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The Symbolism of the Church

Iconographic Decoration in the Orthodox Church

The Art of the First Centuries of Christianity and its Symbolism


The Art of the First Centuries of Christianity and its Symbolism

Leonid Uspensky, Theology of the Icon,
ed. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood New York, 1978, p. 81- 99.


We have seen that the scholarly theories concerning sacred objects have been based on diverse and changing hypotheses, sometimes even on prejudices. Thus Protestant scholars, because of their doctrinal position, have tended to deny the existence of the sacred image in the beginning of Christianity. Moreover, this attitude concurred with the rationalism of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. The outlook of the Church, however, did not change. The Church believes that the first icons originated within and were propagated together with Christianity, thus spreading from the very places where Christ lived and where biblical preaching began, that is, to Palestine and Syria, Judaic countries where, it would seem, the Old Testament prohibition should have been most strictly observed. The Church does not support this belief with some formal and obvious proofs, but rather with the belief that the image is inseparable from Christianity. The Church does not violate the biblical prohibition but, on the contrary, maintains its only possible outcome in the framework of the New Covenant. Church tradition is not based on theories, scholarly hypotheses or archeological findings, but rather on the Church's teaching and on historical facts. Indeed, we know that the Gospel was preached, according to the last commandment of Christ, "to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem " (Luke 24:47): It was preached by the word and by the image.

The little which remains of primitive Christian art, and in particular the frescos of the catacombs (1), leads us to the conclusion that the first images of Christ and the Virgin were not purely naturalistic portraits, like those on the Roman medallion of St. Peter and St. Paul, but rather that these were images of a completely new and specifically Christian reality. Certain scholars today have reached the same conclusion. For example, here is what the Russian Byzantinist, V. Lazarev, writes: "Linked to antiquity, primarily to its late spiritualized forms, this art, from the first centuries of its existence, is charged with a whole series of new tasks. Christian art is far from being the art of antiquity as practiced by Christians, as is thought by some writers . . . The new subject matter of primitive Christian art was not a purely external fact. It reflected a new outlook, a new religion, a fundamentally different understanding of reality. This subject matter could not adapt itself to the old forms of antiquity. It required a style which could best incarnate the Christian ideas and, thus, all the efforts of the Christian painters were directed towards elaborating this style (2). And Lazarev, relying on the research of other scholars, emphasizes that in the paintings of the catacombs, this new style has already developed its basic characteristics. With the help of this art, the Christians attempted to convey not only that which is visible to the human eyes, but also that which is invisible, i.e. the spiritual content of that which was being represented. To express its teaching, the primitive Church also uses pagan symbols and certain subjects from Greek and Roman mythology. It also uses art forms of Greek and Roman antiquity, but it gives them a new content, thus changing the very forms which express it.

The art of the catacombs is not only a funeral art and does not only consist in symbolic or allegorical representations, as is sometimes thought to be the case. Of course, it does include many funeral elements, but it is above all an art which teaches the faith. Thus most of the subject matter in the catacombs, whether symbolic or direct, corresponds to sacred texts, those from the Old and the New Testaments, as well as to liturgical and patristical sources. As we know, a whole series of themes from the Old and New Testaments appeared in the catacombs of Rome already in the first and second centuries. In the first century, these consist of the Good Shepherd, Noah and the ark, Daniel in the lions' den and the banquet scene. In the second century, there are many images from the New Testament: the annunciation, the nativity of Christ, His baptism and others.

Obviously, we cannot study here in detail the art of the catacombs nor, more generally, the art of the first Christians as such. We will limit ourselves to a few examples which will help us to understand the purpose of this art, its meaning and its contents.

Side by side with the relatively few direct representations, the language of symbols was very widespread and played an important role in the Church during the first centuries. This symbolic language can be explained, first of all, by the necessity of expressing through art a reality which could not be expressed directly. Furthermore, the main Christian sacraments remained hidden from the catechumens until a certain point, according to a rule established by the Fathers and based on the Holy Scripture. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (fourth century) mentions the symbolic expressions which must be used in teaching Christians, "since all are permitted to hear the Gospel, but the glory of the Good News belongs only to those who are close to Christ. This is why the Lord spoke in parables to those who were not capable of hearing, and then explained these parables to His disciples when they were alone, because that which, for the initiated, is a splendor of glory, is blinding for those who do not believe... One does not explain the mysterious teaching of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to a pagan, and even to the catechumens we do not speak clearly of the mysteries, but we express many things in a veiled way, for example, with parables, so that the faithful who know can understand, and those who do not know will not suffer harm" (3).

