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The Private Art of Early Christians

Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art

an exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, November 18, 2007–March 30, 2008.
Catalog of the exhibition by Jeffrey Spier, with contributions by Mary Charles-Murray, Johannes G. Deckers, Steven Fine, Robin M. Jensen, and Herbert L. Kessler
Yale University Press/Kimbell Art Museum, 309 pp., $65.00

In the past several decades, the history of Early Christian art and of the late-antique world in which this art developed have been subject to a series of surprises, all of them profoundly disruptive of previous certitudes. These weighty disciplines had developed in Rome in the later nineteenth century under the shadow of an embattled papacy. Their leading experts were giants of erudition, given to patient, eye-straining labor. But they were also nineteenth-century Catholics. They thought of themselves as the direct heirs, through the Roman papacy, of the Early Christian past. They assumed that behind each image they discovered there lay a message; and that each message referred to the earliest form of a dogma or a practice that was still current in the modern Catholic Church. What they found in the catacombs were Early Christians who were simply Catholics like themselves, but in ancient dress.

For Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822–1894) and Monsignor Josef Wilpert (1857–1944), and those who followed them, the study of Early Christian art was a record of first sightings. A fresco that showed a middle-class family enjoying a memorial picnic at the grave of a loved one, in around the year 200, was instantly acclaimed as the earliest evidence for the celebration of the Catholic Mass. A mysterious mother and child shaded by a rose arbor heavy with associations of natural fertility had to be the first Virgin and Child. And one was ill-advised to dispute with Monsignor Josef Wilpert that a veiled woman, standing in awesome solitude with hands raised in prayer, was not the very first nun.

With this certitude went an unflinching narrowness of focus. Those who dug ever deeper into the underground world of Rome were convinced that they had discovered the origins of all subsequent Christian art. It was believed that papal Rome alone had provided the entire Roman world with its first models of Christian art. Fiercely “Rome-centered,” it was also, by implication, resolutely Eurocentric. Those few scholars who, at that time, hinted that the Christian Middle East might harbor a Christian art as exuberant as that of Rome were dismissed out of hand.

As for what they thought of the Jews: there was no Jewish art. A religion that had (so they believed) stripped itself of images could not be expected to have produced a religious art of any kind by modern European standards. The fine balance of medium and message, which found appropriate visual expression for each and every article of the faith, was claimed as the unique achievement of the Roman Church. In the field of art, the West—the Latin West centered around the Rome of the popes—stood alone.

It is appropriate that we should enter the spectacular exhibition assembled at the Kimbell Art Museum, entitled “Picturing the Bible,” through a room hung with brilliantly executed photographs of the frescoes and burial chambers of the Roman catacombs, their colors scrupulously filled in by hand. These were the fruit of decades of underground labor by Josef Wilpert in the dust and noxious vapors of the tombs of Rome. One must admire a man who, on one occasion, employed three hefty theological students to dig their way from a neighboring shaft into a catacomb whose entrance had been denied to him by an anticlerical lawyer on whose property this entrance lay.

Those were heroic days. We live in a less certain but in a richer and more exciting world. A new, less narrowly focused vision of the first art of Christians has slowly emerged. Steven Fine’s cogent contribution to the exhibition catalog makes plain that we can now include the Jews alongside the Early Christians as creators of a distinctive religious art. At many points, Jewish art overlapped with that of Early Christianity. Rome still offers us God’s plenty; but we now realize that the world of Christian art stretched (within the territories of the Roman Empire alone) from Water Newton in northern England to the banks of the Euphrates.

The Kimbell has brought off a tour de force. As its then director, Timothy Potts, makes plain, “Many of the works in this exhibition have never left their ecclesiastical homes in modern times.” Thanks to the generosity of the Vatican Museums it is possible to look, eye-to-eye, at the same carved marble sarcophagi of the fourth and early fifth centuries on which de Rossi and Wilpert honed their vast erudition. Thanks also to the magnificently trusting manner in which they are placed in the large, long rooms of the gallery, we can see these sarcophagi as de Rossi and Wilpert saw them—close up and not held at a distance by security systems and officious guards, as is the case in most museums. This means, in effect, that we can look directly into the play of eyes between the heads of the figures. We can see what is lost in even the best photographs—the unique crisscross of Early Christian gazes, heavy with devotion and quiet wonder.

