Early Christian Art and Divine Epiphany
Robin M. Jensen
robin m. jensen is Luce Chancellor’s 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 reflected 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 specifically 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/figure, 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 Father’s voice thunders forth from the sky, and the Holy Spirit flies down in the form of a dove. A wreath’s 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 Father’s 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 flow, the evangelists, the living streams of Christ.1

His description makes it clear that Paulinus credited visual art’s 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. 125–144

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 reflection 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 guild’s 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 fields. 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 official Christianity and the existence of a subgroup of Christian believers—the illiterate or disenfranchised members of the community—who were more likely to be users or viewers of art.3 Other examinations have attended to Christian art’s emergence from and continuity with Greco-Roman religious art more broadly, arguing that boundaries should not be drawn too sharply between rank-and-file Christians and their non-Christian neighbours, or between ‘‘popular’’ and ‘‘official’’ expressions of theology or modes of worship.4 Simultaneously emerging with these generative and even compelling theories of how early Christian art reflected 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 purpose—to 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

Jesus entering Jerusalem on his donkey. first half of the fourth century. theological. Jesus healing the man born blind. and to start by considering a concrete example. it was restored and transferred to the Christian Museum of Pope Benedict xiv. Thus. the Cana miracle.g. Jesus healing the paralytic who carries his bed on his shoulders. The inclusion of Paul as witness to events that. iconographic. the Johannine version of the paralytic healing story. 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 experience—one that was cognitively different from hearing a sermon or reading Scripture and more like having an eyewitness encounter with the holy. he could not have been present (or even alive) to see is intriguing. probably sometime in the mideighteenth century. borrowed from the story of Jesus’s entry to Jericho as recounted in Luke 19:1–6. A marble sarcophagus was removed. Dated to the 330s. and Jesus raising Lazarus. Today it is in the Vatican Museo Pio Cristiano. His receding hairline and long face indicate that he should be identified as Paul. appears in all the scenes. although they do seem to draw predominantly on the Gospel of John (e. Now in the Museo Pio Cristiano. Photo: author. of course. it seems appropriate to consider their possible spiritual or visionary purpose. them from the image to its prototype. One other individual seems to appear in all—or nearly all—of the scenes.. Vatican. Another appears in a tree in the entry scene—possibly the figure of Zaccheus. along with examinations of the stylistic. Unlike Paulinus’s apse. from Rome’s Catacomb of San Sebastiano (figure 1). and the raising of Lazarus).Early Christian Art and Divine Epiphany 127 Figure 1: Early Christian sarcophagus. It might indicate that Paul symbolizes the viewer who . the Johannine version of the entry upon the healing of the man born blind. 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. this object shows Jesus and the Apostles as quite normallooking human beings. and contextual dimensions or function of early Christian artworks. sociological. Jesus. including one of Lazarus’s sisters.6 To this end. The scenes do not conform to any narrative sequence. according to the Gospels. Jesus changing water to wine at Cana. They also include figures who might be identified as witnesses or disciples.

or praying figures (orantes). the content and style of the work follows a clear trajectory of development. The figure of the orante may symbolize the soul of the deceased. the motifs were mostly simple. A series of dis´ crete narratives were synthesized into a somewhat jumbled set whose overall pictorial narrative might seem a bit confusing but nevertheless projects the general message that Jesus was teacher. Emerging around the beginning of the third century. and the adoration of the Magi could be combined with an orante. and Daniel. Some of these were lovingly decorated with wall paintings and simple stucco work. Jonah. and the entrance to Jerusalem—such scenes regularly constituted a kind of compositional melange.128 Robin M. These remains. appeared abbreviated depictions of Old Testament narratives. and the Three Hebrew Youths (figure 2). healer..g. conventional signs such as anchors. the baptism. This expectation. wonder-worker. Abraham offering Isaac. healing. Jensen comes to know the stories of Jesus and how they reveal God’s plan for salvation. In the beginning. offering prayer that she be received into heaven. Adam and Eve. fish. and her expectation of resurrection from death. Adam and Eve. Abraham’s offering of Isaac. Similarly. they likely expressed the believer’s trust in the Shepherd’s loving care. arising out of her having undergone Christian baptism.g. Another monument might contain some of the same themes. In a funerary context. Along with particular episodes from Jesus’s life—the adoration of the Magi. the image of the Good Shepherd with his flock was a visual metaphor referring to Christ’s attributes as a guide and guardian. from Fall to Resurrection. along with these. in a varied but similar arrangement. These symbols pointed to aspects of the faith or references to the piety or identity of the faithful. Noah. may explain the inclusion of certain figures. e. doves. Beginning in the fourth century. Daniel in the lions’ den) attests to the belief that the sacraments as well as Christ’s death and resurrection were prefigured and eternally part of the God’s plan for human salvation (figure 3). primary corpus of early Christian art. a Shepherd. scenes of Jesus teaching.. This frieze is just one among dozens somewhat like it. The inclusion of Old Testament narratives (e. often displacing the earlier symbolic or typological themes. along with others. Jonah. Jonah. Soon. Jesus raising Lazarus. Representations of Jesus’s baptism. These developed as types that had Christian significance or could be interpreted as allusions to Christian sacraments or teachings. some Christians clearly were affluent enough to afford such monumental coffins. the wall paintings in catacomb hypogea or on other Christian sarcophagi seem to be composed from common motifs drawn from the sample books offered by artists’ workshops. . Noah. By the late third century. constitute the largest. Like the frieze of the Vatican sarcophagus. mostly from the environs of Rome and predominantly from a funerary context. Many were able to pay for the excavation and decoration of family mausoleums in underground cemeteries (catacombs). and working wonders became more popular. and lifegiver.