Thus the meaning of the Christian symbols was revealed progressively to the catechumens, as they were prepared for baptism. Futhermore, the relations between the Christians and the external world also required some kind of ciphered language: "One does not explain the mysterious teaching ... to a pagan," according to St. Cyril of Jerusalem . It was not in the interest of the Christians to divulge the sacred mysteries to a pagan and hostile world.

The early Christians primarily used biblical symbolsthe lamb, the ark, etc. But once the pagans began entering the Church, these symbols were no longer sufficient since the pagans frequently did not understand them. And so the Church adopted some pagan symbols capable of conveying certain aspects of its teaching. The Church gave a new meaning to these symbols, purifying them so that they would recapture their primitive meaning. They were then used to express the salvation accomplished in the incarnation.

Thus, for example, the oldest symbol, that of a ship: To the man of Graeco -Roman antiquity it had suggested the voyage of souls into the beyond, but by the time of the Empire it came to mean a happy passage through life; it was only a sign of prosperity, with the end of the voyage representing death. Christians, taking up the symbol and restoring its primitive meaning, transformed it into a symbol of the faith of the Church and of the soul which the Church guides. Prosperity is transposed into the spiritual realm, life on earth into eternal life. The arrival of the ship to the harbor had signified the end: death. For a Christian, on the contrary, it implied the entrance of the soul into eternal repose and bliss. The pessimistic outlook of the pagan was replaced by the joyous confidence in the resurrection.

To allow for a better understanding of its teaching, the Church used myths of antiquity which, to a certain extent, paralleled the Christian faith. This is the case, for example, with the myth of Eros and Psyche (Love and Soul) which, in paganism, had served to explain the thirst for God characteristic of man. In the first centuries of our era, both the myth itself and its iconography lost their symbolic, primitive meaning and acquired a purely sensual and anecdotal character: Eros and Psyche were often represented without wings, and the image of the myth simply became a love scene. Christianity resurrected the true meaning of this myth by placing it into a new context: The representations in the catacombs and on the sarcophagi express the love for the only true God which overcomes the soul.

Another myth which is represented in the Christian catacombs is that of Orpheus, which we have already mentioned. Orpheus, having lost his wife, Eurydice, descends into hell to find her. He charms the infernal monsters which kept her prisoner and brings her back to the world of the living. The analogy with the descent of Christ into hell is clear. This is why the teaching about the resurrection, so hard for the pagans to understand (see Acts 17:31-32), was shown to them in part through the image of Orpheus.

It should be noted that the symbolism was not limited to such subjects as the fish, the anchor, the lamb, the boat, etc. Even those subjects which at first appear to be decorations often have a hidden meaning, such as the vine which is often seen in the art of the first centuries. This is obviously a visible transposition of the words of Christ: "As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:4-5). These words and this image have both an ecclesiological and a sacramental significance. The vine and the branches represent Christ and the Church: "I am the vine, you are the branches." This is most obvious when the image is found on the dome of a church (for example, the chapel of El Baouit, fifth century): The vine is in the center, while the branches completely cover the dome. This follows the same principle as the classic decoration in our churches, which depicts Christ in the dome and the apostles surrounding Him. But the image of the vine is most frequently completed by that of the vintage or by that of the birds feeding on the grapes. In this case, the vine reminds the Christians of the central sacrament, the Eucharist. "The vine gives the wine as the Word gave His blood," says Clement of Alexandria (4). The grape-gatherers and the birds who eat the grapes represent the Christian souls feeding on the body and blood of Christ.

In the Old Testament, the vine was also a symbol of the Promised Land, as was shown by the bunch of grapes brought to Moses by those whom he had sent to Canaan . Hence in the New Testament it is also a symbol of paradise, the land promised to those who commune in the body and blood of Christ, i.e. to the members of the Church. The decorative vine continues to exist today in the sacred art of our Church and has the same symbolic meaning.

One of the most widespread symbols in the first centuries of Christianity was the fish. This symbol also originated in paganism. For the primitive people, the fish symbolized fertility. For the Romans in the beginning of our era, it simply became an erotic symbol.

