Monday, August 17, 2009

The Creation of Christian Art; Before Christianity

This statue was found in the ruins of the sanctuary of the goddess Hera on the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea. It dates from around 560 BC. Inscribed on the vertical hem of the garment is
"Cheramydes presented me, a beautiful offering, to the Goddess." The statue speaks to us and tells us that someone named Cheramydes presented her to the goddess Hera. She insists that she is a "beautiful offering."
I often warn my students in survey classes that there will be a lot of religion in the class. The reason for this is simple, art makes visible the invisible, and from the beginning, people have made images of the spirits and forces they believe govern life. This is not one of those images. This is not an image of Hera. It is not an image of anyone in particular. It is a statue of a young woman of a type designated by later scholars as a kore. Her entire purpose is to be a "beautiful offering," to please Hera and to cause her to remember Cheramydes favorably. She is a sacrificial offering.

Here is a pair of goddesses made over a hundred years later for the east pediment of the Parthenon in Athens. If you want to see them today, however, you must go to the British Museum in London. They were designed by Phidias, the chief sculptor of the Parthenon, and are identified by most scholars as Dione with her much more famous daughter Aphrodite reclining upon her lap. Even with heads and hands missing, they remain a remarkably vivid pair. Appropriately, the Goddess of Love bares her shoulder and flirts with us, as she so casually and scandalously leans upon her mother.

What is so remarkable and surprising when we visit them in the British Museum is that they are carved with such finish and detail, far more than would be necessary considering that in their original position, they would have been around 75 feet off the ground. Even more amazing is that they were carved fully in the round. Dione embraces her daughter in a gesture that is visible only from the back. But, we were never meant to see that gesture. All of the surviving Parthenon sculptures would have been barely visible in their original positions on the temple. We see them much more closely now than the ancient Athenians ever did. These sculptures were not meant for us. They were meant for Athena. The Parthenon and its sculptures, like the kore above, were meant to be sacrificial offerings to the patron goddess of the city of Athens.

Such was the role of art in the sacrificial religions of the ancient world for centuries and centuries. Art made visible the invisible forms of the gods, and served as sacrificial offerings -- bribes -- to please them and to influence them. Tradition, expense, and workmanship determined the forms of ancient religious art. Religious art had to follow precedent, be made out of expensive and precious materials, and had to be made with utmost skill to please the god and to impress the neighbors.

Ancient religion was a very prosaic and straightforward business. It was not about the meaning of life or salvation or about explaining anything. Religion was about keeping the gods happy. The gods were those invisible beings who controlled all those things we can't control like fate, luck, and the weather. People imagined the gods to be beings like themselves with emotional lives, desires, and appetites. The Egyptians imagined their gods to be great landlords dwelling in great stone temples laid out like Egyptian manor houses. The Greeks imagined their gods to be like their privileged, vain, and fickle nobility. The idea of a single transcendent universal God appears late in ancient history, and does not appear to have been widely accepted. Religion was about keeping these beings happy and influencing them to effect favorable outcomes. It was practical and unspeculative. As complex as the Egyptian religion was, there was no doctrine, no set of creeds, no single holy book. The same was true for most other ancient religions. Because none of the gods was thought to be universal or exclusive, it was common for ancient peoples to share pantheons, and for gods to come and go across borders like travelers and emigrants. Aphrodite probably began in Mesopotamia as Astarte or Ishtar. That habit may have survived well into the Christian era. The earliest images of the Virgin and Child probably originated in ancient Egyptian images of the goddess Isis suckling the infant god Horus.



Ancient sacrificial religion was something that people watched. Sacrificial rituals were performed by high public officials like the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius above. Skilled specialists performed the sacrifices very exactly according to set formulas. Departure from the formulas or lack of skill could incur divine wrath and all sorts of misfortune. Divination, trying to discern the god's will and future events, was a big part of these rituals.
In Greece and Rome, these rituals were almost always performed in the outdoors. Temples were the houses of the gods and not settings for public rituals. Animal sacrifice was a commonplace of ancient religion. Ancient temples and their precincts probably reeked like slaughterhouses.



The earliest surviving evidence of a major religious transformation, and a consequent transformation in religious art, comes from the ruined Roman frontier town of Dura Europos pictured above. It was built in what is now Syria on what was then the far eastern frontier of the Roman Empire facing the Parthian and Sassanian Persians.


Found in the ruins of the town near the city wall was the remarkably well preserved synagogue of the local Jewish community, built around 245 - 256 AD, now housed in the Damascus Museum. The synagogue was a new kind of building for a new kind of worship, congregational worship. The Jewish religion had sacrificial temple worship like all other ancient religion. However, Judaism has only one God. Even more odd by the standards of the ancient world, that one God had only one temple in Jerusalem where sacrificial rituals were performed. By the time the synagogue in Dura Europos was completed, that Temple was no more, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. The synagogue is not a "temple" in the technical sense. It is not the house of the God like ancient temples. It was a place built specifically for congregational worship, a new kind of participatory religious practice. Instead of watching skilled specialists perform a ritual, everyone could join in collective prayers, hymn singing, and listening to readings form the Torah and commentary upon it meant to instruct them.