he is otherwise like them. In these images. He has neither halo nor sceptre. the woman with the hemorrhage.Early Christian Art and Divine Epiphany 129 Figure 2: Decoration of early Christian hypogeum. Catacomb of Priscilla. he often holds a scroll and raises his hand in a gesture indicating speech. Rome. but not overly intimidating in any of his features. Photo: author. curly hair. he is recognizable by his coiffure. Other than these distinguishing facial features. He does not appear nude. curly hair (see figures 1. or rather to . the recipients are often shown as relatively small in comparison to characters. the representation of Jesus is remarkably consistent. In short. 3). respectable Roman male. which is that of a well-dressed Roman citizen of the mid-fourth century: a tunic with draped pallium. Jesus’s garb is exactly like the others’ around him. they are suppliants and thus ‘‘little ones. reaches out to him instead.’’ Jesus normally extends his hand to touch those he heals (see figure 1). Jesus appears several times in many compositions. Like several other figures. He is about the same size and wears the garments of a well-dressed. He most often appears as a beardless youth with long. like the heroes or gods of Greco-Roman iconography. such as the healing of the paralytic or the man born blind. always distinguished from the other adult male figures by his lack of beard and long. Perhaps their diminutive size was intended to reflect their social position. One exception. In depictions of the most popular miracle stories.

Although depictions of episodes from the Passion begin to appear by the last quarter of the fourth century and incorporate scenes of Jesus before Pilate or Simon carrying the cross. Perhaps as significant as what early Christian iconographic programs include is what they do not. the Passion. this is the son of God’’ (Mark 15:39). the dead are raised up. the resurrection of the widow’s son. and the Ascension appear either rarely or not at all before the fifth century. the Transfiguration.7 Thus. 20:29–34. lepers are cleansed. the Last Supper. Vatican. Jesus wields a staff: the only identifiable or special sign of his power and authority. Two other figures in early Christian art hold a similar staff. and a detail not mentioned by the Gospels. the latter to baptize his Roman jailers. By contrast. Jesus’s imposition of his hand is a simple gesture. his cloak.130 Robin M. mid fourth century. Mark 1:41). Rome. Generally. Beneath. Jensen Figure 3: Early Christian sarcophagus. Matt 8:14–15. the Empty Tomb. a Roman soldier looks up as if recognizing ‘‘truly. Moses and Peter both use it to strike a rock to produce water. Now in the Museo Pio Cristiano. they do not include representations of the actual crucifixion. surmounted by a wreathed christogram (figure 4). and the poor have good news preached to them (Matt 11:5). Crucifixion. Jesus’s miracles are not incidents intended to show that he is so very different from all others as to manifest his glory and to reveal the nature of his kingdom—where the blind receive their sight.g. The Annunciation to Mary. the lame walk. the former for thirsty Israelites. artistic representations of what came to be the holy mysteries of Incarnation. and Resurrection are relatively late.. In its place stands a triumphant and empty cross. in depictions of wonders such as the changing of water to wine. the deaf hear. . compared to the typological allusions to prophecy and fulfillment and popular portrayals of Jesus teaching and working miracles. and the raising of Lazarus. Photo: author. described in many Gospel accounts (e. a scene from an apocryphal narrative (see figure 3).