The very important role played by the fish in the accounts of the Gospel certainly contributed to the fact that this symbol was taken up by the Christians. Christ Himself used it. The lake, the boat, the fishermen, the net heavy with fish do not form the framework for so many biblical scenes simply by chance. Speaking to the fishermen, Christ naturally used images which were comprehensible to them, and, calling them to the apostolate, He used the same metaphor. "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men," He says (Matt. 4:19; Mark 1:17 ). He compares the heavenly Kingdom to a net filled with many different kinds of fish. The image of the fish is also used as a symbol of the heavenly good things (Matt. 7:9-11, 13, 47-48; Luke 5:10 ). The images of the fisherman and the fish, representing the teacher and the convert, are completely understandable. But there were other reasons for the popularity of this symbol in Christianity.

The Greek word meaning "fish," contains five letters which are the initials of five words directly corresponding to Christ: ' Ἰῦ ῦ ἱ , "Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Savior." As we have seen, these words express the faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ and in His redeeming mission. Therefore, we have in the symbol of the fish a kind of ancient credal formula, condensed into one word. This mysterious meaning of the five letters which make up the word Ἰ was the main reason why the Christians adopted the corresponding image to express the Christian faith. This is why the representation of the fish was so widespread. The image appears everywherein the wall-paintings, on the sarcophagi, in the funeral inscriptions, on various objects. Christians wore little fish made of metal, stone or nacre with the inscription C CAIC, "May You save," or "Save," around their necks. This word, together with the meaning of the Greek letters Ἰ, may also represent a primitive form of the Jesus prayer. No written evidence exists, however. Such symbols of the fish were found in France, in Autun, in an ancient Christian cemetery. Some, in place of C CAIC, bore the Roman numerals X, or XXV, but the mysterious language of the numbers has still not been deciphered (5).

A no less amazing popularity of the symbol of the fish in funeral inscriptions and among Christian writers corresponds to the extraordinary extension of the graphic image (6)". The value of the symbol seemed so great to the first-century Christians that they tried not to disclose its meaning (as they did for other symbols), so that, as far as we can judge from the documents we possess, no writer gives a complete explanation of the fish symbol until the fourth century.

The first and foremost significance of the fish is, therefore, Christ Himself. The Old Testament narrative of the fish caught by Tobias which he uses to heal Sara of the demon and restore his father's sight undoubtedly contributed to the fact that this symbol was used to represent Christ. Christians understood it to be a prefiguration of Him who healed souls and bodies, chasing away demons and returning sight to the blind, of Him who freed the world from the shadows of ignorance and chased away the demons with His cross. Already in the second century, we see inscriptions where the image of the fish replaces the name of Jesus Christ. Some authors of antiquity occasionally call our Lord "the heavenly fish", Ἰ ὐ . We can also find the image of a boat, a symbol of the Church, carried by a fish, which shows that the Church rests on Christ, its founder and the basis of its entire life. To represent Christ in the midst of Christians, many small fish surrounding one large one were portrayed, as Tertullian does when he says: "We are the small fish, taking our name from our Ἰ (7) . This large fish is usually a dolphin. One must also remember the dolphin's unique reputation for being the lover of man. The ancients considered the dolphin to be the protector of sailors, having the power to forecast a storm. Is not this quality of love for men above all the quality of Christ Himself? Tertullian adds to the text we just quoted: "We are born in water and can only be saved by being in water." Thus the symbolism of the fish leads back to that of water, i.e. to baptism. The fish was represented on the funeral slabs either next to loaves of bread or else eating bread, which signifies that the deceased had taken communion and was therefore a Christian.

The eucharistic significance of this symbol is particularly emphasized in the representations and writings which use the image of the fish. Two funeral inscriptions found at the two different ends of the Christian world, in Phrygia and in Gaul, both dating back to the second century, are particularly characteristic. The first is of St. Abercius, bishop of Hieropolis and venerated by the Church as being "equal to the Apostles." This inscription reproduces a text written by the saint himself. Being a frequent traveler, he lived in Rome and traveled throughout the East. He himself says that he has traveled "to Syria, through all the towns, even through Nisibis, throughout the countryside, and beyond the Euphrates ." "The faith led me everywhere," he writes. "Everywhere it fed me fresh, pure fish, caught by a holy virgin; it constantly fed this fish to friends; it has a delicious wine which it serves, mixed in water, with bread." This fish, caught by the virgin, is Christ. The bread and the wine mixed with water is our eucharistic practice.