What so surprised the early 20th century archaeologists who found this synagogue is that its walls are covered with pictures. Above are paintings from the Dura Europos Synagogue showing the Temple in Jerusalem on the bottom, and the Crossing of the Red Sea at the top; a large Moses points the ancient Israelites into the wilderness while a smaller Aaron closes the Red Sea over the Egyptians. These are not masterpieces. They are crude frontier town daubs. What is amazing is that they exist at all. Scholars had long assumed that Judaism always had a strict prohibition on religious imagery. This synagogue was probably made for descendents of exiled Jews, and we have to remember that modern Rabbinical Judaism was still very much a work in progress when this synagogue was built.

These pictures point to the future, especially for Christian art to come. The purpose of these pictures is not sacrificial, but didactic. That may be why they were tolerated. These images are not meant to show God or to bribe God, but to instruct the congregation gathered there in their faith. They are an extension of the sermons preached to explain the meaning of Scripture to those gathered there.

It is possible that these paintings were meant for a Jewish population becoming increasingly assimilated into the visual culture of the Roman world. They may have been painted, not as a compromise with a dominant culture, but as a way of hanging onto a very distinct religion and heritage.

The first identifiably Christian art will appear as a result of a similar process of assimilation with the dominant classical culture of the Roman Empire, but not until 2 centuries after Christianity first appears in history.

10 comments:

Grandmère Mimi said...

The statue at the very top, the beautiful offering, is that indeed. The statue stolen from the Parthenon is gorgeous, too, but the columnar statue takes my breath away.

The old synagogue with the images on the wall is quite interesting. Do we have to know all this for the test?

Counterlight said...

"Do we have to know all this for the test?"

Of course.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Would it be artistically painful for you to switch to a lighter shade of gray for your background? The black letters on the gray are somewhat difficult to read, mon cher Doug. Of course, It's your blog, and you can do as you like. ;o)

Counterlight said...

Does that help?

Grandmère Mimi said...

Yes, much better.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Ancient religion was a very prosaic and straightforward business. It was not about the meaning of life or salvation or about explaining anything.

I accept that ancient religion may not have been about meaning of life or salvation, but wasn't it partly about explaining such things as weather and why some people had good fortune and others were ill-fated?

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

There were several Hebrew Temples as we can learn from the many admonitions to have only one found in the Bible.

King Josia's Reform.

The Samaritans had their Holy Mountain, there was one in Egypt, even, destroyed in one of the first Pogroms, in 300 something BC.

In the Elefantine Temple there were indeed statues, of God and Godess.

Counterlight said...

"There were several Hebrew Temples"

This is news to me, especially about the one in Egypt at Elephantine (?).

I've always wondered just how truly monotheistic the ancient Hebrews really were. It appears to me that the first ones to insist on only one God and none others were the prophets. Because they were prophets, then this must have been an exceptional viewpoint rather than a typical one.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Deutero-Jesaja I believe is the first full Monotheistic prophet.

Up till then the word Monolatry is often used "No other gods besides Me!"

曙霏 said...

Coming from a traditionally polytheistic religion, the Christian critique of their pagan ancestors' religion as essentially "sacrificial bribery" (and, by extension, we contemporaries) has always seemed as unjust as the chauvanistic accusations of "idolatry". Indeed, I've seen such god-bartering at work in devotees of many religions. The medical saint cults of early (and modern!) Christendom come to mind here as the most blatant continuation of this. Is not a bartering god, a bribable god, a god of the tribe, a major pillar of the fundementalist view (broadly speaking)?

Christian scholarship likewise seems primed to ignore both collective and mystical strands in these antient Eurasian regions as well. Gods and saints are prayed to for cures deliverable through Their divine ichor, of which Their temples are the fonts, and Their priests/shamans the welltenders. Festivals are no less communal nor less devout in India for their fractuous polytheism and demonstrable paganism. Closer to point, the cosmological implications in, say, the antient Egyptian theological rift between Ogdoadic and Enneadic Khemmetic cosmogonies are only gross political totemism from the most uncharitable viewpoint.

In other words, I beg you to be a bit more charitable to the religious-artistic heritage displayed by the antients. A gift of a statue, given to a goddess for an oath promised or kept, may have delivered no dearth of tearful agape to the worshipper. She would hopefully view the rise of Christendom as having some genuine religion of it's own, and not merely embodying the totalitarian ideological strategy of the imperial state.

Indeed, I am sometimes myself hard-pressed to find any evidence of the canonical tale of Christianity before Constantine, nor any indication of monotheism before late Hebrew adaptations of Hellenic Neoplatonic discourse during this same period. One must admit, if this is the best y'all got, that lacunae abound. But it would be unjust to suggest that monotheism is merely the ultimate outcome of kingly henotheism's state religion. Such a view, while indicating some measure of truth, would be surely too cynical. For in monotheism, there is room for acknowledgment of deeper religiosity, too.

In other words, love your blog, but please accept this protest in the spirit of surmounting mutual misunderstanding, toward humility.