fourth century. or of worshipping false gods instead of the true one. To this point. whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above.9 Most ancient critiques of images. rather they focused specifically on what they described as foolish the making or worshipping of divine images (and in this respect they agreed with many ancient philosophers). concentrated on the problem of mistaking art for reality (the image for truth). Some historians have suggested that Christian visual art could have emerged only in a community that had grown lax about enforcing the Second Commandment’s prohibition against ‘‘graven images. dated to the end of the second century.10 He defines images . Photo: author. or that is on the earth below’’ (Exod 20:4: Deut 5:8)—but understood as a command to honour no other gods. or Christian.’’8 As the Church began to admit dominantly gentile converts. authorities clearly struggled against residual habits and practices of idolatry.Early Christian Art and Divine Epiphany 131 Figure 4: Passion sarcophagus. or sculptures. Without doubt. the reasons for its relatively late emergence is more likely explained in other ways. rather than evidence for actual aniconism in the ancient Church likely drives such a conclusion. Jewish. Arguably (according to certain analyses). they accepted the need to compromise and began to accommodate images in the form of pictorial art. Nevertheless. They were not attacks on visual art per se. rather than the repudiation of false gods. Although that injunction could have inhibited some pre-third-century Christians from making or enjoying paintings. whether philosophical. mosaics. in his treatise against idolatry. For example. or to bow down to and adore their material representations. Rome. Vatican. These scholars appear to interpret early Christian condemnations of idol worship as a general denunciation of pictorial art in general. Tertullian cites the biblical prohibition as directed against anything manufactured specifically for the purpose of veneration. they never condemned visual art for itself. they also cited the biblical injunction against visual art—‘‘You shall not make for yourself an idol. However. these historians’ own theological ambivalence about visual art. Now in the Museo Pio Cristiano. early Christian apologists confidently contrasted Christian lack of divine images to the practices of their polytheist neighbours. third quarter.

for they are inanimate counterparts to their dead originals.e. In the second part of his treatise On the Incarnation.15 A little further on he echoes his predecessors. he asks. seeing that humans are. in his discourse Against the Nations. Octavius. The first part. rather than the recognizing the skills or paying tribute to the artists. Against the Nations (Gentes). false gods)—and did not include pictorial art depicting stories from the Bible or even representations of Christ or the saints. fashioned out of ordinary materials and transformed by ritual consecration into objects of worship. Arnobius of Sicca. condemning idols for being as phony as the gods they depict and asserting that those who worship them are deluded. Minucius Felix describes the protagonist. most ancient Christians. whether simple believers or theologically sophisticated authors. Octavius. ‘‘Professing themselves to be wise they became fools and changed the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man. Quoting the Epistle to the Romans he says. forged in furnaces. baked in kilns.16 At the same time. responding by asking what kind of visible representation he could fashion for his God.12 A century later. Minucius Felix. the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria and champion of Nicene orthodoxy. Jensen as representations of deities. Here he propounds a theology of visuality that could be understood as a divine antidote to the deception of idolatry and thus as the constructive part of his two-part treatise. to kneel down in supplication to an object that you made with your own hands?13 Unquestionably. Athanasius realizes that Christians are not different from pagans in their sense that ‘‘seeing’’ God is crucial for their comprehension of the divine.132 Robin M. Is it not folly. rightly considered to be God’s true image (see Genesis 1:26). Although he asserts that human knowledge of God relies on sensual perception as much as on cogni- . and irrational.. likewise ridicules those who bow down to images made of base materials. he launches his critique of idols. Athanasius lays out what he believed to be the orthodox explanation for God’s coming to the world in human form. or whittled by knives. In an early chapter of the Against the Nations. in the category. saying that those who pay homage to images ignore and dishonour the craftsmen who made the works. points out that polytheists apparently found the absence images of the Christian god slightly suspicious. 335). as if Christians were trying to conceal or hide the nature of their deity. wrote a two-part apology.11 Tertullian’s fellow African. He mocks those who pay homage to statues. themselves. opens by summarizing his objections to idolatry and concludes by explaining the role of the Divine Word in salvation. statues and other images are absurd: birds roost in and spiders weave webs over them.14 About the time that the Vatican Sarcophagus described above (figure 1) was produced (ca. impious. they worship the products of skill and art. wherefore God gave them up unto vile passions’’ (see Rom 1:22–24). They rust and decay. Athanasius. Furthermore. In his dialogue. and of birds and four-footed beasts and creeping things. considered idols to be images of someone else’s gods (i.