The other funeral inscription, found in France, is that of Pectorius of Autun . This is an acrostic poem in Greek in which the initial letters form the words: I , that is, "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, Hope." In "the eternal waves of wisdom given by the treasures," in "the divine waters" which renew the soul, the "divine race of heavenly fish ( Ἰ ὐ ) receives ... immortal life." Then the poem invites the reader to take soft nourishment such as the honey of the Savior of the saints and to eat the Ἰ "which you hold in the palm of your hand" (8).

Thus St. Abercius saw everywhere, from Rome to the Euphrates, not only the same doctrine and the same sacrament, but also the same image, the same symbol in which rite and doctrine converge, that of the fish. The inscription of Pectorius speaks of the same reality at the other end of the Christian world, in Gaul . Thus, these two documents show us that the symbol of the fish was widespread and characteristic of the entire Church.

It is very mysterius that in the Gospel, each time that Christ feeds a multitude, He does so with bread and fish; this is the case in both of His miracles of the multiplication of bread and in His appearances after His resurrection. Furthermore, each time that we have an image of the eucharist as a banquet, as a consecration scene or through some symbol, a fish is also represented. And yet the fish was never used as an element of the eucharist . But it does specify the significance of the bread and the wine. A living fish, frequently surging upward, drawing the bread and wine towards the heavens, and therefore also those who consume them, is obviously, for a spectator of that time, the "heavenly fish" which links the earth and the heavens. Its presence next to the bread and the wine signifies, therefore, that this is not ordinary nourishment. Since the spectator who contemplated it already knew the christological significance of the letters IX , he could not be mistaken: This bread and this wine was truly the body and blood of the Son of God, the Savior.

On the funeral inscriptions, as we have already noted, communion is often represented by loaves of bread marked with a cross and a fish or else by a fish eating bread. On the walls of the catacombs, the eucharistic images are obvious. Thus a fresco from the second century in the catacomb of Calixtus (chapel A 2) portrays a tripod on which lies a fish and some bread; on one side of the table there are three baskets filled with bread; on the other side there are four baskets. The seven baskets of bread denote the miracle of Christ which foreshadowed the eucharist . The tripod therefore represents an altar, and the fish on the altar designates the sacrifice of Christ in the eucharistic sacrament. The bread in this case is not a simple bread but is truly the "bread of life," according to the words of Christ Himself (John 6:48 ).

Let us take two series of images from another chapel of the second century (A3), also from this catacomb, a series which forms a group: A fisherman draws a fish out of the water, a symbol of conversion, which is followed by baptism. To emphasize that the baptism is the beginning of a new life, the baptized is almost always represented as a child, even if he is an adult.' After the image of baptism, one sees the healing of the paralytic (Fig. 10), i.e. the remission of sins (Mark 2:5-12). To show that the remission of sins is linked with physical healing, the paralytic is represented carrying his bed. What is shown here is therefore the result of conversion and baptism. On another wall in the same chapel is another series of images with a eucharistic significance, forming a single whole. It portrays a tripod, the image of an altar, with a fish and a loaf of bread. A priest, dressed in a pallium, still in the style of the ancient philosophers, with the right shoulder uncovered, is consecrating the gifts (Fig. 11). On the other side of the table is a woman standing in the Orans position; contemporary scholarship understands her to be the figure of the Church. Next to this image is another image, that of a banquet: Seven persons are seated at a table on which lie two platters of fish and some bread. This is a symbolic representation of communion. On the other side, parallel to the consecration scene, is a prefiguration of the eucharistic sacrament from the Old Testament, the sacrifice of Abraham, indicating the meaning of the bloodless sacrifice in the New Testament. Thus, this series represents the prefiguration of the Old Testament, its fulfillment in the New Testament sacrifice and the fruit of this sacrament: the communion of the faithful. Together these frescos demonstrate to us the teaching, or rather, the initiation methods of the first Christians, showing through images the steps leading to salvation, starting with conversion and ending with communion, with heavenly life, with the supreme goods of which St. Jerome speaks: "No one is richer than he who carries the Body of Christ in a wicker-basket and His Blood in a glass vase" ( Nihil illo ditius qui corpus Domini in canistro vimine et sanguinem port at in vitro) (10) .

