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The Private Art of Early Christians

In fact, pagan and Christian tombs were often jumbled together, in a manner cheerful and improvident, by families who continued to believe, in their robust Roman manner, that blood was thicker than baptismal water, and that the unity of a family plot (a thing hard to come by in the crowded cities of the dead outside Rome and other cities) was more important than were individual differences of belief.

The brilliant recent study of Early Christian burial practices in all regions by Éric Rebillard, Religion et sépulture. L’Église, les vivants et les morts dans l’antiquité tardive,1 makes clear that this was the case. We have to envision a truly ancient, truly pre-medieval and pre-modern world: a world without clearly defined Christian cemeteries. In this world, the clergy were, at best, a distant presence in the care of the dead and hence in Christian imaginings of the contours of the afterlife.

This was not the case only among the graves. Rising above the vast cramped city, the palaces of Christian aristocrats, lost in great gardens, might contain liturgical furnishings as splendid as those of any churches. This may well have been the case of the House of the Valerii, perched on top of Rome’s Celian Hill, in which was found the late-fourth-century bronze lamp that declared, “The Lord presents the law to Valerius Severus” (catalog page 249). Brother of Pinianus—a famous ascetic and the husband of Saint Melania the Younger—Valerius Severus is known to have bitterly opposed the young couple’s decision to sell off their vast estates and to give the money to the poor. Severus had received “the law” in his palace in around 400; but within this palace, family, and the inherited wealth of the family, had remained his prime concern.

Not all Christians in Rome were as spectacularly wealthy as Severus. Rather, they came increasingly from what one can only call, for lack of a better term, the “middling classes.” Even in the third century, Christians were by no means the band of humble paupers that modern persons like to imagine them to have been. A strange alliance of Christian romantic sentimentalism and supposedly “hard-nosed” social science makes these Early Christians difficult to place on a map of Roman society. This is because our map is so crudely drawn. The standard social histories of Rome in its last centuries tend to stress an abrupt division of late-Roman society between the haves and the have-nots, between a few grossly rich aristocrats and an impoverished urban population. The catacombs, however, tell a very different story, in Rome and elsewhere—but in Rome we can see more clearly what was also the case in Trier, Arles, Naples, Syracuse, and Carthage.

Frescoed tombs were not for the down and out. Rather, the Early Christians of the late third and fourth centuries found their social niche in a world of wholesale grocers, transporters of grain, makers of wine barrels, government clerks, intellectuals, and minor provincial noblemen come to town. It was not an easy world. The comfortable modern overtones of “middle class” do not apply to it. Its members yearned for the protection of supernatural beings.

We should bear this in mind when we look at the recurrent images of deliverance from danger that make up the overwhelming majority of the artifacts in the early rooms of this exhibition: Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Jonah delivered from the depths of the sea, Susanna saved from false testimony. Those who possessed these images (and Jews who did the same) did not see them, as we might see them, as merely “picturing” the Bible. Rather, these images “applied” the Bible. They brought the electric presence of a timeless and almighty God (the shared high God of Jews and Christians) into the present. And they did so not only to protect the soul as it passed into another world. They also did so in order to pit the power of Christ against illness, infertility, business failure, physical violence, sorcery, and vexatious litigation—the occupational hazards of a “middling” class in Roman conditions, as in many countries up to this day. These were images of power. They were snatched from the Bible like so many “stills” from an overwhelmingly great movie, and applied to the anxieties of relatively upwardly mobile and cultivated persons.

Altogether, we would be very wrong to imagine the average Christian shrinking from the world in the shade of the catacombs. Christians were like the members of the Jewish communities of Rome and elsewhere, whose art and religious imagery are shown, by Steven Fine, in a brilliant essay, to be “a minority art form,” but nonetheless an art form which was “unique…[in] the way that it participated in [the] general conversation” of a Mediterranean-wide visual culture. Christians wanted to belong. They sought the comfort of their fellows not only in church, but in the proud little trade associations that littered the city. One of the most touching of the gold glass pieces (catalog pages 192–193) shows a classical shepherd surrounded by his sheep. Around the edge is written, “(Be) the pride of your friends. Drink. May you live! [in Greek] May you live! [added in Latin, just to be sure!]”

