Part 2 – Christian Art Through the Ages
Above: Christ – the Alpha and Omega from the catacombs of Rome (4th Century)
Before I tell you more of what happened 500 years ago during the Protestant Reformation, it will be helpful for you to understand the development of the visual tradition within the Christian Church. (Warning/disclaimer: My attempts to “nutshell” this information were not easy – I did my best.) So we shall take a little journey back to Christianity’s beginnings and follow developments concerning images and the faith. We now know from the very earliest days of Christianity, images were used to defined the spaces in which they worshiped.
“…wherever Christians prayed, they sought to create a visual environment that reminded them of the Kingdom of God and helped them to pray.” – Jim Forest
Prior to 379AD when Emperor Theodosis I decreed that all citizens of the Roman Empire become Christians, images and decoration are found on the walls of home churches and the catacombs of various cities. Once Christians could build public worship spaces, they decorated these with images that connected to their faith.
Jewish Visual Roots
But let’s go back even a bit further to explore the Jewish tradition concerning images. Much of early Christianity’s visual practices were a roll-over from Judaism. Thanks to the work of dedicated archaeologists, we now understand that Jewish tradition embraced visual images so long as one didn’t create images of YHWH, God. The second commandment’s forbidding of graven images was understood to mean: “make no graven images…which you worship.”
Not long after Israel received the ten commandments, they were given instructions for building a tabernacle home for God’s presence. This tabernacle plan (read Exodus 25-28) and the later temple design given to David and completed by Solomon (I Chronicles 28-29, II Chronicles 3-4) include instructions to incorporate images. This tradition of visual decoration continued among the Jewish people. The synagogues where Jesus taught were likely decorated with images of palms, lilies, oxen, lions, and other natural phenomena, winged cherubim and perhaps even scenes from Old Testament stories such as the crossing of the Red Sea or Noah’s ark.
In light of this information, it’s not surprising that the first Christians, many of whom were converted Jews, would choose to carry on a similar practice concerning imagery while desiring to record the important persons and events of this budding religion. And that brings us to Luke, the man who wrote a detailed account of Christ’s life (the Gospel of Luke) and the early days of the Christian community (the Acts of the Apostles).
By the 4th century it appears to be common knowledge that Luke was also an artist, and along with his written record, he provided a visual record of Mary holding the Christ-child and portraits of apostles, Peter and Paul. The originals of these were said to be held in Constantinople for centuries.
Welcome to Peter’s House
In my research to find examples of early Christian imagery, I came upon Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website where archaeological digs are documented. Archaeologists working in Israel have now discovered what they believe to be the home of the apostle Peter, the fisherman from Capernum whom Christ called to become a disciple. They conclude that Peter’s residence had become a home church in the early Christian community, and later a larger church was built on its foundation. Here’s what was discovered in the several layers of structures built one on top of another at this site:
- At the lowest level was a 1st century home onto which additional rooms had been added. One very large room was thought to have served as a worship space. The walls in this space were uniquely decorated with images of crosses, fish, boats, and the words “Jesus” “Lord”, “Messiah” and “God” written in Greek
- During the 4th century, a wall was built to enclose the home and a large atrium with colorful plaster walls was added at the entrance
- The top level of the site is an octagon-shaped church built on the walls of the home to commemorate the location. This structure was decorated in colorful mosaic tiles and featured a large peacock design, an early Christian symbol for eternal life.