Alas, the numerous precious objects on loan from the Vatican serve, perhaps, to reinforce a Rome-centered view of Early Christian art. One of the most delicious surprises of modern Christian archaeology from the world outside Rome did not travel. These are a set of frescoes painted on tombs that were discovered in Thessaloniki in the late 1960s and as recently as 1994, when building developments finally pushed out beyond the ancient walls of the city into what had been a complex of late antique cities of the dead. Beautifully displayed in the superb new Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki, and illustrated in the catalog (on pages 212–216), these frescoes show that the Greek East also played a role in the formation of Christian art.

The overall spirit of the exhibition does not depart abruptly from the lines laid down by former scholars, in the attempt to fit specific images to specific doctrinal messages—that is, “to seek out the distinctive theological meanings the Early Christian artists intended to convey.” But this is done in a more subtle way than in the last century. As a result, the contributions to the catalog, each by a notable scholar (Jeffrey Spier, Mary Charles-Murray, Johannes Deckers, Steven Fine, Robin Jensen, and Herbert Kessler), amount to the best short introduction we have to a fascinating theme: How did the Christians of a long-distant age come to clothe their distinctive religious insights (insights nourished originally not on pictures but derived from the reading of sacred texts and from the urgent, repetitive challenge of spoken words) with the solid texture of an “Early Christian visuality” (to use the well-chosen words of Mary Charles-Murray)?

To put the conclusion bluntly: somehow, by the year 550 or so, Christians could say not only that Christianity was true. They could also say that it looked true. Christians could claim (with relative confidence) that they knew what Christ had looked like and what Mary had looked like. Everyone knew what Peter and Paul had looked like (we see the famous pair all over the exhibition, one bald with a long beard and one with grizzled hair and cheeks). They also knew what the distant heroes of the Old Testament had looked like and what the exotic actions that they had once performed—offering sacrifices (like Cain and Abel), threatening to kill their son (like Abraham and Isaac), striking water from a towering rock (like Moses in the wilderness)—meant for all future ages and (for Christians) even for time beyond time.

I would suggest, however, that we might go even further in one direction. The story of the creation of Early Christian art is more exciting—and more true to the realities of the later empire—if we bear in mind, throughout the exhibition, that this visual certainty (based on the confident convergence of image and message) came late. The creation of a Christian art involved much more than finding the means to illustrate truths that were already there and that had always been there—as if it were simply a matter of captions in a book waiting for an appropriate picture to illustrate an episode or an idea mentioned in the text. The art of the earliest Christians was not, originally, about “Picturing the Bible” any more than it was about picturing the central dogmas and rituals of the Catholic Church. It involved a more perilous and creative venture.

Art did not simply illustrate. It played a part in making an entire body of novel beliefs seem true—truly true, because seen to be true, in a visual language that could be shared by Jews, Christians, and pagans. What this exhibition shows us is not simply a succession of “first sightings” of themes that were mentioned in the Bible and that would continue in all future ages of Christian art, belief, and practice. It follows for three centuries the slow reschooling of the visual imagination of a large section of the Roman world.

We must remember that the social and cultural consistency of the Christian communities changed greatly in the course of those centuries. It is these changes that may well have had a major part in bringing about the final, triumphant synthesis of medium and message with which we end, in the later fifth and sixth centuries, in the last rooms of the exhibition.

For this exhibition has many shocks in store for the social historian. In the first place, it is largely about Christians in their houses and in their graves. The brilliant little fragments of gold leaf glass—many of them drinking vessels that bear the cheery toast, in Greek, of Pie Zeses: “Drink Up. Enjoy Life!”; the Christian symbols, at once discreet and endowed with occult power against evil influences, inscribed on the semiprecious gems of signet rings; the lamps in terra-cotta and bronze; the grave-slabs and the exquisite sarcophagi: they all belong to what would later come to be called the “private” side of Christianity.

It is the same with the bright paintings in the tombs of the third and fourth centuries discovered in the catacombs. Taken all together, they represent a world in which the clergy are largely absent. There is no evidence that between 220 and 420, the clergy attempted to control the images contained in catacomb frescoes or on gold glass, in order to make them function as tools for the catechizing of the faithful. We are faced with a Do-It-Yourself Christianity. Mary Charles-Murray is entirely right to point out that “the earliest surviving Christian art is not only the art of the laity, but also the art of the common people.”

Even if we make allowance for the fact that most Early Christian artifacts have been recovered from private graves, this tells us something. Like Judaism, Christianity owed its strength, in this period, to being a religion not only of the church, but of the family. Burial and the memory of the dead remained a family matter, in which the clergy were unwilling to meddle, other than to offer the very real but distant comfort of prayer that kept alive the memory of the departed and was obscurely but tenaciously felt to affect, also, the state of their souls in the afterlife. Yet except for utter paupers and strangers, how one was buried and where one was buried depended on one’s kin or on the trade association to which one belonged. Even to use the words “Christian cemetery” can be deeply misleading. The word “cemetery” originally referred to no more than an individual resting place. It now conjures up the image of large, exclusively “confessional” spaces, whose art and rituals, we assume, were controlled by the Church alone.

