Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Creation of Christian Art: Art of the "Atheists," The First Christian Art

The Good Shepherd from the Catacomb of Priscilla

The Romans were broadly tolerant in matters of religion, funding the maintenance and restoration of ancient temples in Egypt and Syria. Egyptian, Syrian, Celtic, and Germanic gods found their way into the Roman pantheon. The Romans never understood the exclusivism of the Jewish religion, but they accommodated it. The Emperor Augustus sent an annual donation to the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Jews were exempted from certain religious rites, like offerings of incense to Roma and the Emperor, required of other subjects of the Empire. The Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple not because of religious hatred, but because the Jews of Palestine rebelled (and for awhile successfully) against Roman rule.

The Romans could not abide the early Christians. They regarded them as Jewish heretics. Their religion was considered a pernicious superstition that spread sedition and blasphemy. Conscientious Roman emperors like Marcus Aurelius considered it their patriotic duty to squash the new religion. Educated Romans coined the term a theoi, "without gods," the root of our word "atheists," to describe the early Christians. The Romans felt strongly about the Christians, that they were a fundamental threat to traditional Roman values of the sacred hearth, the family, the ancestors, and the Roman patria. Christianity was illegal for the first 3 centuries of its existence. I also think what the Romans found to be so alarming was the egalitarianism of Christian worship and communities. That slaves and free, men and women, rich and poor could pray together as equals and share a common life deeply threatened the hierarchical and slavery dependent Romans.

There is no identifiable Christian art for the first 2 centuries of the new religion. There are a number of reasons for this. First is the traditional Jewish prohibition against religious imagery (though the 3rd century synagogue at Dura Europos appears not have received that memo). Most of the early generations of Christians were Jews and Greeks. Second, most of the first generations of Christians were poor and from the margins of society. It is not likely that early congregations would have spent their meager common funds on an artist. A third reason is that Christianity is an apocalyptic religion proclaiming the coming end of the world. Apparently, many among the early Christian generations expected to see this End in their lifetimes. Strong belief in imminent apocalypse discourages the creation of durable things like works of art.

The earliest identifiably Christian art appears in the city of Rome in the 3rd century when non-Jewish and affluent Romans begin converting to the religion. The exclusively verbal Jewish culture out of which Christianity emerges met the visual culture of classical Rome with its allegories, triumphs, and personifications.


The first Christian art appears in labyrinthine tunnels dug out of the soft volcanic bedrock around Rome; underground burial places known as catacombs. Above is the Catacomb of Saint Sebastian in Rome, originally just outside the city walls. Roman law prohibited burial within the city walls. All Roman cemeteries were outside the city. The elaborate tombs and mausoleums of rich and noble families lined the main roads to the city, as can still be seen on the Via Appia Antica to this day.
The Christians were not the only ones to bury their dead in catacombs. There were Jewish catacombs and any number of syncretic mystery religions also buried their dead in catacombs. The catacombs were not exclusive burial places either. There are non-Christian burials in the Catacomb of Saint Sebastian with beautifully carved stucco ornament. I've been there and seen them.
The art appeared when affluent Christian families had entire rooms dug out of the bedrock for their use as family burial places. They hired artists to plaster and to decorate these rooms.

Above is one such painted room in the Catacomb of Marcellinus. It is elaborately painted with some of the earliest surviving Christian art. How do we know it's Christian? Where are the crosses, the crucifix, the saints, and You Know Who that we would recognize as Christian? None of those things had been invented yet. There was no visual Christian tradition yet, no agreed upon symbols and images. So much of the imagery that we see in this tomb chamber could be seen in any tomb in Rome. The praying figures with arms upraised in the ancient gesture of prayer, the orants, could be found anywhere. The Good Shepherd in the center might designate this tomb as Christian, but not necessarily. While Christ described Himself as the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John, classical art is full of shepherd imagery. Apollo and Mercury played religious roles as protectors of flocks. The image of humankind watched over by a benevolent great shepherd goes back to the pastoral insignia of the Pharaohs.
The giveaway is the story illustrated in the half-circles. It is the story of Jonah, a favorite in the early Christian burial places. Tales of miraculous rescue from the Jewish scriptures like Daniel in the lions' den, the Three Hebrews in the fiery furnace, etc. appear to have been favorites of affluent, though still persecuted, early Christians. The cross and the crucifixion almost never appear before the 4th century.


Above is a very elaborate and expensive tomb chamber from the Via Latina Catacomb. This was for a family that had quite a lot of money. The chamber is elaborately carved with vaults and niches. Whoever they were, they could afford a marble sarcophagus and a marble balustrade. The walls are covered with paintings. Again, most of the imagery you could find anywhere. The peacock in the niche could be a symbol of the Roman goddess Juno. The winged figures flanking it could be victories. The giveaway is on the left, Daniel in the lions' den lifting his arms in prayer with some not very ferocious looking lions.

These paintings are not masterpieces. The artists who made them probably were not Christians themselves, but third rate house painters who probably thought of the catacomb as just another tomb job for another exotic religion. The Roman authorities appear to have left Christian burial places undisturbed. Roman superstitions about the dead seem to have protected the Christian dead if not the living.

For awhile it was thought that this artistic activity was limited to Rome and to tombs. Christian communities usually met in private homes and outside of town in forests and by rivers. It was long assumed that there were no pre-Constantinian churches to be found.


Then the archaeologists at Dura Europos began exploring the neighborhood around the synagogue and found this 3rd century house church complete with painted murals and what appears to have been a baptistery. Today, the Dura Europos church is heavily restored and resides in the Damascus Museum. The exact story in the wall painting remains unclear and controversial (perhaps 2 of the 3 women at the Holy Sepulcher on Easter?). However the painting above the baptistery has a very familiar subject.


Above the Baptistery is a painting of The Good Shepherd that is so crude it makes the synagogue paintings look sophisticated. So here is proof, at least in this instance, that painting and certain images like The Good Shepherd were not confined to Rome. Somehow they spread through other Christian communities as people from the visual culture of the Classical world began converting in greater numbers, demanding imagery that communicates meaning as well as text.

5 comments:

Grandmère Mimi said...

The early Christian paintings may not be masterpieces compared with the more refined Roman painting of the period, but they are still astonishing in their own primitive way - at least to me.

Rick+ said...

     The two points I found surprising were that the Romans considered the Christians atheists, and that there was no agreed upon iconography for Christians like the cross. I thought the icthus (ἰχθύς) symbol was common. When did it show up - do you know, Doug?

Counterlight said...

The fish does appear in Rome on 3rd century tombs. Whether or not it appeared anywhere other than Rome, or in any context other than tombs, who knows.

Just to be clear about the Christian-atheist thing, since the early Christians acknowledged no other gods but their own, the Romans considered them to be a-theoi, or godless. They considered this grossly impious, but I don't think they meant "atheist" in our sense of the term.

rick allen said...

Yes, remember that Socrates was executed, inter alia, for his "atheism"--not for denying the existence of gods, but for an understanding of deity different from that of the polis.

Rick+ said...

     Thanks, Doug! If I lived closer, I'd be the first guy signed up for your art history class! Unfortunately for now, the commute from Nevada would be a bit much.