My favorite scene in all of the Indiana Jones films comes in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. As his father lays dying, Indy enters a room guarded by an ancient knight, who tells them that the true Holy Grail is one of the many vessels surrounding them. Elsa, the Nazi archaeologist, selects a beautiful golden chalice. “This certainly is the cup of the ‘King of Kings,’" the evil businessman says before taking a fatal drink. “He chose... poorly,” the knight says. “That's the cup of a carpenter,” Indy says, choosing a rough wooden cup. The Kimbell Art Museum’s current exhibition also chooses wisely in their presentation of Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art. In this exhibition and accompanying catalogue, we discover just how that humble carpenter evolved into the golden King of Kings. The silver ewer above encapsulates this dual nature, showing on one side Jesus healing the blind man (displaying the miracle worker and friend of the poor) and on the other one side Jesus handing the keys of power over to Peter (positioning Jesus as lawgiver and ruler passing on his authority to the Church and the governments it befriends). Picturing the Bible allows us to go back in time to the origin of Christian art and thought and see how Christianity became what we know today.
Jeffrey Spier, who conceived and organized the exhibition, provides an overview of the development of early Christian art in his opening essay, “The Earliest Christian Art: From Personal Salvation to Imperial Power.” Little Christian art exists that can be dated before the third century A.D. Slowly, however, as Christians attained wealth and property, they began to decorate their churches, tombs, and homes with art reflecting their faith, just as their non-Christian, pagan counterparts did. This new Christian art borrows from the existing pagan and Jewish models, reinterpreting the familiar motifs and scenes for the still-young faith. The fourth century A.D. gem shown above, engraved with a scene depicting Adam and Eve, would have been set as a seal into a ring, a later example of the early personal items that bore the first marks of Christian art. The story of Adam and Eve would have been familiar and comfortable from its use in Jewish art and yet would still mark the individual as a follower of Christ, the “new Adam” who died on the cross, the “new Tree of Knowledge.”
Christian art transcends the personal sphere and enters the public, political world with the acceptance of Christ and Christianity by Constantine the Great in 312. Legends tell of an epiphany in which God appeared before Constantine on the eve of a great battle for the control of the empire and assured him victory if he placed the sign of Christ on the shields of his men. That legend most likely arose much later to cement the connection between Constantine and Christ, but the marriage of religion and state power begins with Constantine’s ascension. As Johannes G. Deckers points out in his essay, “Constantine the Great and Early Christian Art,” “Beginning in the fourth century, the mild Son of God of the New Testament was eclipsed in art by the remote, all-powerful figure of the Pantocrator, guarantor of a hierarchical world order culminating in the person of the emperor.” Although the gentle Lamb of God motif appears under Christ’s feet at the center of the Arles Sarcophagus (above), the emphasis is clearly on the passage of the rules of law from the hand of Christ to St. Peter, who stands as a surrogate for the emperor. The small, antiestablishment band of Christians had made the big time and become assimilated by the ruling powers.
Ivory plaque with Pilate Washing His Hands, Christ Bearing the Cross, and Peter Denying Christ, Rome, c. 420-30, from the Maskell ivories. The Trustees of the British Museum, London
Several fascinating revelations arise from the discussions of the art. Truly startling is the idea that the cross was not a familiar motif in the earliest Christian art. If Constantine placed a symbol of Christ on his shields, it was most likely the Greek-lettered “chi-rho” Christogram—the savior’s monogram. The cross still carried connotations of shame and brutality that the early Christians didn’t want depicted in their art. An ivory plaque (above) shows one of the earliest uses of the cross in a compacted narrative scene of the passion and death of Christ, with Pilate washing his hands and Peter denying his Lord three times crammed in with a scene of Christ carrying his cross to Golgotha. Such concise composition creates opportunities for interesting parallels to be drawn within the image and with other images, promoting a level of exegesis—the elucidation of allegorical meaning on multiple levels—startling in its sophistication.
