Religion and Art

The Australian blogger Peregrinus posts the first in a series of essays on the dual topic. Go to today’s post for a look at early Christian art–or the relative lack of it.

(T)ypical of early Christian art, Christ is portrayed as a contemporary figure. Another early image of Christ comes from the other end of the Roman empire, a third-century villa in Britain. It depicts Christ as a fashionably-dressed young man of the period; it is only the inscription which identifies him as Christ. Still other images from the period show him as a (pagan) Roman priest, complete with the wand which the pagan priests carried. Christ does not acquire a beard and long hair until these things come back into fashion among Christians.

Where Christ is not shown as a contemporary figure, he is shown as an archetype. For instance, there are many early images of Christ which show him as a shepherd. He was not, of course, a shepherd, but he often compared his role as Messiah to that of a shepherd, and this is what these images are referring to.

The early Christians were unconcerned with literalism. The purpose of early Christian art was catechetical in part.

(Early images) seek to tell us something about Christ — something which the artist, or the community that he comes from, wants to say; for example, that Christ is a wise teacher, that he fulfills the (priestly) role of speaking to God on our behalf, that he is the Good Shepherd.

Why don’t they just say these things? Well, no doubt they did, in preaching and teaching and writing. But it’s a universal human experience that there are many things that cannot be said easily, or effectively, or at all, in ordinary speech. That’s part of the reason why we have art, and music, and dance; they are all modes of communication.

(I)t’s pretty much a given that a lively Christianity is going to produce religious art. And that’s why we have all those millions of plaster reproductions of the Infant of Prague with the fingers chipped off, and Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, and everything in between.

Any thoughts on the article?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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