A living fish, carrying on its back a basket of bread and a glass of red wine (Fig. 12), the eucharistic elements, symbolizes this man participating in the celestial goods.

Another very widespread symbol of Christ in the catacombs is that of the lamb, which appears in the first century. We will have to return to this image when we discuss its suppression in the seventh century. It must only be mentioned that the lamb, like the fish, though primarily a symbol of Christ, could also represent the Christian in general, and in particular the apostles. As an image of Christ, it was often represented alone, with no accessory, or else with a shepherd's crook or a halo. The lamb was often represented on a mountain, at the peak of which flow four streams where two lambs are drinking. The mountain stands for the Church; the lamb at the peak of the mountain is the Head of the Church, Christ; the streams are the four rivers of paradise or the four evangelists who overwhelmed the four parts of the world with their teaching. The lambs drinking in the streams represent the Christians who are drinking the water of life of the evangelical teaching. They are two in order to indicate the Church of the Jews and the Church of the Gentiles. The lamb was the main symbol of Christ and replaced, for a long time, the direct representation of our Lord even in historical scenes, such as transfiguration or baptism. The image of the lamb is also used to represent St. John the Baptist.

Let us take another example which is particularly characteristic and will also help us understand the later development of sacred art. This is the oldest known representation of the Virgin and Child, on a fresco in the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome which dates back to the second century (Fig. 8). It is a painting of a characteristically Hellenistic style, and external signs must be used to show that this woman with a child is indeed the Virgin. These external signs are a biblical prophet at Her side and a star above Her Head. The composition follows the same principle as the indirect images of the eucharist which we have already studied. To show that the scene, whether a banquet, a consecration or simply bread and wine, is the central sacrament of Christianity, an external sign, a eucharistic symbolthe fishis added. Similarly, to show that the woman represented with a child in her arms was not just any woman, but the Mother of God, the external signsthe prophet and the star-were necessary. Here, the prophet is holding a scroll or a little book containing the prophecy in his left hand and is pointing to the star above the Virgin with his right hand. Some believe that this is Isaiah saying: "The Lord will be your everlasting light" (60:19). The star is the symbol of the heavens and the celestial light. Others believe that this is the prophet Balaam who proclaimed: "A star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel " (Num. 24:17). The prophecy of Balaam is clearly more direct and comes closer to the meaning of our image. The Virgin wears a veil on Her head, a sign of a married woman. Her civil state was, indeed, one of a married woman, and this veil is a very important characteristic of historical realism which has remained a part of Orthodox iconographic tradition. The picture is both a symbolic and a historical image. This union of historical truth and symbolism forms the basis of Christian sacred art. In this time, the artistic language of the Church, like its dogmatic language, did not as of yet have the accuracy, clarity and precision of the following centuries, which now permit us to recognize the Mother of God without a prophet pointing her out. The artistic language was in the process of being formed, and the frescos in the catacombs illustrate well the first steps of this genesis.

It would be a serious mistake to study the art of the first Christians from our present point of view, since we no longer understand the significance of the primitive Christian symbols. In the first centuries of Christianity, such symbols as the fish and the lamb (and others which we have not discussed) were certainly necessary and pregnant with meaning. One must remember that the people received, through Christianity, a revelation which by far surpassed any human expression. Nothing men could say or represent was sufficient to express it. Yet it was absolutely necessary to express it in order to obey the commandment of Christ: "Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation" (Mark 16:15). Thus, it becomes the task of the Church to find words and images to express that which is, in essence, inexpressible. Furthermore, the Church had to communicate the truth to some while hiding it from others, to reveal it to friends and conceal it from enemies. If we understand these difficulties, we will no longer be tempted to understand the symbolism of the early Christianity as a gamea game of words more or less abstract and futile. We will discover a coherent and profound system of expression, penetrated in its entirety and in every detail by a unique message of mystery and salvation. And this language fulfilled its task well, for it taught Christianity to thousands, educating and guiding them in the faith. It is precisely with the help of this now incomprehensible language that the saints of that time received their religious instruction, at each stage, from conversion to the crowning of their witness through martyrdom.