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.

An art of the household, driven by celebration and by grief, comes to be overshadowed by an art driven by the need for public glory. Of course, the one never totally eclipsed the other. The most gripping pair of portraits of Saints Peter and Paul in the entire exhibition appear on the gravestone of a child, “the well-deserving Asellus, who lived six years, eight months, and twenty-seven days.” These were the faces, clearly recognizable, that little Asellus would see in the next world (catalog page 246).

But the shift toward a public art is undeniable. In explaining this shift, it is, perhaps, too easy for modern writers to put all the blame on Constantine. Johannes Deckers feels that he must, somehow, apologize to his readers on behalf of the first Christian emperor. He even asks:

Why did the unprecedented imperialization of the images of Christ…—so contrary to the faith’s doctrines of peace and modesty—continue after the reign of Constantine?

Any Early Christian could have answered this question. They did not share our modern sentimentality about Christ as “an unassuming teacher of brotherly love and non-violence.” What was thrilling about Christ was that he was both that and something a lot more. He was God. He was the same God as the God of the Jews, a high God of more than imperial power. He might not yet have gained a face. But his power was there—greater than that of any other being in heaven or on earth. For this reason, we have the Hebrew phrase nessiyat kappayim for “the raising of the hands,” while modern scholars use the Latin orans to refer to the “praying pose.” This pose, which we meet so often in the catacombs, seems so strikingly, so endearingly Early Christian, that we forget the being to whom those hands were raised. They were raised to a God of utter power—to a God who, in His own time, had raised the dead and had more than once in the long history of the Jews destroyed entire empires and might do so again, if provoked. Far from imposing on a humble church an imperial grandiosity that was alien to its true nature, Constantine and his successors enjoyed the full support of Christians in seeking out a visual language for Christ that at last did justice to His imagined stupendous power.

In late-Roman conditions, the humility of Christ did not come naturally, as it does to modern persons, nourished as we have been on centuries of tender imagery. It was a humility that had to be worked for, so as to make it stand out, even in an art of majesty. Thus, paradoxically, we find the most touching statements of Christ’s humanity not in the art of the pre-Constantinian church but later, toward the end of the fourth century, when the theological issues raised by the electrifying tension between Christ’s humanity and his divinity had begun to rock the churches.

We should look carefully at the sarcophagus from Arles (catalog page 242; see illustration on page 50 of this article). In the right-hand niche, Christ confronts Pilate. This is no broken creature, as in the later medieval art of the Passion. But neither is he presented as a classical philosopher, with bristling beard and muscular, bare chest. He is a simple man, almost devoid of expression, dressed in a plain dress which (to a late Roman viewer) would have given off no social signal whatsoever—the dress not of a pauper but of a restrained nobody. It is in this hauntingly faceless pose that Christ confronts a Pilate who is dressed like a Roman emperor, his entire body emblazoned with the attributes of worldly power. Late-Roman viewers—ever sensitive to issues of dress and poise—would have got the message.

It is easy to forget that in the Roman West, and in Rome in particular, the balance between imperial, aristocratic, and frankly “middling” social groups had maintained itself with remarkable vigor throughout the fourth and early fifth centuries. But in the West, the barbarian invasions—and not least, in Rome, Alaric’s sack of the city in 410—caused one crucial section of the social and cultural equation to wither away. In the fourth century, an exuberant “middling” class of Christians had filled the catacombs with their frescoes and had even risen to purchasing the occasional, carefully carved sarcophagus.

As the fifth century progressed, however, the “middling” class found that they could not sustain the pace. The great funerary basilicas where they had feasted with their dead emptied. The production of intricate sarcophagi came to an abrupt end, to survive only in active governmental centers, such as Ravenna and Constantinople. It was not that Rome was emptied at one blow. Still less did Rome become, overnight, the “Rome of the popes,” “now governed not by Constantine’s heirs but by the successors of Saint Peter.” The emperors lived more frequently in Rome at this time than they had done for centuries. But the emperors could not recover the fortunes of a megalopolis that had depended on peace and on secure supplies of food from distant provinces in order to survive.

Rome was drastically downsized. What was left of the city was not an empty shell. Rather, what remained was a proud aristocracy, which now, for the first time, faced a clergy whose solidarity and dogged insistence on their privileges left them in command of a city where the Christian household was much less powerful, except among the very great, than it had been in the previous century. What happened in Rome happened also, to varying degrees, all over the western provinces of the empire.

