Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Posts Tagged ‘Transgendered Art’

Jesus, our sister? Part 4

July 9th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Continued from Part 3

In parts 1 through 3 we explained the reasons for the appearance of feminine images of Christ in the fourth and fifth centuries. But, by the end of the fifth century the production of such images had ceased.

Why?

First off, let’s be clear that the number of images of Jesus Christ unavoidably male in appearance far outweighed feminine examples.  Also, there are no examples of feminine Christs as part of churches used for public Liturgy. So, we’re talking exceptions here, not the rule.

Secondly, we have no examples of feminine depictions of Christ from the first 200 years of Christianity. Feminine imagery coincided with the advent of the legalization of Christianity and subsequent expedient conversions which resulted in a “tracking into the Church” of pagan practices and images.

Thirdly, the doctrine of the Incarnation was clarified at the council of Nicaea in 325 (and Constantinople -381, Ephesus -431, and Chalcedon -451). Jesus Christ was God “incarnated” in human flesh –fully God and fully man.

Fig. 1 "First Council of Nicaea" (325), Renaissance fresco painting in the Vatican

Most importantly for our purposes, this Jesus Christ was a real historical person who lived at a particular time in history (he “suffered [under Pontius Pilate]”). Moreover the Gospel reported that he walked among people and cured them out of compassion, and not for any profit. No god before had done that. They certainly were not depicted in art doing it. Christ was. Images from the catacombs and on sarcophagi show him in the actual act of healing (Fig. 2). This was something completely new.

Fig. 2 "Christ Healing the Blind Man", 4th c. sacophagus (detail)

Jesus was the comforting, compassionate human face of divinity.

Fourthly, Judea, in the fourth century, became a center of pilgrimage as Constantine and his mother, St. Helena, initiated the construction of beautiful basilicas over the major sites of the earthly events of Christ’s life; places such as the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  It was in the Holy Land that stational Liturgy began. Holy week consisted of a series of processions from one site of Christ’s passion to another with pertinent readings from the passion at each. Writers of the Antiochene -in contrast to the Alexandrean- “school” of mystagogies (explanations of  the meaning of the Liturgy and sacraments) focused on the history of salvation and the humanity of Christ and so often interpreted the Liturgy as representing Christ’s earhly ministry. Interest in historicity, then, played a role in focusing attention on the literal, rather than a myhological, Jesus and in the incorporation of scenes from the life of Christ in church decoration.

With the official clarification and formulation of the doctrine of the Incarnation -although controversy would continue to rage for several centuries- the production of figures of ambiguous sexual identity faded as they would only cloud the literal fact that Jesus, unlike the pagan gods, was a real historical person as well as God. By the end of the fifth century, the production of transgendered or feminine images of Christ had faded to near extinction, popping up in later centuries as mere oddities. A stunning variety of possibilities (Fig. 4) continued to speculate on Christ’s likeness but the transgendered interpretation was no longer among them; youthful, yes; bearded or clean shaven, yes; long hair or short hair, yes; but not female.

Fig. 4 (left) detail "Christ Enthroned Among His Apostles" (c. 400), apse mosaic in St. Prudenziana, Rome; (right) detail "Christ on Globe Amid Angels and Saints" (547), apse mosaic in Saint Vitalis, Ravenna

The feminine images of Christ we have looked at were apparently not an expression of some feminine aspect of early Christianity later repressed by a male hierarchy. Rather they appear to have been an aberration caused by the infiltration of certain pagan images into Christian art during an unstable period. Creation of those types of images gradually ceased as the orthodox understanding of Christ was clarified. What was repressed was not feminism but an unorthodox image that threatened a true understanding of the person of Jesus Christ. Most Christian art from the first several centuries derived from and even borrowed from pagan prototypes; the Good Shepherd is an excellent example. In most instances, however, Christians added a fuller, deeper meaning to the basic  pagan sentiment. The feminine Christs worked the other way, altering the Christian message.

Fig. 5 "Processional Cross", St. Mary's Church in downtown Rochester

We return, then, to the transgendered processional cross (Fig. 5) I mentioned at the start of this short series. Such a cross is used in the Liturgy during the entrance rite and, perhaps, at the procession of the gifts to the altar. It might also be used at the Liturgy of the Hours and at other times with a congregation outside the Liturgy. Without invoking an authoritative Church statement or “instruction” (I’ll let you folks cite any such documents in the comment box), we can say with confidence that it is not an appropriate image for use in the Liturgy of the Church. The Liturgy must always be orthodox for -as a Church and not just as individuals-  “we pray as we believe.” What images we might privately use as an aid to prayer is one thing; what is used in the communal, public worship of the Church is another.

The dogma of the Incarnation as revealed in the Gospel and formulated by the Council of Nicaea make it clear that there is no confusion as to what the doctrine means. Nothing in the Liturgy –certainly not anything as concrete as an image of the Lord— should suggest otherwise.

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)

Jesus, our sister? Part 2

July 1st, 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’ll spend a little more time on this one),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.

_____________________________________________________

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)

Jesus, our sister? Part 1

June 28th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

 

Tags: , , ,
Comments: 5 Comments »

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.

_____________________________________________________

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)

Tags: , ,
Comments: Comments Off on Jesus, our sister? Part 2