As the Christmas season approaches, we can expect the mainstream media to offer its usual mix of debunking, revisionist, and banal examinations of this or that aspect of the Gospels. How refreshing it is, then, to discover the new exhibit “Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art,” which is now open in that little known cultural gem, The Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth. Blessedly free of contemporary ideology, the exhibit puts into question the traditional view of the thirdthrough the sixth centuries as a “dark age of artistic and cultural stagnation,” as Timothy Potts, organizer of the exhibit and the Kimbell’s outgoing director, puts it. In fact, Potts urges, and the exhibit confirms, that this was a “time of vigorous intellectual, theological, and artistic innovation.”
“Picturing the Bible,” which is guest-curated by Jeffrey Spier of the University of Arizona, brings together nearly 100 pieces from the earliest known examples of Christian art from the late second century up to examples from the sixth century, from sources as diverse as the Vatican Museum, the British Museum, and the Louvre. The exhibit includes the depiction of biblical scenes in terra cotta, bronze, gold glass, ivory, and silver; it includes enormous marble sarcophagi, fragile pages from scriptural texts dating back to the fifth century, ewers and reliquaries, and a gold-encrusted cross from the sixth century. To give the viewer an even better sense of the origins of Christian art, the exhibit includes an array of watercolor photographs taken at the turn of the 20th century of the catacombs.
In addition, there is a section on Jewish art of the same period, an inclusion here that initially seems odd, but that actually indicates, as I remark below, the high level of historical and theological sophistication of the exhibit.
The earliest Christian art appears in Rome in the late second century, just at the time Christians began to purchase property outside the city walls. The earliest extant art was funerary. The exhibit includes a series of striking photographs of images from the catacombs; indeed, these photos could alone constitute an impressive exhibit. The intention, revealed in the catacomb art, is twofold: to commemorate the lives of the dead, and to remember their souls in prayer. The art often has the effect of inscribing the lives of the dead into the narrative of Christian redemption. The catacombs also serve to mark holy places as objects of veneration and pilgrimage. This is especially true of the Catacombs of Callixtus, which contained the remains of nine martyred popes of the 3rd century. An accompanying commentary text entitled, “Apostolic Succession,” indicates how early the significance of papal succession entered the theological imagination of ordinary believers.
It is hardly surprising, in this context, to find that as we reach the late 3rd and 4th centuries, there is much attention paid to Peter and Paul, almost always depicted together. During his trip to Rome in 388, Augustine observed that the images of Peter and Paul were ubiquitous. There are numerous compelling portraits, in various media, of the traditio legis, the handing on the New Law from Christ to Peter, in which Paul is typically present. One remarkable bronze piece has Peter and Paul in a boat; Paul is in the prow with his arm extended in the form of a blessing or in the midst of teaching or both, while Peter remains seated in the stern, at the helm steering the ship. The complementary roles of Peter and Paul is here elegantly stressed, as the notion of Peter as both rock of the church and servus servorum, the servant of servants of Christ.
But this is to get ahead of ourselves historically. In the earliest period, the two most common images are of the Good Shepherd and Jonah being swallowed by the sea monster. The good shepherd is of course a scriptural image of Christ (John 10:11 and Luke 15:4-5), but it was also a common theme among pagans and the stylization of the depictions, among which the most remarkable, in this collection, is an exquisitely detailed marble statue of the good shepherd. In the Christian remaking of the pagan image of the shepherd, we see a dramatic example of the way Christian art embraces and transforms other traditions. Also common images are of Noah’s Ark, the raising of Lazarus, and the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Very early, prominence is given to the sacramental symbolism of the church, particularly baptism and the Eucharist.
In The Spirit of Early Christian Thought –a book that to my mind constitutes the best theological complement to the exhibit—Robert Wilken writes,
By constant immersion in the res liturgicae [liturgical realities] early Christian thinkers came face to face with the living Christ and could say with Thomas the Apostle, “My Lord and my God.” Here was a truth so tangible, so enduring, so compelling that it trumped every religious idea. Understanding was achieved not by stepping back and viewing things from a distance but by entering into the revealed object itself.…This converse with the res, the thing itself, was the gift of the liturgy.
It is also, one might reasonably conclude from this exhibit, the gift of early Christian art.
Contemporary Christians might be surprised to realize that a preponderance of early Christian art focused, not on scenes from the life of Christ, but on Old Testament scenes. Explicit images of the crucifixion, for example, are extremely rare in this early period; that scarcity makes all the more precious the presence in this exhibit of a few such images, including one on a gemstone from the late second century. But this only underscores something upon which scripture scholars have in recent years increasingly insisted. The earliest Christians were Jews first; the canonical list of New Testament books had yet to take definitive shape. For these Christians, scripture was the Jewish scripture, now read in relation to Christ as their fulfillment. Indeed, Jonah’s swallowing by the sea monster and the sacrifice of Isaac may well have been understood by early Christians as allegories of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ.
One of the things that makes this exhibit so intellectually complex and theologically rewarding is the inclusion of a section on Jewish art. The exhibit contains both artifacts and photographic displays from Jewish synagogues, in which one can see depictions of menorahs, the ark of the Torah, and scenes from the Jewish scriptures, especially the stories of Daniel, Noah, and the sacrifice of Isaac. The evidence indicates that not all Jewish communities in the Hellenized, Roman world were averse to images and thus refutes the common assumption that the Decalogue’s prohibition of “graven images” led to a total Jewish ban on the crafting of images. That assumption in turn has influenced a host of scholars of early Christianity who have insisted that the late development of Christian art indicates that artistic representation was foreign to the theology of the early church and that it involves a paganization of Christianity.
As the commentary that accompanies the exhibit makes clear, influential early Christian authors read the Old Testament not just as a series of events in salvation history but as allegory foreshadowing the coming of Christ. Even more important here than the complex Jewish attitude toward representation is what Potts, in his foreword to the splendid catalogue for the exhibit, calls the “distinctive theological meaning” of Christian art, based on a distinctive theological claim about Christ, most succinctly encapsulated in Paul’s phrase, “Christ is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).
There is, alas, one grave limitation to the exhibit; it is exclusive to the Kimbell. So, if you want to see this remarkable collection, you will have to make your way to the DFW area sometime between now and March 30, 2008.
It would certainly be worth the trip to encounter a display of such staggering scope, beauty, and theological significance. One can only hope that this art exhibit will have ramifying implications in other parts of the academic world. Instead of now tired debates about the paganization of the early church, this exhibit attends to the way in which early Christian art drew upon late Roman art and the Jewish repertory of Old Testament subjects seen as foreshadowing the life of Christ. But the embrace of antecedent elements is “transformed entirely from within by its revolutionary theological message.” The exhibit succeeds remarkably well at re-focusing our attention on the “distinctive theological meanings the Early Christian artists intended to convey.”
“Come and see,” is the refrain in the Gospel of John used by those who encounter Christ; that terse invitation might be said to contain an entire Christian aesthetics. As Wilken comments,
Beauty is the corollary of seeing…. In the scriptures, seeing is never simply beholding something that passes like a parade before the eyes; it is a form of discernment and identification with what is known. What one sees reflects back on the one who sees and transforms the beholder. As Gregory the Great will put it centuries later, “We are changed into the one we see.”
–Thomas Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of the forthcoming book, Arts of Darkness.