being mired in evil habits and subject to clouded vision and lack of reason. once made in his likeness. he warns that mortals are easily deceived. Humans do this. persisted in their errors and refused to amend their pleasure-seeking habits. corporeal appearance and then immediately sacrifice himself on a cross and die. but rather is revealed in myriad ways and forms. holy men and women who instructed the people and modelled a virtuous life. the merciful and loving God did not will for humans to remain in this state. in the same way also the most holy Son of the Father. when the likeness painted on a panel has become effaced by stains from without. Athanasius continues.Early Christian Art and Divine Epiphany 133 tive processes. death. they cast their eyes on illusions. they did not recognize themselves as bearing the divine image. God made himself visible. how they had come to be broken. both in what they perceive and how they mentally evaluate or assess it. even though God is not hidden from their sight. especially in the beautiful works of creation. Thus. humanity’s . came to our region to renew humanity. God sent the law and prophets. unable by nature to be unconcerned with the dissolute state of God’s own handiwork. In a passage that evokes the images of ancient Egyptian panel portraits and even shows that Athanasius may have been thinking about visual art as a kind of medium for making the holy one present (see figure 5). Christ’s earthly life included his human birth. being the image of the Father. but also manifestations of God’s love for creation. Recognizing human weaknesses. he says. for. but the outline is renewed upon it. he whose likeness it is must needs come once more to enable the portrait to be renewed on the same wood. Most of all. even the mere wood on which it is painted is not thrown away. but rather to become sensibly present to creation itself—to be seen—so that it could be restored to its original beauty. Christ’s manifestation needed to encompass visible acts and deeds that demonstrated both his power and his purpose and revealed who he was by the works and wonders he performed. Yet humans. into mistaking false for true images and into offering the adoration due to the invisible divine being to mundane and even demonic visible objects. could not allow humans to suffer further corruption or even to perish altogether. God condescended to become physically and visibly present in the Incarnation of the Word—in a mortal body—so that humanity might be confronted with its original image.17 According to Athanasius. resurrection. Not in order to come down and fix things or even to figure out. Yet they remain ignorant of the creator (Rom 1:20). for the sake of the picture. God tried to accommodate them in different ways. Athanasius compares God’s work with the renewal of a painted likeness: For as. They tend to mistake the ephemeral for the eternal. But it was not enough simply to make a brief. he adds. however clouded it had become by their sinfulness. confusing them with reality. and ascension. God. They are so distracted by worldly goods that they miss the source of goodness itself. at close range. Finally.18 Therefore. Their eyes are often tricked. Thus.

. Jensen Figure 5: Portrait of a Woman. Photo: Author. 130–161.134 Robin M. Antinoopolis (Egypt). ca.

and God’s intention that this image should be rescued. The centurion at the foot of the cross witnesses the earthquake and bodies of saints coming out of their tombs and realizes who it was whom he had been guarding (Matt 27:51). Again and again. This may happen in the works of nature. but to heal and teach. The imperative behold (Greek idou or orao) is ubiquitous. ‘‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’’ (John 14:7). Christ’s appearance did not exceed human capacity to receive him. James. and to give himself to those in want. or other sign.Early Christian Art and Divine Epiphany 135 original image.19 Consequently. as when the crowds saw the paralytic get upon and walk (Matt 9:7). For example. Jesus came to humans in a form that resembled them. and renewed. What about those who did not live at that very time or place that Christ . Pilate commands. Athanasius. Realization sometimes is linked with a characteristic gesture..g. As Jesus.11). by terrifying or stupefying those to whom Christ appeared. humanity is transformed by its beauty and comes to know its true character and purpose: to love and glorify God. posits. but it was ultimately accomplished in the Incarnation. Rather. seeing is salvific. Humans become what they see. of course. Seeing Christ in the flesh was the beginning of the reformation of the whole person. Jesus reveals himself through the straining nets of the fishermen (John 21:7). someone would wonder why not in a nobler instrument than a mere human body (e. John’s Gospel enumerates a series of signs in which Jesus manifests his glory. By encountering God in a human body and observing his works. body and soul. himself. mortals would recognize their origin and understand their potential. and John are granted a preliminary vision of his glory at the Transfiguration (Mark 9. Peter. Having such a vision. to care for the suffering. That would have rendered the incarnation useless. dazzling display. the sun or moon or fire or air). Seeing Christ is often a turning point in a Gospel story. And if. Mary Magdalene mistakes Jesus for the gardener and realizes whom she addresses only when he speaks her name (John 20:16). as in the changing of water to wine in Cana (John 2. Scripture emphasizes the importance of physically seeing—and perceiving. The disciples travelling to Emmaus were unable to recognize him until he broke bread at table (Luke 24:31). In John’s Gospel.2–8 and parallels). he explains that the Lord did not become incarnate only in order to make some grand. In this way. presents the question of how those did not see Christ could come to this same recognition. allowing them to comprehend and contemplate their own true nature through their physical and visual encounter with the Lord. Humans need to perceive God in order to know God. Athanasius does not believe that human salvation is primarily a matter of thinking correctly or assenting in the mind to certain dogmas or ethical principles. vocal cue. the work of the eye was central. ‘‘Behold the man’’ (John 19:22). says in the Gospel of John. A miraculous healing leads to the recognition. refocused. For this. Athanasius’s explanation for the Incarnation.