An Underground Faith
Researchers and archaeologists who work in Rome and other ancient cities where Christianity thrived in the underground catacombs continue to make significant discoveries of early Christian art and adornment in these burial/make-shift worship spaces. Christians worshiped in these burial places in order to hide from authorities during persecution by the Romans in the 1st-4th centuries. Depictions in the catacombs include:
- The good shepherd
- Daniel in the lion’s den
- The crossing of the Red Sea
- Jonah and the whale
- Praying figures
- Portraits of saints
In summer of 2017, new laser-cleaning technology uncovered in the Roman catacombs were amazing frescoes featuring:
- Jesus enthroned and surrounded by apostles
- Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand with bread and fishes
- Noah and the Ark
Christianity Gets Its Own Style
Once Christians were no longer persecuted, what emerged during the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries as Christianity moved above ground was an art that is surprisingly consistent and unified in the representation of scenes and figures. This consistency baffles art historians. It cannot be explained how Christian structures being built at that time in widespread locations, from Italy to Turkey to the Sinai Desert, all have remarkably similar decoration and imagery. Perhaps a visual tradition, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit had taken shape, was spread with the gospel and was now simply being evidenced – a most intriguing mystery. The type of art that emerged and continued unchanged for some 1300 years, became know as Byzantine art, iconography or icon art. The style was wholly unique to Christianity and was used for interior church decoration, illustrating biblical manuscripts, and portable artworks painted on wood panels for private worship. The portable form of art is usually what is referred to as an icon.
Images Not Made by Hands
Still in existence today are images purported to have been divinely made, not created by any human artist, but rather “given by God” as proof of His life as a man on earth. These all consist of an impression of Christ’s face left on fabric and include:
- The Mandylion, also referred to as the Edessa Icon Not-Made-by-Hands, is survived by two impressions on wood:
- The Holy Face of Genoa
- The Holy Face of San Sivestro
- The Kamulian – discovered at the bottom of a well in the country of Georgia
- The Veil of Veronica – said to have been made when Christ wiped his bleeding, sweating face on Veronica’s handkerchief on the way to the cross
- The Shroud of Turin
Superstitions and Abuses Arise
As the centuries passed, Christian art flourished and grew in prevalence, importance, but tragically, also in power. Images were given a life and function of their own, growing out of beliefs surrounding saint relics such as the clothing and bones of a saint. Mary’s shawl was one such relic believed to possess healing and protecting powers. These beliefs aren’t without some Scriptural basis.
“Now God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them.” – Acts 19:11-12
Eventually, portraits of saints, and not just their relics, were considered to also wholly encapsulate the qualities and powers of the given saint: emitting healing oil, performing miracles, providing protection and even punishing those failing to show respect.
Now I have read many stories about the miraculous powers of certain images, and certain strange practices did develop – the kind that Reformers pointed to as idolatrous. We humans, in our constant need to feel secure and in control, have a tendency to “work things to our own good” when and where we can instead of relying on the power and wisdom of God alone.
I know you’re curious, so here are a few strange practices involving Christian imagery:
- The Roman army (and many subsequent armies) would carry icons of Christ and Mary into battle with them and when victory ensued they credited the icon.
- Images were also made into amulets to be worn on the person or hung in a doorway to ward off evil. It is recorded that amulets of Simeon the Stylite of Syria, for example hung over every shop door in Rome during the 6th century.
- Ingestion of image pieces/particles was thought to bring healing:
- “[A certain woman] depicted [Cosmas and Damian] on all the walls of her house, being as she was insatiable in her desire of seeing them…The woman then develops a bad case of colic and happens to be left alone in her house. Perceiving herself to be in danger, she crawled out of bed and upon reaching the place where these most wise saints were depicted on the wall, she stood up leaning on her faith as upon a stick and scraped off with her fingernails some plaster. This she put into water and, after drinking the mixture, she was immediate cured of her pains by the visitation of the saints.” – from the records of the Second Council of Nicaea, AD 787
- The images of saints were printed onto an edible material that could be ingested like a medicine in an attempt to secure healing.
As things began to deteriorate for the Roman Empire through plagues, setbacks and defeat at the hands of the new militant Islamic religion, Emperor Leo III concluded it was “these idols” that were to blame. He believed that the presence of religious images was also most displeasing to God. This resulted in the Iconoclasm of the 8th and 9th centuries. Mosaics were smashed from church walls and panel icons and books were confiscated and burned. Only the cross survived as the single suitable visual representation for the Christian faith at that time. There are some fascinating accounts of how certain surviving works of art were cleverly hidden and preserved.