Book cover with scenes from the life of Jesus, northern Italy, second half of the 5th century; ivory with central figures of gilded-silver cell work inlaid with garnets. Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano e del Museo del Duomo, Milan
This sophistication appears most obviously in the elaborate Bible covers that were developed in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., as Christianity continued to grow in size and power. The example above shows the once-humble Lamb of God now depicted in gilded silver cells inlaid with garnets and other precious stones. Scenes of the life of Jesus appear in the ivory carvings surrounding the central motif. These expensive covers emphasized the importance of the gospels to Christianity as much as they displayed the importance of the individuals who paid for them to be made. The other half of this bible cover features a cross at the center, as bejeweled as the Lamb. Again, the two-sided nature of humble and powerful Christianity appears, but the balance is clearly moving towards the powerful.
Adam Naming the Animals, Rome (?), early 5th century, from an ivory diptych. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence
Many of these book covers actually carry out visually the doctrinal questions of the day. Theological doctors of the early church, such as St. Augustine and Paulinus, exerted great influence on the visual “language” of early Christian art. The ivory diptych half shown above featuring Adam naming the animals belongs with another half showing the miracles of St. Paul. By juxtaposing Adam and St. Paul, the artist visually recreates the doctrinal concept in which St. Paul (who once was bit by a poisonous viper and survived) and Adam (who had dominion over all the beasts) could neither be harmed by beasts and, therefore, overcame nature through their virtuous devotion to God. Such complex visual language no longer exists today, something Father Heinrich Pfeiffer, S.J., lamented in his analysis of the complex doctrinal concepts embedded in the Sistine Chapel in his work The Sistine Chapel: A New Vision (my review here). The fact that such intricate interplay between words and images exists within the tradition of Christian art from these earliest works to the heights of the Renaissance adds a whole new dimension to the genre and a coherence not obvious at first glance when placing these early ivory carvings and, for example, The Last Judgment side by side.
The Ascension, from the Rabbula Gospels, Syria, 586; vellum. Biblioteca Mdicea Laurenziana, Florence (Cod. Plut. I. 56, Fol. 13v)
In addition to the amazing covers of these early Bibles, the text itself became a work of art. In his essay, “The Word Made Flesh in Early Decorated Bibles," Herbert L. Kessler sees these illuminated scriptures as truly “living writing,” with initial capital letters transformed into a cross or a figure or the loops of letters embellished with symbols that emphasize or interact with the text itself. Another dimension that these illustrated works offer is in the inclusion of local artistic traditions or apocryphal religious accounts that would appeal to the intended audience using the work. The Ascension scene from the Rabbula Gospels (above) borrows from “extensive Gospel pictorial cycles originating in Syria—Palestine in the sixth century” that formed the basis for later Byzantine art. By including this local flavor, the gospels became that much more familiar and appealing to the worshiper. Such concern for catholic inclusiveness reminds me of Rowena Loverance’s study, Christian Art (reviewed here), which called for a renewed emphasis on the functionality and practicality she found in these early Christian works of art. If only the Catholic Church today could adopt a similar flexibility in approaching modern culture and assimilating it into their outreach to believers and nonbelievers.
Reliquary Cross of Justin II, the Crux Vaticana, Constantinople, 568-74; gilded silver over a bronze core, with inlaid gems. Treasury of Saint Peter’s (Capitolo di San Pietro in Vaticano), Vatican City.
Picturing the Bible saddens me in some ways. Although such works as the Reliquary Cross of Justin II (above) gleam with majesty and beauty, it’s hard to separate that shine from the tarnished history of religion used to justify abuses of political and military power going all the way back to Constantine. Steven F. Eisenman’s The Abu Ghraib Effect (to be reviewed here soon) would even argue that the rise of the cross as the primary symbol of Christianity over the Christogram or the Lamb of God reflects the violent, torture-laden history of the church and state union. However, the modern-day relevance of the early Christian art displayed in Picturing the Bible lies in the realization of the sophistication of the images. If we could only “read” the images surrounding us today with the same fluency that those generations up through the Renaissance could, perhaps that questioning eye could deconstruct the implications behind the imagery and challenge the institutions in power propagating the visual narrative we have come to accept unquestioningly. With such an eye we could “choose wisely” the proper sources from which to drink in our beliefs.
[Many thanks to the Kimbell Art Museum for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to the exhibition Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art and for the images above.]