A World Winking with Messages

Erich Lessing/Art Resource
The Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, constructed circa 532–537

The two massive volumes of The Eerdmans Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art and Archaeology, each over seven hundred pages long, offer a comprehensive survey of the visual and material aspects of Christianity in its first centuries—roughly from 200 to 600. These dates do not include the earliest Christian communities, for it is only around the year 200 that recognizably Christian objects first appeared. By 312, with the conversion of Constantine, we are already dealing with a fully visible religion, in the grip of the problems raised by its own success.

Only a generation or so ago, the mention of early Christian art would have conjured up a predictable set of images: a few catacombs; a few majestic basilicas in Rome, like Santa Maria Maggiore; the twilight glories of Ravenna; the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul; and perhaps a few distant views of flat and faceless ruins in North Africa and the Middle East.

Nowadays, our interest in Christian art is no longer confined to a few well-known monuments. Instead, our eyes are challenged by innumerable objects: newly discovered floor mosaics scattered from southern Britain to the edge of the Sahara and from the Balkans to the Negev; entire curtains and vividly embroidered caftans preserved in the dry sands of Egypt; red-glazed pottery from North Africa, where martyrs with the rippling muscles of classical athletes confront their customary lions; and, from everywhere, accessories—earrings, bracelets, necklaces, even little dolls carved in bone and lovingly wrapped in cloth of gold, some of them found, rather poignantly, in the sarcophagi of the great.

This decentering of early Christianity, away from Christian Rome to a wider realm, has led to a dam burst in our study of the early church. The Eerdmans Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art and Archaeology has taken its measure. It is a guide to a new world; indeed, so broad is its range of reference that it is almost a guide to late antiquity as a whole. Christian objects and themes hold center stage, but the entries make plain that Jewish and pagan art and practices always had a major part in the evolution of Christian culture.

Its editor, Corby Finney, has chosen his contributors from the top ranks of American and European scholars. The encyclopedia is dedicated to the memory of a great scholar, Ernst Kitzinger (1912–2003), who inspired Finney along with many others of his generation, and whose breadth of vision is reflected in this book. Its consistently satisfying articles suggest fresh approaches to every aspect of early Christian art and archaeology. It is tantamount to providing a gazetteer of all the sites where early Christian artifacts have been found, where early Christian monuments can still be visited, and where significant collections of early Christian objects can be seen.

The slim third volume contains a series of…

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