these ordinary believers are not bereft of visual revelations to the extent that the divine image can be seen in the lives of those holy men and women. out of a flash of light. but in this case performing revelatory works of love and power. What they could not have perceived in life. At the very least. is that Jesus continues to appear to his followers in some form or other. they encountered an image of the image of God. Nevertheless. Along with the healing and miracle scenes. to whom Jesus appeared with instructions to repair the church. Dressing these figures along with Jesus in ordinary Roman street garb emphasizes this identification. One may ask when the prototype is due to return so that the canvas can be renewed once again. the art of fourth-century Christian monuments can be viewed as intentionally epiphanic. to contradict Jesus’s reproach to the doubting Thomas: ‘‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe’’ (John 20:29). three scenes from the narrative of Jesus’s life that appear with some frequency in mid-fourth-century art—the adoration of the Magi. The Son of Man. certain aspects of the iconography indicate that viewers would have perceived more than simple. allowing contemporary observers to experience a certain kind of theophany. they were able to see an image of their god. Paul. but they may have closed a gap in time and space.136 Robin M. To this end. moreover. or mediated through visual art. were not designed to be objects of adoration or prayer. whose vision included a mystical marriage to Christ. as he says. As the pagans did. themselves. how are humans to be aided after the ascension? Athanasius’s explanation seems. If God’s purpose in the Incarnation is. encountered in the beauties of nature. or didactic illustrations of Bible stories. of course. like those of Francis of Assisi. and Zaccheus. The images. the Living One. Stephen saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God just before his death by stoning (Acts 7:55–56). and his entrance into Jerusalem—are ones in . unlike those saints. to make God visible to those who otherwise could not see the divine Creator behind creation’s tempting beauties and desirable pleasures. and the Lamb of God appears to John on Patmos (Rev 2:12–20. on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3–6) and converses with Ananias in a vision (Acts 9:3–16). decorative. most of the faithful are not granted such visions. himself. is included in that disadvantaged group. They may have been prompted to imagine themselves as eyewitnesses. Martha. Jensen came to earth? Athanasius. Later visionaries have similar encounters. Jesus speaks to Paul. But. The recurring scenes of Jesus performing earthly works and healings not only reveal and emphasize his divine power and identity. where the image exists after the person has gone (even if the image begins to fade). Observers saw more than simple decorative motifs. along with the disciples. 5:6–8). but also demonstrate his particular care for the suffering and the needy. they could through the medium of art. Like the portrait painting on a panel. or Catherine of Siena. an artistic representation preserves the appearance just as the Scriptures preserve the words of Christ. his baptism by John (in which he is shown as a young child rather than an adult). One answer.

of Luke 1:26. In the third image. Photo: author. They hold their gifts. John lays his right hand upon Jesus’s head in a gesture that evokes the bishop’s imposition of hands in the later Christian ritual of initiation. Jesus is depicted as a small. the first one often bearing a wreath or crown to indicate gold. and God’s pronouncement at the scene: ‘‘You are my beloved Son. indicating the presence of the Holy Spirit. and they fell down and worshipped him’’ (Matt 2:11). only six months younger than his cousin. might be explained by the fact that early Christians understood baptism as a symbol of new birth and a return to the state of childlike innocence. Their camels often show up in the background. A descending dove appears. early fourth century. his mother. or the animal’s .11). and 3:23). we see three nearly identical figures (the Magi) approaching the Virgin and child in a kind of procession (figure 6). just as they participate in his death and resurrection through receiving the sacrament (Rom 6:3–4).Early Christian Art and Divine Epiphany 137 Figure 6: Adoration of the Magi and Daniel. The depiction of the scene naturally evokes John’s prophecy that one would come after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. a witness stands to one side. Showing Jesus in this way emphasized Jesus’s identification with all those who underwent the ritual. nude child standing in an ankle-high stream of water (figure 7). John (as indicated in the Gospel narratives. In many compositions. the second and third some kind of vessel (a box or bowl) that could hold frankincense or myrrh. a rod. The second scene—Jesus’s baptism by John—has. with you I am well pleased’’ (Mark 1. at least to modern eyes. The presentation of Jesus as childlike and nude. sarcophagus frieze. Rome. Jesus appears astride a donkey as he makes his acclaimed entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11:7–10 and parallels). In the first. they wear little peaked caps. leggings. Their garb instantly identifies them as easterners. a surprising feature. Their recognition of Jesus’s divinity as well as his royalty is emphasized in the narrative: ‘‘Going into the house they saw the child with Mary. instead of a full-grown adult. which his divinity is particularly manifest to and acclaimed by spectators. Now in the Museo Pio Cristiano. and tunics that Roman viewers would have associated with Persians or Babylonians. Jesus makes a gesture of blessing with his one hand and holds a scroll. Vatican.

