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…

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