Indeed, one of the revelations of the catacombs is the extent to which Christians participated, with little sense of incongruity, in the one feature of urban life which their clergy had always condemned as irremediably profane. They frequently went to the games at the Circus Maximus and in the Colosseum. For like Fort Worth, fourth-century Rome (if on an even more magnificent scale) was both a culture town and a cattle town. It was a city where the greatest rodeo of all—the Roman games—took place every other day of the year. In the fourth century, Christians were pulled into those moments of high excitement. Grooms and their circus horses appear on many Christian tombs. Most surprising of all, a pantomime artist called Vitalis—a vaudeville performer: the Jimmy Durante of his age—ended up in a tomb beside the catacomb of San Sebastiano, complete with a verse inscription:

O death, what shall I do with you…
You have no sense of humor.
You do not appreciate jokes.
But from these jokes I won out.
I became known throughout the whole world.
From these I gained a handsome house and income.

Medieval monks who copied this inscription were puzzled to find this fragment of Cockney cheerfulness associated with a Christian shrine. They opined that Vitalis must have been a “great Court Jester of his time.”

We must always remember that fourth-century Christians went to the games not because they were incurably frivolous. The opposite was true. They went because they were patriots. In Rome, the games had always been the emperor’s games. They were now laid on by Christian emperors. For a Christian to attend them was a gesture of loyalty. It was on the crowded seats of the Circus Maximus, surrounded by their fellow members of the proud Roman people, that the average Roman—Christian, Jew, or pagan—would have felt, at high moments of procession, that they were truly “One Nation under God.” They did not necessarily feel this as intensely in the churches. Indeed, none other than Pope Leo I (440–461) was shocked to learn that many members of his congregation believed that it was the circus games, still celebrated with due pomp and ceremony, and not the supernatural protection of Saints Peter and Paul that had kept Rome safe in an age of barbarian invasion.

The circus was there to stay in the imagination even of Christians. In Africa and Sardinia, images from the circus joined the biblical images of power and good fortune on the pavements of Christian churches and on Christian graves. A gravestone from Tharros in Sardinia celebrated an amiable young man. He was both beloved by his friends and dutiful to the poor. Beneath this unexceptionable praise of a Christian good guy, a sprightly racehorse trots across the plaque, with the chi-rho monogram—composed of X and P, the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek—branded on its haunch (E. Diehl, Inscriptiones Latinae Christianae Veteres, no. 3400).2

It is well known that in 312, the year of his conversion, the emperor Constantine hit on the chi-rho monogram as his own very special image of power. He was convinced that he had seen a vision of the Cross in the sky. But what he promoted for use in his army, as a standard and an emblem on shields, was this “logo” of Christ that was deemed all the more powerful for being a little mysterious, although any Christian would have recognized what it meant. It had brought Constantine’s troops victory outside Rome. It continued to do so in a series of bloodthirsty civil wars that probably killed more Roman professional soldiers, in the conflicting armies, than ever perished at the hands of barbarians. Thus the peace of the Church and the subsequent Christianizing of the Roman world were ushered in under the protection of a symbol of good fortune and victory that had as little to do with the Bible (except, of course, for its play on the name of Christ) as a circus horse.

In a masterly contribution, Johannes Deckers spells out the implications of Constantine’s decision. In architecture, in coinage, in large-scale representations as in small, we can follow Constantine and his successors as they groped toward forms of visual expression that seemed to be worthy of the emperors’ new god: “Christ had to be of imperial stature.” And with this, the exhibition itself suddenly swells with the breath of empire. We enter a room to face a sarcophagus of the late fourth century. At its center stands the Cross of Christ. But we do not see on it his crucified body. Indeed, we never see this on any sarcophagus of this time. Rather, what see is a symbol of Christ’s power: a great wreath which encircles the chi-rho Christogram (catalog pages 219–220).

Two rooms later, in the last part of the exhibition, we see the ultimate symbol of Christ’s power at its fullest development—a fragment of the Cross itself placed in a cross of gold studded with gems, given to Rome by the emperor Justin II sometime between 568 and 574 (catalog pages 283–285; see illustration on page 49 of this article). Glowing in the dark with barbaric splendor, this was still a Cross of victory. As the inscription made clear, this was the Cross on which Christ had “subdued [death] the enemy of mankind.” It was also a Cross calculated to keep human enemies (of which there were all too many by that time) away from the walls of Rome.

As the exhibition proceeds, we are made increasingly aware that we are no longer only in Christian homes. We are now in the presence of great churches, which have survived in Rome up to our own times. Turning the corner into one room, we are given a breathtaking blowup of an eighteenth-century painting that allows us to look down the entire length of the nave of the great basilica of Saint Paul (San Paolo fuori le mura), which was built at the end of the fourth century by the emperor Theodosius I (379–395). It shows an interior colonnade on either side of the nave that was as overpoweringly monumental as any that had decorated the open spaces of classical Rome.

  1. 1

    Paris: École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 2003.

  2. 2

    Zurich: Weidmann, 1970.

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