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Custodians of a vast, priceless inheritance of sacred art…
We are the custodians of a vast, priceless inheritance of sacred art.
Painting, sculpture, architecture, music — every kind of art and craft has been put to the service of prayer, worship and evangelisation. As a result we have monumental cathedrals and basilicas, masses and oratorios that still stir the souls of performers and listeners born centuries after the death of the composer, paintings and sculptures that are instantly recognisable the world over.
But, just as importantly, the church has brought art and music to countless people who might never otherwise have experienced it. There are generations who would never have seen art in their own homes, were it not for reproductions of the Sacred Heart, or small statues of the Infant of Prague. There are generations whose only exposure to choral music, or to participating in choral music, was in church. And, of course, there are generations of artists and craftspeople who found an audience, or even found a livelihood, through the church.
Devoid of art in the early centuries…
It comes as a bit of a surprise, then, to realise that for the first two centuries of the church's life, art appears to have played almost no role. Little or nothing in the way of Christian religious art from this period survives.
There could be a number of reasons for this:
Whatever the reason, all that we have from this period is a few symbols, notably the symbol of the fish but also the lamb and the cross, painted on or carved into walls.
Probably the earliest depiction that we have of Christ dates from around 200 AD, and is actually a crude anti-Christian caricature. Found scratched into the wall of a guardroom near the Circus Maximus in Rome, it shows a crucified man with the head of a donkey, and the slogan (in Greek) "Alexamenos worships his god". Most probably, it's a jibe directed by Roman soldiers at a Christian colleague.
Crude as it may be, however, it does suggest that the image of the crucifix was a readily recognised symbol of Christianity by this time.
Earliest devotional image…
The earliest truly devotional image of Christ that survives may be one dating from around 235 AD which was found in an archaeological dig at an early Christian house-church in Syria. It shows Christ healing the paralytic ("Rise, take up your bed and walk").
Jesus is dressed as a Roman teacher. He wears a Roman tunic and sandals, is clean-shaven and has close-cropped hair.
Since Jesus had been dead for two centuries at this point, it is very unlikely that this is intended as an actual depiction of Jesus. As well as leaving no images of him, the early church does not appear to have cared what Jesus looked like — there are no descriptions of him in any of the New Testament texts or in other writings from the period, and it seems unlikely that an oral tradition of his appearance was handed down for two centuries.
And, in fact, this is fairly typical of early Christian art; Christ is portrayed as a contemporary figure. Another early image of Christ comes from the other end of the Roman empire, a third-century villa in Britain. It depicts Christ as a fashionably-dressed young man of the period; it is only the inscription which identifies him as Christ. Still other images from the period show him as a (pagan) Roman priest, complete with the wand which the pagan priests carried. Christ does not acquire a beard and long hair until these things come back into fashion among Christians.
Where Christ is not shown as a contemporary figure, he is shown as an archetype. For instance, there are many early images of Christ which show him as a shepherd. He was not, of course, a shepherd, but he often compared his role as Messiah to that of a shepherd, and this is what these images are referring to.
What are these images endeavouring to tell us?
And this is the key to something important. None of these images are intended to tell us about what Christ actually looked like. That was not something that anybody at the time seems to have cared about. Instead they seek to tell us something about Christ — something which the artist, or the community that he comes from, wants to say; for example, that Christ is a wise teacher, that he fulfils the (priestly) role of speaking to God on our behalf, that he is the Good Shepherd.
Why don't they just say these things? Well, no doubt they did, in preaching and teaching and writing. But it's a universal human experience that there are many things that cannot be said easily, or effectively, or at all, in ordinary speech. That's part of the reason why we have art, and music, and dance; they are all modes of communication.
This is not just a matter of religion. The reason we have love songs, for instance, is that the experience of being in love, or of being rejected in love, cannot really be communicated through ordinary speech.
And the Christian faith is based on some stupendously big ideas — ideas which really stretch our capacity to understand, never mind our capacity to articulate. We're not going to be able to express our faith without making full use of all the modes of expression that we have. So it's pretty much a given that a lively Christianity is going to produce religious art. And that's why we have all those millions of plaster reproductions of the Infant of Prague with the fingers chipped off, and Byrd's Mass for Four Voices, and everything in between.
But religious ideas, especially Christian ones, can be challenging and confronting. That makes for challenging, confronting art. Next week, I'll have a look at some of the issues that raises.
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