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We turn our attention now to an exploration of the advent of religious images in Christian churches. We have already taken note of the images found in a church in Dura-Europos from about the year 241. Clearly, the imagery there is Christian and its use in the church must have had the approval of the local church authorities. It’s the earliest example discovered so far of an early Christian church decorated with religious images. Dura-Europos was on the frontier border of the Roman empire and so we can probably guess that the images in this house-church were inspired by those found in house-churches in more metropolitan, sophisticated centers. It is about this time that the first Christian images in the catacombs outside Rome appeared. About 70 years later, Christianity was legalized by Constantine. The images  at Dura-Europo are strictly narratives of Jesus’ miracles, or metaphoric symbols (e.g. the Good Shepherd) and are very similar to the kind of narrative scenes and symbols found in the catacombs. The rendering, however, is more primitive. We can assume then that, generally, the Christian images used in the first churches were probably symbolic (e.g. grapes), metaphors (e.g. a shepherd), and narrative scenes (e.g. Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead) and therefore of the same genre of what we find in the catacombs. There are very few other extant examples of church images from the earliest periods —up to about the middle of the 4th century. Either the churches themselves have disappeared or the original images that decorated the walls and ceilings have been replaced by later creations. What we do know comes from the little that has survived in other buildings used for religious purposes and from contemporary written descriptions, as well as drawings made by artists before the original works were re1
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The Healing of the Paralytic (L) and The Walking on the Water ( R); frescoes from the “baptistery” of the housechurch at Dura-Europos, ca. 231/2. These frescoes are similar in narrative imagery and somewhat similar in artistic style to those in the catacombs. We can probably assume that most other housechurches were similarly decorated but with probably more sophisticated renderings appearing in larger urban centers of the empire.
It was built about 100 years after the church at Dura-Europos. and flora and fauna images subside in importance and programs of large scale Christian images come to the fore. With this development comes also the establishment of an obvious hierarchical program which determined the 2 “A History of Christian Art” by Bernard Dick All Rights Reserved www. One of the best surviving examples from the early period comes from a building that was not originally a church at all.22 Santa Costanza. however. There appears on the walls and ceilings of some churches what is sometimes referred to as dogmatic imagery. animals.com . play a much smaller role overall than in the earlier church. A drawing of what had been the decoration on the inside of the dome over the central area shows similar decoration to that found in the ambulatory except for some rather small framed areas depicting narrative scenes from the life of Christ. Constantia (also known as Constantina or Costanza). plants. So. we get a much clearer picture. There does not appear to be any theological statement being made by their use except that sometimes certain images seem to support Christian sensibilities. but gaining in importance are such ideas as representations of Christ giving the law to the apostles Peter and Paul . birds. interestingly. By the end of the 4th century. ca. nothing particularly or obviously Christian. placed.HistoryOfChristianArt. is the only part of the building that has the original decoration —a continuous mosaic on the ambulatory ceiling featuring cherubs. borrowing from a tradition of pre-Christian funerary architecture. The decorative pastoral and genre scenes. All of these images could have been just as easily used to decorate any building. the Church of Santa Costanza  in Rome began as a mausoleum for Constantine's daughter. who died in 354. Narrative images continued to be employed. or walk-way that surrounds the center space where an altar is now situated. Portions of vault mosaics in ambulatory. we are left with an unclear picture of just how church decoration developed during this early period. Although consecrated as a church in 1256. and images suggesting Christ as the universal Lord of the universe . Rome. The plan is circular. Beginning in the mid to late 4th century we can also detect a new development in the subject matter of Christian art. but before its consecration as a church. not narrative images but images meant to visually present a theological concept or dogma. The narrative scenes of Christ in the dome decoration are along the same lines as what can be seen in Dura-Europo except that the identifiable Christian scenes here. and pastoral scenes. 350 The images in these mosaics are not specifically Christian but are common decorative themes popular in Roman culture. Its circular ambulatory. the Enthronement of Christ . of course. Recent investigation suggests that it may have been used as a baptistery after its use as a mausoleum.