It was from this somewhat chilly postwar society that the truly great art of the Early Christian world emerged. As Robin Jensen makes plain, for the Christian art of the fifth and sixth centuries, “Biblical literacy was…essential.” And in the later empire, books cost money. And big books cost big money. We usually associate large illuminated Bibles with the early Middle Ages. Not all books in late antiquity were like that. A copy of the Gospels could be had for the equivalent of a successful artisan’s weekly wage. This was not a world of Gideon Bibles. But it was a world where many texts did circulate, in economical, no-nonsense form, bound like modern books. It was precisely in this period that the more clumsy scroll was replaced by the codex, made up of bound pages. It is no coincidence that Christian art and culture leapt forward in precisely the same centuries that saw a revolution in the technology of communication—a revolution whose excitement and long-term implications have recently been explored in the vivid study by Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams, Christianity and the Transformation of the Book.3

But beside these humble books, gigantic tomes were already being prepared for the very rich and the very learned. Writing in Rome in 384, Jerome mocked such volumes:

The parchment page is dyed deep in purple, the letters are a trickle of gold, the bound volumes are dressed in gems—and the naked Christ lies dying at the gate.

It is marvelous that most of those that have survived are gathered here, in the next-to-last room of the exhibition. For historians of Early Christian art, these are fabled tomes and pages of tomes—the Rabbula Gospels, originally from Syria and now in Florence (catalog pages 276–282); the solid purple pages of the Sinope Gospels, bought by a French officer in a Black Sea port of Turkey in 1899 and now in Paris (catalog pages 271–275; see illustration on page 52 of this article); and the fragments of the great Cotton Genesis from Egypt (catalog pages 268–270).

But the heart sinks as one realizes how little is left of this aspect of the art of the Early Christian world. Looking at the Cotton Genesis, one thinks of the pile of charred parchment from which these few scraps were rescued when a fire destroyed Lord Cotton’s library in 1731, after his ancestor had refused (a century before) to allow his personal treasure to be copied and made available to the learned world. The solidity of the objects gathered in museums lures us into thinking that we have safe, clear access to the distant past. We must remember that the view of entire landscapes of the Early Christian world (often some of the most important) can be wiped out, in front of our eyes, through misfortune, negligence, and selfish hoarding.

What we see in these remarkable works is the effort that late-Roman Christians put into making their Bible beautiful, monumental, and, above all, intelligible. As Herbert Kessler points out, the solid bindings and canon tables—carefully prepared lists of parallel passages from all of the four Gospels—imposed an almost architectonic order upon the discordant immensity of the Scriptures. The scribes were “figuring scripture itself as a physical presence.” In the hands of skilled technicians of the written word, a collection of potentially conflicting texts, often written out in separate books, became, at this time, the Bible.

The illustrations in these great Bibles themselves did not necessarily all end up on the walls of the churches. But the spirit that had brought the great tomes together assumed a world of scholars set to work by the truly rich—by emperors, by aristocrats, and by a now-powerful clergy. This mentality (purposeful, learned, and sure of itself) extended to buildings and artifacts. It led to an unexpected burst of confidence that, in a deeply troubled world, everything within a church could and should add up.

This burst of confidence marks the end of the early church period. It enables us to sense the difference between a final crescendo of supremely intelligible and well-orchestrated visual splendor, in around the year 550, and the highly charged but jagged images of power with which we entered the exhibition, in around the year 200. At long last, and after many vicissitudes, Monsignor Wilpert’s world had come true. Medium and message had converged. As a result, the last great visual mythology of the ancient world (that of the Christian faith, drawn from a Bible filled with innumerable protagonists and vivid episodes, each of them clamoring to be envisioned) had come to be set in place. It would rule the visual imagination of millions for a further thousand years and, indeed, until today.

But there is yet another side to this story. One of the delights of studying the world of late antiquity is that there is always more to know and always other landscapes that must be considered. Whenever one’s attention is gripped by one theme and one region (and, at the Kimbell, it has been gripped very largely by the Christian art of the city of Rome), one can be certain that someone else has uncovered, at the far end of that same world, yet another aspect of a complex civilization which, in its time, stretched from Britain to the edge of the Iranian plateau. In a second article I will consider such an aspect, revealed in G.W. Bowersock’s Mosaics as History: The Near East from Late Antiquity to Islam.

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    Zurich: Weidmann, 1970.

  3. 3

    Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2006; reviewed in these pages by Eamon Duffy, March 29, 2007.

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