The debate over the issue of images continued and several church councils were held for discussion. Empire policy to allow or not allow religious art shifted back and forth with shifts in power. In AD 843, under the reign of Empress Theodora, the Iconoclasm ended and religious art was restored to favor. In 1054 the Christian church split. The church of the East, that is the Orthodox Church, continued practicing the traditions of Byzantine icon art. The church of the West, that is the Catholic Church, would come to experience the Renaissance of the 15th century and with it a huge expansion of styles, techniques, and mediums in the making of Christian art. Theologians throughout the centuries worked to stymie abuse of images, yet it took the radical actions of the Protestants to most effectively strip them of their powers in the West.
“Faith may, will, and must have its images!” – Martin Luther
Taking this historical journey, Martin Luther’s words kept popping into my mind. Even when I look around today, while the worship spaces of Protestants may continue to be void of images of Christ and the saints, they can often be found somewhere in the congregational setting. They might be in the fellowship hall, the Sunday school classrooms, the curriculum or other publications. And if not present in any of these, perhaps the homes of the church attendees. All this gives further evidence in our post-Reformation age that a faith without visual testimony of any kind is hard to maintain. How about you?
- Are there images that define the faith for you?
- Give you peace or encouragement?
- Do you have a special family or congregational artwork?
- Does the image portray Christ or other Christians?
- Where is this piece displayed?
Artwork to Accompany This Article Series
I mentioned that I would be creating artwork along with the articles in this series. As I have been researching, reading and writing I’ve been ruminating over what I might create as a response to the way the Reformation forever changed the relationship between art and faith. At first, I figured I would simply create new works that express images from Christianity’s rich visual tradition in a modern way, perhaps like the ways in which I’ve been creating portraits for the saints in my Book of Saints project. But in reflecting on how for many Protestant groups THE VISUAL of their newly defined faith comes down to an open Bible – the word. Then I remembered an interesting find from a number of years ago at the local recycling center – in the paper bin I found a small German Bible and devotional book (I,m not a dumpster diver by habit, they just happened to be laying right on top). The cover of the devotional is embossed with the image of Christ in agony wearing a crown of thorns. A splendid discovery for me!*
It so happens that while I’ve been planning and working up the courage to produce this series of articles and some art pieces at the reformation’s 500-year anniversary, I’ve had a Luther Bible printed in Germany, 1932 in my possession. I now want to incorporate this Bible into my pieces. I contemplated a collage technique where I could actually take pages from the Bible or create the artwork directly inside the book as is popular in creative circles today with Bible journaling. But, ah, my Protestant heart and upbringing can’t quite see the defacing of this rescued text in either way as a viable option. I’ve been wrestling with this decision the last few days, and upon pulling the book from the shelf and holding it, opening up to passages I could loosely make out in the German, I concluded that no, this book must remain intact. I have decided that I want to pursue the collage idea, but using copies of the German text possibly as the base for Christ’s flesh in the images – a visual metaphor for the Word having been “made flesh”.
*Even more splendid: the Bible had a devotional leaflet tucked into the front dated April 2 which happens to be my birthday. The Scripture reading listed on the leaflet is John 20:11-18 – Mary appears at the empty tomb, asks the man who she believes is the gardener where Jesus has been taken, realizes it is Jesus, and excitedly reveals to the disciples: “I have seen the Lord!” Myself being a believer in divine communication and affirmation (rather than a believer of coincidence), I took this all as a sign of blessing for the ministry I do personally as a visual ambassador for Christ and the saints. God knew I’d need a Luther Bible at some point in the future! I can’t wait to see how it is ultimately incorporated.
Information Gold Mine
I have one superb volume that has yielded much information for this article:
Likeness and Presence – A History of the Image before the Era of Art by Hans Belting, 1990.
Down an Ancient Path
The BIRCH TREE STUDIO BLOG