Photo: author. Jensen Figure 7: Baptism of Jesus on sarcophagus end. Now in the Musee de l’Arles Antique. ´ . mid fourth century and close up detail.138 Robin M.

the Traditio Legis. Photo: author. Finally. In certain depictions Jesus sits on a throne. apse mosaics. One of the children throws garments under the animals’ feet. But. detail from fourth-century sarcophagus from Rome. Often—but not always—the donkey is shown having to contend with a foal scrambling beneath her belly (see Matt 21:5). sometimes. The crowd is indicated by two or three or. one very frequent fourth-century motif shows Jesus in a scene that was not taken directly from a biblical narrative but depicts Jesus handing a scroll to Peter to his left. The viewer must imagine hearing them cry out. appears on sarcophagus reliefs. some of them child-sized. Although some interpreters of the scene have . On one of the Vatican sarcophagi. now in the Museo Pio Cristiano. in others he stands upon a rock from which four rivers flow. arises from the words that occasionally appear on the scroll: Dominus legem dat. reins in the other (figure 1). the city gate appears to the right (figure 8). on the prophecies of Isaiah 62:11 and Zechariah 9:9. Jesus’s entry on a donkey rather than a horse was based. The image. a horse-drawn chariot). like the imperial entry. making the scene appear very much like the image of an imperial adventus.Early Christian Art and Divine Epiphany 139 Figure 8: Jesus entering Jerusalem. a small group of figures. ‘‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’’ (Mark 11:9). One spectator has climbed up into a tree. The point of the imperial adventus was to be seen as the savior of the people. and wall paintings. others hold palm branches. a parade in which an emperor enters a city riding a horse (or. possibly an allusion to the story of Zaccheus and Jesus’s entry to Jericho in Luke 19. Vatican. gold glasses. at least partly. adapted for a variety of different media. in some instances. The traditional identification of the image. Jesus’s entry revealed him as Son of David and Messiah to the crowds. others adults. Paul stands to Jesus’s right (figure 9). Sometimes a phoenix sits in a palm tree to one side.

Peter and Paul—an appearance in which he delivered the new law to his Church. Photo: author.20 A strong case has. By contemplating the images presented to them.21 Viewers of any of these monuments might understand themselves to be participant witnesses to divine manifestations.140 Robin M. detail from a fourthcentury sarcophagus. others have claimed that it depicts the Second Coming of Christ. ´ argued that it shows the commission of Peter as chief of the Apostles (Matt 16:18–19). Jensen Figure 9: Jesus giving the law to Peter and Paul (Traditio Legis). they could form a conception of the nature and as well . now in the Musee de l’Arles Antique. theophanic appearance of Christ to the two primary Apostles of Rome. however. been made that it portrays a post-resurrectional.

