Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church


Jesus, our sister? Part 3

July 4th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Continued from Part 2

Having briefly examined in Part 2 the context in which Christian art appeared in the fourth and fifth centuries we can proffer a possible explanation as to how it was that some images of Christ from the period came to exhibit feminine characteristics.

Mosaic, fresco, and funerary artists at first didn’t have a repertoire of Christian images. They had to listen to what Christian clients wanted and while doing so mentally flip through their stock of images for something that sounded like it might fit. The Christians themselves didn’t seem to have a very clear idea of who Jesus was. The lack of a visual tradition and the conflicting heresies contributed to their seeming confusion. Sometimes Jesus sounded young and full of vitality, sometimes old and wise. Sometimes he seemed a philosopher, sometimes a law-giver and sometimes a compassionate lover; sometimes a magician and sometimes a Jewish rabbi. He was associated with wine and festive celestial banquets and identified as the source of new life and new creation. Then, there was that “neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female” thing. Sometimes he was a man and sometimes a divinity. Sometimes he seemed to be both. It was a little difficult to get a fix on him.

The artists did their best to come up with appropriate images. Quite frankly, it wasn’t very hard.

“Young and full of vitality? How about something like an Apollo?”

“Wine? We’ve got a Dionysus right over here behind this Serapis. Serapis! Neither male or female, but both!” …and often shown as a man with breasts.

“Apollo, too; he’s a cross-dresser and often shown with breasts!”

“Shepherd? Here’s a Hermes as a shepherd. We can do Apollo as a shepherd. We did one last month for another Christian customer.”

–click on the image for a clearer display–

Fig. 1: (left) "Hermes as a Shepherd"; (right) "The Good Shepherd" (ca. 300)

Even Christian artists would have referred to the same repertoire. It certainly would not have taken long before a collection of images became “Christian.” If a Christian walked into such a  workshop the artist would know just what to show him. Artists, of course, were acutely aware of each others’ work so a Christian repertoire would have appeared amazingly fast.

Artists tweaked the source images for Christians, mixing and matching here and there to make things fit the Christian idea a little better.  This was a little more likely after the middle of the 3rd century as the aristocrats, and the artisans who worked for them, became less focused on Rome and more interested in their own provincial areas. Once an artist’s repertoire was put together it would seldom be tinkered with any further. Why reinvent the wheel?

Below, on the left, is “Apollo in Woman’s Dress”. Such imagery was especially appealing to Gnostic Christians who often talked of God as both male and female; the unification of the two sexes was understood as a symbol of salvation. Below, in the center is another youthful “Apollo.” Below, right, is “Serapis Seated between Eagle and Cerberus”. Male gods who possessed nurturing or fertility powers were often depicted with breasts. Christ, bringer of “new life”, fit the image but he seemed to be an actual man more than god so he got the youthful image of Apollo more than Serapis; images of bearded older men were clues the image was meant to depict a divine personage.

Fig. 2: (left) "Apollo in Woman's Dress" (1st c. B.C.); (center) "Bronze Apollo"; (right) "Serapis Seated between Eagle and Cerberus" (2nd c.)

So, here is our possible explanation of why feminine Christs show up in early Christian art.

In the fourth and fifth centuries Christianity was still deciding on who Christ was. Heresies were all around. The Western Church especially was fractured into various heretical groups: the Donatist Church in Africa, Priscillianism in Spain and the followers of Pelagius in Rome. Perplexed artists, in the absence of an existing tradition of Christian imagery, did their best to match the images they had in their repertoire with the often conflicting descriptions Christians offered. Wealthy Christian clients were no doubt delighted that the images were similar to the gods and goddesses that were so much a part of their learning and reflective of their social standing. A feminine looking Christ with breasts was okay with them because the figure looked like what a Roman of social standing might possess. There was nothing, quite frankly, to contradict the feminine imagery in Church teaching. Based on what both artists and Christian customers were familiar with in the dominant pagan culture, the Christs were just fine.

The customer of social standing got the kind of image he was looking for –Christ as Apollo or Apollo as Christ– and the artist got his commission.

That’s probably how it came down; a simple commercial transaction governed by an existing repertoire and sociological influences.

Relative to the transgendered cross at St. Mary’s, however, is the event that eventually halted the production of feminine Christs.

In Part 4 we will layout a possible explanation for the demise of feminine or transgendered Christs and what the implications are for using such images today. Feel free to speculate in the comment box.


Book suggestions:

Thomas F. Mathews, The Clash of Gods; a Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art, revised and expanded edition, (Princeton, Princeton University Press 2003)

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

Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus through the Centuries, His Place in the History of Culture, (New Haven, Yale University Press 1985)

Robin Margaret Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, (New York, Routledge 2006)

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2 Responses to “Jesus, our sister? Part 3”

  1. avatar Gen says:

    I’m going out on a limb here, but personally, I tend to doubt that the whole Brogan/Sobala/Lawlor/& Co. crew are wealthy patricians in third century Rome.

    Then again, they do have as much theological variation as the Romans did . . . and their liturgies are more barbaric than anything seen in the arenas . . .

    Did I just prove my first statement wrong? Ugh.

  2. avatar Bernie says:

    “I’m going out on a limb here, but personally, I tend to doubt that the whole Brogan/Sobala/Lawlor/& Co. crew are wealthy patricians in third century Rome.”

    We can forgive the wealthy patricians for misrepresenting Christ and the Faith out of ignorance. As for the other crew…

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