3 “A History of Christian Art” by Bernard Dick All Rights Reserved www. In addition to all this was the final determination of a canon of writings to comprise the “new” testament. Why this development of dogmatically themed images? In. the Second Person of the Trinity”. The appearance of dogmatic images in the churches is a visual culmination to the theological debates raging since at least the middle of the second century. 4th century 24 The Law Giver.HistoryOfChristianArt. divine stature and the radical change his life brings into history. who teach all that is necessary for salvation.1 We also see representations that affirm that Jesus was the fulfillment of the hope of Israel and that the authoritative interpretation and spread of the Gospel was given by Christ to the apostles and their successors. to the depiction of Jesus’ mission emphasizing the deeds of his life on earth were added those that illustrate his powerful. in the same fresco). prophet. and declared that the God of the Hebrew Bible was a lesser demiurge.23 Christ Enthroned Between Saints Peter and Paul and The Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) Adored by Four Saints (below. There is no other “special” or “secret” knowledge. Jaroslav Pelikan described and explained the shift from the earliest view of Jesus as a miracle working Jewish rabbi (a teacher. Wall painting in the Catacomb of Saints Peter and Marcellinus. As a result.com . These doctrines were a response to early heresies such as those of Marcion who “declared that Christianity was distinct from and in opposition to Judaism. Dogmatic images often occupied the most important place in the church —the back wall of the apse. and the giver of the new law). priest. I fear) that salvation was the result of a special or secret knowledge granted to only a few. into the “turning point in history” (Israel’s triumphant prophet. The gnostics held (too simply stated here. just behind and over the altar. and king. preferred location of categories of images in the church building. The Church answered with the doctrine of apostolic succession which holds that Jesus taught all that was necessary for salvation to the apostles and they. the bishops. and the Son of God. “Jesus Through the Centuries”.”2 Gnosticism was also an early heresy rejected and condemned by the Church with the correct doctrine presented in both creeds and dogmatic imagery. and savior “of a suffering Israel and a suffering humanity”). who had created the earth. He rejected the entire Hebrew Bible. Rome. apse mosaic in Santa Costanza. but was (de facto) the source of evil. shows Christ standing on a rock and delivering the Law to Peter and Paul. Rome. in turn. have handed down that knowledge to their successors.
He is attended to by two angels: the one on the right receives offerings and the one on the left who conveys honors bestowed by Christ. The mage is meant to symbolize the divine and saving power of Christ to heal the whole man. apse mosaic in Santa Prudenziana. Italy. 400 26 Fresco from the catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter. the unchallenged leaders of the church. 27 San Viatal. here introduce 4 “A History of Christian Art” by Bernard Dick All Rights Reserved www. ox. ca. Contrast the mosaic with a fresco  scene depicting the encounter of Jesus with the woman with a hemorrhage. Angels. The female figures behind each are personifications of the gentile churches (Paul) and the Jewish churches (Peter) In the sky above the figures are the images of the four winged creatures described in the book of Revelation. Another dogmatically themed mosaic  —this one from a much later period (ca. 547 An example of dogmatic imagery from this period is the apse mosaic in the church of Santa Pudenziana .com . Christ is enthroned. He extends his right hand in a gesture of teaching or benediction. Rome. 547)— depicts a young beardless Christ sitting astride a blue globe symbolic of the earth or universe.HistoryOfChristianArt. a reference to his Lordship and to his divine authority to teach the new law. from the beginning of the 4th c. and eagle. the man. lion. often represented in scripture as messengers of God. Rome.25 Christ in Majesty. multi leveled doctrinal agenda as the mosaic does. Preeminent among the authoritative gathering of apostles are Peter and Paul. Mosaic completed ca. Ravenna. in Rome. Christ is Lord of all creation. It does not offer us a complex. The rabbi has felt his curative powers tapped into by the woman’s faith. The fresco is a simple narrative. View into apse.
facts. after all. Jesus Through the Centuries. They merely inform the viewer of certain truths. or dogmas of the Christian faith. we will take a look at how the early Christians came to represent the God who. In a later chapter we will examine a development that seems to come dangerously close to just what the apologists criticized. the God who cannot be seen “face to face. Yale University Press.wikipedia. (New Haven. and are suggestive of his divine as well as human nature.HistoryOfChristianArt. stories. Inc. we have not seen any images that would seem to elicit devotion or veneration from the viewer. The artists who created these works —and the church authorities who would have had to approved them— clearly did not conceive these as images that would be worshipped in any sense that could come close to the pagan worship of images so strongly mocked and denounced by early Christian apologists. 9:44 1 July 2008. is invisible. But first. 17:31 12 June 2008.com . 1985) 2 Wikimedia Foundation.an element of distance between Christ and man.. in the next chapter. Marcionism.org/wiki/Marcionism> 1 5 “A History of Christian Art” by Bernard Dick All Rights Reserved www. <http://en. So far in our review of the images used to decorate the interiors of the early Christian churches.” ————————————————————————————— Jaroslav Pelikan.
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