face-to-face—not merely as a subject in a picture. going to the theatre or races. qualitatively different from hearing or reading. writing within a century of Athanasius. That the cognitive apprehension is better than physical perception is clear: the essence of life (soul) is invisible. singing spiritually uplifting songs. and they could imagine themselves as part of a crowd of onlookers. and the Apostles began to appear without a narrative context and showing only the face or figure. recognizing God in their midst. preferring human made personifications rather to the actual sea or earth. Even though the one is invisible while the other can be seen and appreciated by the senses. praying. as well as hear. is too much like the pagan devotion to or adoration of sacred images. for example those of Neptune or Tellus. The Scriptures read or sermons heard with the ear are better antidotes to evil than spectacles or pictures presented to the eyes. Before then. As he explains. They could see. and singing silly or disgraceful songs. Augustine. goodness or truth resides in the capacity and not in its products.22 Augustine is concerned that some members of his congregation have been venerating images and urges them to purge the places of prayer from such things just as they would purify their hearts. just as the structure and governance of the cosmos is. however. Referring to the statues of pagan gods. This different experience granted an opportunity to see Christ. those who saw Jesus in art saw him in action. These things can be known only by the intellect. giving good luck presents. in a sense. recipient of adoration. just as they should admire the craft and skill of the artist more than the loveliness of the object. In an extraordinarily long sermon delivered on New Year’s Day sometime around 404. Augustine scoffs at those who foolishly offer their prayers to such idols. Anything else. Augustine admonishes his flock not to behave like the pagans by feasting. was more circumspect about the value of physical seeing in the process of human salvation. Instead of an idea in the mind. By the end of the fourth century. while the former is something one can know only through the mind. Why would one offer prayer to a representation of the sun instead of the sun itself ? Pleading with his congregation to concentrate. however. they had a figure before their eyes. He urges them. actual portraits of Christ. to celebrate the occasion by fasting. but as a doer of deeds. and a still-living lawgiver. he explains that they should adore the creator of the beautiful things of nature. Viewing is. The latter is visible with the eye. another with which he himself might be seen—for seeing these things he gave you the eyes in your head. instead. Taking a different approach. ‘‘Because God made you one thing to see these things with. and grieving for those who get caught up in the love of false pleasures or futile pursuits—and by staying in church to listen to his extended preaching. for seeing . he warns. the saints. the stories of others coming to faith and acclaiming Jesus as Lord. Augustine insisted that the mind comprehends the truth more effectively than the eye.Early Christian Art and Divine Epiphany 141 as the person of Christ and contemplate the significance of his works and wonders. drinking.

demonstrates his particular affection for common folk. Because of Augustine’s insistence on Christ’s bodily appearance. could be a means of mediating divine presence and demonstrating God’s purpose for creation. even after his Christian conversion.. just as the Word was revealed to the patriarchs and prophets of the Israelites. Both Athanasius and Augustine insist that Christ’s works revealed his power and divinity but also visually demonstrated God’s special care for the suffering. Images. he probably would not have approved of Paulinus’s non-anthropomorphic apse (described at the beginning of this essay). In his great treatise On the Trinity. These assertions can be argued in words or presented in visual images. ‘‘seeing is believing’’).24 If one could synthesize these two points of view in respect to visual art. the humble. Augustine adds that this is why Christ performed both signs and miracles. he took flesh and dwelled among humanity. and the needy. But. Jensen himself he gave you a mind—you cannot therefore be allowed to say in that inane way. it would be to affirm the basic value of seeing. just as the kind of his miracles. becoming both the bodily and spiritual creation. By accommodating the abilities of the humble as well as the adept. In fact. as long as it is not deemed the primary gauge of truth (e. sensible things have a purpose and value. he did not disparage it altogether. He was a good Platonist. . ‘I can’t see him’. While words may have more long-term durability.142 Robin M. Those who are able to glimpse that reality still need to grasp its physical manifestation. the shape or outlines of a face or body that may or may not be accurate. A mind could rise from the image perceived to the truth that lies behind it. he says. so long as what is seen is not adored per se or mistaken for more than an initial or preliminary revelation that subsequently must be contemplated by the mind or soul. and you will see the one at work in them. Both Athanasius and Augustine emphasize that Christ’s incarnation was a bodily one. so that he could show who he is: a terror to those who fear him and reassurance to those who love him.’’23 Yet even though Augustine deemed physical sight as incomplete. Those who cannot rise above creation to perceive the invisible and inexpressible reality may hold onto this as the ground of their knowledge. or believe to be absent. Augustine asks how Christians are able to love something that they cannot see. assuring the divine presence in the created realm and manifesting the divine image in human form. Moreover. the images might more closely recreate to the experience of actually ‘‘seeing’’ Jesus.g. examine all these things with your intelligence. Both Athanasius and Augustine assert that Christ came in the flesh in order to demonstrate God’s will that humanity rise above the transitory and visible things of the world. In the absence of the physical presence of a loved one. As such. he allowed. he could argue that contemplation of the sensible world could lead (indeed might be necessary) for apprehension of the purely intellectual realm. So. the imagination inevitably will fabricate something to cling to. nor confused with ultimate reality. Jesus revealed himself by being born of Mary. his humble birth.

