it was restored and transferred to the Christian Museum of Pope Benedict xiv. Today it is in the Vatican Museo Pio Cristiano. Unlike Paulinuss apse, this object shows Jesus and the Apostles as quite normallooking human beings. The slightly reconstructed front frieze presents (from left to right) scenes of Christ giving the symbols of work to Adam and Eve prior to their expulsion from Eden, Jesus healing the paralytic who carries his bed on his shoulders, Jesus changing water to wine at Cana, Jesus entering Jerusalem on his donkey, Jesus healing the man born blind, and Jesus raising Lazarus. The scenes do not conform to any narrative sequence, although they do seem to draw predominantly on the Gospel of John (e.g., the Johannine version of the paralytic healing story, the Cana miracle, the Johannine version of the entry upon the healing of the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus). Jesus, of course, appears in all the scenes. They also include gures who might be identied as witnesses or disciples, including one of Lazaruss sisters. Another appears in a tree in the entry scenepossibly the gure of Zaccheus, borrowed from the story of Jesuss entry to Jericho as recounted in Luke 19:16. One other individual seems to appear in allor nearly allof the scenes. His receding hairline and long face indicate that he should be identied as Paul. The inclusion of Paul as witness to events that, according to the Gospels, he could not have been present (or even alive) to see is intriguing. It might indicate that Paul symbolizes the viewer who


Robin M. Jensen

comes to know the stories of Jesus and how they reveal Gods plan for salvation, from Fall to Resurrection. This frieze is just one among dozens somewhat like it. By the late third century, some Christians clearly were afuent enough to afford such monumental cofns. Many were able to pay for the excavation and decoration of family mausoleums in underground cemeteries (catacombs). Some of these were lovingly decorated with wall paintings and simple stucco work. These remains, mostly from the environs of Rome and predominantly from a funerary context, constitute the largest, primary corpus of early Christian art. Emerging around the beginning of the third century, the content and style of the work follows a clear trajectory of development. In the beginning, the motifs were mostly simple, conventional signs such as anchors, sh, doves, or praying gures (orantes). These symbols pointed to aspects of the faith or references to the piety or identity of the faithful. Similarly, the image of the Good Shepherd with his ock was a visual metaphor referring to Christs attributes as a guide and guardian. Soon, along with these, appeared abbreviated depictions of Old Testament narratives. These developed as types that had Christian signicance or could be interpreted as allusions to Christian sacraments or teachings. In a funerary context, they likely expressed the believers trust in the Shepherds loving care, and her expectatio