Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

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Jesus, our sister? Part 2

June 7th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Continued from Part 1

Continuing from Part 1, we turn now to the context in which Christian images were created in the fourth and fifth centuries.

There are at least three aspects that need to be described in order to posit a possible explanation for the existence of certain feminine looking images of Jesus. First, the centuries we are poking around in were troublesome for the Church. They were rife with heresies. The role and person of Jesus Christ was at the center of most of them. Even ecumenical councils failed in some instances to end the controversies.  So, the period we are concerned with was one of trying to understand who Jesus was and what role he played.

The second context we need to be aware of was a very practical one. Artists were not creative personalities such as we know them to be today. They were artisans. The quality of their technical skill distinguished them and not innovative expression.  Much like picking out wallpaper today customers were shown examples of images from which they would choose what they wanted. There was certainly some room for creativity but, generally, the images themselves and their basic poses (especially images of the gods) were fairly standard, even from artist to artist.

Thirdly,we have to consider who was commissioning Christian images. Several of the examples we saw in Part 1 were from sarcophagi (Fig. 1) or small statuettes. In fact, the examples of feminine Christs were works commissioned by private individuals or families.   Even the apse example we looked at in Part 1 was made in the private chapel of an imperial princess.

Fig. 1 "Roman Sarophagus" (4th c.)

A stone or marble sarcophagus (coffin) or statuette was expensive and therefore only commissioned by the wealthy. Those people  held positions of some importance in daily life. They consisted of landowners, successful business men, magistrates and even higher placed members of the imperial administration. Keep in mind that the first Christian converts from that class were women, the wives. The men tended to be more conservative and held onto their pagan ways until it became apparent that there was career advantage to being Christian. It was a common complaint of bishops of the period that these new converts often brought into the Church their old pagan ways. The main problem for bishops regarding the pagans was not so much in converting them but rather preventing them from reverting back to their old practices once they did convert.

Consider also that this social class was very conscious of being Roman, as opposed to barbarian. Proper education was essential for membership in that class. Generally speaking evidence of a proper education  was speaking and writing fine Latin (and Greek) mostly learned by reading and writing about the myths and other stories of the pagan gods. The possession of quality artistic images –frescoes, mosaics, sculpture, and decorated dishes, pottery, etc.– that showed the gods (Fig. 2) and goddesses were, of course, also evidence of Roman-ness.

Fig. 2 "Hercules Fighting Snakes" (date ?) Roman marble sculpture

The Church herself commissioned decorative works for her first churches but those didn’t begin to appear until the later half of the fourth century. St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the earliest churches, is thought to have been still unfinished in 350. Of the earliest examples of such large scale decorations is the Church of Santa Costanza (Fig. 3) in Rome which actually started out as a mausoleum for Constantine’s Christian daughter, Constantina.

Fig. 3 "Vintaging Putti" (ca. 350) ambulatory vault of Church of Santa Costanza, Rome

The ceiling of the ambulatory is decorated in mosaic images totally consistent with pagan decorations of mausolea from the same period. Christian scenes from the life of Christ are included but occupy relatively small rectangular spaces. We should note, however, that Constantina’s two husbands were aggressively pagan and so they may have influenced the decoration.

That is a basic description of the context in which Christian art appeared during the fourth and fifth centuries. The person and role of Jesus Christ was being hotly debated among Christians. New converts, from the privileged class of Roman society, commissioned images from artists of the day who often did not create innovative imagery but produced from an existing repertoire.

Now, as to just exactly how the feminine looking images of Christ came about. On to Part 3.

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Book suggestions:

Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom, (Malden, Blackwell Publishing 2003)

Paul Corby Finney, The Invisible God –The Earliest Christians on Art, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1994)

Mike Aquilina, The Fathers of the Church: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers, (Huntington, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2006)

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