traditionally attributed to Pope Linus (Peter’s successor). Repertorio topografico delle pitture delle catacombe Romane (Vatican City: Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiania. . 12. The Second Church: Popular Christianity A. Conscriptum 5. trans. and this author’s work. Faith is not dependent.2–5. me: Newman. see the parallels between the fourth-century definition given by Basil of Caesarea. is that he had an image: he had a face and he had a body. While they have never seen God. Walsh. 7 The story of Peter striking the rock to baptize his Roman jailers is recorded in a sixth-century manuscript: Mart b. they will realize that God became one of them as a demonstration of love and humility. he insists. Christians are able. to love that unseen God until they at last come before the Eternal Presence and see God face to face. Corby Finney. 1993). Spir. 2 (1977): 304– 345.’’ JThS n.5–9. ga: Mercer University Press. ny: St. 1999). If Christians believe this. Paulinus of Nola (Westminster. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 13 Arnobius.16.1–7. 28. or. Sanc. 6 For example. 12 Minucius Felix. including the work of Henry Chadwick. no. 1998).21. What is important to believe about Jesus. 2nd ed. Understanding Early Christian Art. 6. Peteri a Lino ep. Werkstattgruppen romischer Katakombenmalerei (Munster: Aschendorff. Adv. (Macon.s. 32. he says. 1967). Apol. Imperial Roman and Christian Triumph (Oxford: Oxford University Press. ‘‘Art and the Early Church. The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art (New York: Oxford University Press. 200–400 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature. The Meaning of Icons (Yonkers. Understanding Early Christian Art (London: Routledge. 1–3. (Wiesbaden: Steiner.45. which was repeated in the more commonly cited assertion made in the eighth century by John of Damascus.10. The fact that artistic portrayals of the scene predate the earliest documentary evidence suggests that the legend was circulated (either in writing or orally) no later than the third or early fourth century. ¨ ¨ 2002). from experience and contemplation of comparable things. more recently. 9 Other explanations for the late emergence of visual art in Christianity are proposed by P. and Michel Quenot. 10 Tertullian. 2 Among the most recent and inclusive scholarly reference works are Friedrich Deichmann. 13–15. See a summary and critique of this assumption in an essay by Mary Charles Murray.25 Notes 1 Paulinus of Nola.Early Christian Art and Divine Epiphany 143 accuracy really is not the point. 8 The presumption that originally aniconic Christians became less strict during the third century is common in standard histories. What Christians can know about Christ is what they experience in themselves. 2:145. Ulbert Thilo. Octavius 10. Aldo Nestori. slightly adapted from P. and P. Letters of St. and Norbert Zimmermann. nat. joining a soul to a body and living a mortal life. 18. 1994). 4 Here see Jas Elsner. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Ramsay MacMullen. Idol.G. Repertorium der christlich-antiken Sarkophage. The Early Church (London: Penguin. 1. on the precision of our images. 1967). and Jensen. 24. 1967–2003). which suggests that textual and material evidence be viewed together and that they emerge from the same religious or theological milieu. 3 On this see Graydon Snyder. 2009). Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life before Constantine. Ep.D. 277. Vols. Apol. 4 11 Tertullian. 32. 2003). von Zabern. The Icon: Window on the Kingdom (Yonkers. 5 Among the best of this genre is the joint work of Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky. 1992). 2000). 108–10. ny: St.

198 (Dolbeau 26). Inc. NPNF. 17 Athanasius. 11–12. did object to images of Christ. Brill. 23 Ibid. and saints that were painted on walls or curtains. the Apostles. Another possible exception. Inc. ‘‘Neue Untersuchungen uber die altchristlichen ¨ Petrusdarstellungen. ser. 65–89. 20 See a summary of scholarly views in Geir Hellemo. Frag. 8. Contra Eusebium et Epiphanidem. Jensen 14 One exception. 2 vol. 14. 43. Gent. 61–62. . Serm. 22 Augustine. Trans. Epiphanius of Salamis.7–8. 1989). 19.. C. the 36th canon of the Council of Elvira (ca. The authenticity of this fragment has been questioned but generally accepted as authentic. 305). seems only to object to Christian images that might be worshipped. 2. not to art as such. 21 This was particularly the view of Paul Styger.J. The authenticity of the famous condemnation of images of Christ attributed to Eusebius in a letter supposedly written to the Augusta Constantia is not so clear. Its oldest version comes the florilegium of the iconophile Nicephorus of Constantinople.. 25 Augustine. Trin. 15 Athanasius..144 Robin M. 18 Ibid. 16 Ibid. 13.3.43.. See Epiphanius. The text may have been forged in order to bolster the arguments of eighth-century iconoclasts. 19 Athanasius. 4. 24 Ibid. 31..’’ RQ 27 (1913): 66. Adventus Domini: Eschatological Thought in 4th Century Apses and Catecheses (Leiden: E.

Copyright of Toronto Journal of Theology is the property of University of Toronto Press and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission. users may print. download. . or email articles for individual use. However.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful