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How Christ appeared to the early Christians

by
24 January 2008

After the fish came the shepherd. A new exhibition in the US looks at how Christ was first depicted by the early Church

Ceiling fresco in the Coemeterium Maius (the large cemetery) near the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, painted c.320-40. The central figure of the Good Shepherd is surrounded by images of Adam and Eve, Moses striking the rock, Jonah under the gourds, and a woman at prayer

Ceiling fresco in the Coemeterium Maius (the large cemetery) near the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, painted c.320-40. The central figure of the Good ...

THE ICONOGRAPHY of the Christian faith is so familiar now — the cross, the halo, the Evangelists’ symbols, the Virgin’s lily, the eucharistic elements, etc. — that it is hard to imagine a time when none existed.

In Picturing the Bible: The earliest Christian art, Jeffrey Spier, Adjunct Professor of Classics at Arizona University, Tucson, writes that the earliest Christian art began to appear in about the year 200. Little archaeological evidence has been found concerning the origins of Christian art, but the earliest examples, from the painted walls of the catacombs in Rome, date from early in the third century. Crude symbols also start appearing on personal items such as lamps and seal rings at about this time.

In Picturing the Bible: The earliest Christian art, Jeffrey Spier, Adjunct Professor of Classics at Arizona University, Tucson, writes that the earliest Christian art began to appear in about the year 200. Little archaeological evidence has been found concerning the origins of Christian art, but the earliest examples, from the painted walls of the catacombs in Rome, date from early in the third century. Crude symbols also start appearing on personal items such as lamps and seal rings at about this time.

One rare reference to the depiction of Christianity comes from Clement of Alexandria (150-215): “And let our seals by either a dove, or a fish, or a ship running with a fair wind, or musical lyre, which Polycrates used, or a ship’s anchor, which Seleucus had engraved; and if the seal is a fisherman, it will recall the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water.

“For we are not to depict the faces of idols, we who are prohibited from attaching ourselves to them, nor a sword, nor a bow, since we follow peace, nor drinking cups, since we are temperate. Many of the licentious have their homosexual lovers engraved, or prostitutes, as if they wished to make it impossible ever to forget their erotic passions, by being continually reminded of their licentiousness.”

The fish, mentioned by Clement, is known to have been one of the earliest symbols, partly because the Greek for fish, icthys, is an acrostic composed of the first letters of the phrase: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour”. But soon Christians went beyond the merely symbolic and began employing artistic images. Professor Spier writes:

The fish, mentioned by Clement, is known to have been one of the earliest symbols, partly because the Greek for fish, icthys, is an acrostic composed of the first letters of the phrase: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour”. But soon Christians went beyond the merely symbolic and began employing artistic images. Professor Spier writes:

“The Good Shepherd was one of the first images created by Christians at the beginning of the third century. The composition itself — usually a young, beardless shepherd standing facing frontally, carrying a lamb over his shoulder — is traditionally pagan and commonly found, for example, on contemporary sarcophagi in Rome as an allusion to the paradise in the afterlife.

 “Christian artists were able to appropriate this figure and invest it with purely Christian significance. Jesus explicitly stated: ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10.11) and this passage was surely uppermost in the minds of Christians of the third and fourth centuries when they employed the image on their seal rings, gold glass cups, baptisteries, and tombs.

 “Christian artists were able to appropriate this figure and invest it with purely Christian significance. Jesus explicitly stated: ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10.11) and this passage was surely uppermost in the minds of Christians of the third and fourth centuries when they employed the image on their seal rings, gold glass cups, baptisteries, and tombs.

  “The Christian theologian Tertullian, writing in the city of Carthage around the year 200, made the association clear: ‘But a “sheep” is properly a Christian, and the Lord’s “flock” is the people of the Church, and the “good shepherd” is Christ.’

  “The Christian theologian Tertullian, writing in the city of Carthage around the year 200, made the association clear: ‘But a “sheep” is properly a Christian, and the Lord’s “flock” is the people of the Church, and the “good shepherd” is Christ.’

“Where and when the Good Shepherd first appeared in Christian art is uncertain. The earliest datable instance may be the lamp from the Florentius workshop (below, right), but the image was immensely popular throughout the third and fourth centuries in funerary contexts, such as the Roman catacomb frescoes, and by the late third century, carved marble sarcophagi.

“Early Christian works of art made in the eastern Mediterranean, especially Syria-Palestine and Asia Minor, are mostly lost, but a number of depictions of the Good Shepherd survive. In the baptistery at Dura Europos, the Good Shepherd was painted in a prominent position in the baptistery. Engraved gems, generally of Eastern origin and of relatively early date (second half of the third century), and an extraordinarily fine marble statuette from Asia Minor of the 280s provide further evidence of the widespread presence of the image in the East, not only in tombs, but also as decoration on domestic images.”

“Early Christian works of art made in the eastern Mediterranean, especially Syria-Palestine and Asia Minor, are mostly lost, but a number of depictions of the Good Shepherd survive. In the baptistery at Dura Europos, the Good Shepherd was painted in a prominent position in the baptistery. Engraved gems, generally of Eastern origin and of relatively early date (second half of the third century), and an extraordinarily fine marble statuette from Asia Minor of the 280s provide further evidence of the widespread presence of the image in the East, not only in tombs, but also as decoration on domestic images.”

Picturing the Bible: The earliest Christian art is published by Yale University Press at £40 (CT Bookshop £36), 978-0-300-11683-0. It is produced in association with the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, where an exhibition of the same name runs until 30 March.

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