As we see, in the first centuries of Christianity, the subjects which were represented were primarily either pure symbols, such as the fish or the vine, or historical images which also served as symbols, for example, the resurrection of Lazarus, an image of the general resurrection to come. As forms of expression all symbols of this kind, once found and adopted by the entire Church, were no longer modified and were used in the whole Christian world. They became part of a common symbolic language, accessible and understandable to every Christian, irrespective of his nationality and his culture.

We have used only a few examples from all the monuments of primitive Christian art. These examples show us a very developed system of teaching and religious initiation. The art of the first Christians is a doctrinal and liturgical art. The assertion that sacred art was born outside the Church or that it had no importance until the third century certainly cannot be taken seriously (11). Quite the contrary is true. This art followed very clear ecclesiastical guidelines and reflects tight control over the artists' work. Nothing was left to chance or to the whim of the artist. Everything is concentrated on the expression of the Church's teaching. From its first steps, the Church begins to develop an artistic language which expresses the same truth as the sacred word. We shall see later that this language, just like the theological expression of the Christian teaching, will become more and more specific throughout the historical events of its existence, and will become a most perfect and exact instrument of teaching.

Thus, in the art of the catacombs, not only the very principle of sacred art clearly appears, but also some of its external characteristics. As has already been mentioned, unprejudiced scholarship, based on actual facts, asserts that a new style, characteristic of Christianity, appeared already in the catacombs of the first centuries, a style which had the essential traits henceforth characteristic of the art of the Church. This art, we repeat, primarily expresses the teaching of the Church and corresponds to the sacred texts. Its aim, therefore, is not to reflect everyday life, but to throw the new light of the Gospel upon it. No traces can be found in the catacombs of images which have a documentary, anecdotal or psychological character. It would be impossible, through this art, to provide a description of the everyday life of the early Christians. Thus, no trace of the frequent persecutions and the numerous martyrs of this time can be found in the liturgical art of the catacombs. The Christian artists who lived in the times of Nero or Diocletian undoubtedly saw the atrocious scenes of the amphitheaters, and these episodes were a matter of glory and consolation for all the brothers of the Church. One would expect to see recollections of these days when the struggle of the Christians against the pagan gods reached its paroxysm. But not one scene of martyrdom can be found in the catacombs. This same holds true in the writings of the great saints of this time. St. Paul, for example, teaches, denounces fallacies and vices, etc., but he mentions only in passing, without any allusion to his spiritual state and without any description, the tortures which he endured (2 Cor. 11:23 -27). It is therefore not surprising that we also find no evidence of these in art. It is only much later, when the persecutions had ceased and the anguish of the Christians had become history, that they were sometimes represented.

At the same time, this art was not cut off from life. It not only speaks the artistic language of its time, but it is intimately connected with it. This connection does not consist in episodic images like those in secular painting, but in the answer which it brings to the everyday problems of a Christian. The essential part of this answer is the state of prayer which this art communicates to the spectator. Seen face on or from the side, these persons are most often in the Orans position, i.e. in the ancient position of prayer. This position of uplifted hands is not a uniquely Christian pose; it was known in the world of antiquity and in the Old Testament, where the psalms evoke it many times. Particularly widespread in the first centuries of Christianity, it gained a symbolic value. Thus many figures, holding this position and personifying either prayer or the Church in prayer, can be seen in the Roman catacombs. This state of prayer becomes the leit-motiv of a wide variety of often dramatic situations, such as the sacrifice of Abraham or Daniel in the lions' den (Fig. 13). The drama of the represented situation is not so much the very moment of sacrifice as the internal, spiritual state of the persons, i.e. the state of prayer. The Christian, who always had to be prepared for confession through suffering, was therefore provided with an internal attitude which he had to preserve at all times. That which could calm, strengthen and teach was portrayed, and not that which could possibly repel or frighten. What these images also conveyed was the teaching of salvation. Sacrificed Isaac was saved, as were Noah and Daniel, and this portrayed our salvation. Besides prayer, toil was represented in order to demonstrate its purifying character and to remind Christians that all human toil should be to the glory of God. It was not some episode of human activity that was represented, but rather activity as such: trades, for example. Thus we see a woman selling herbs at her stall, a ferryman loading or unloading a cargo of amphora, dockhands unloading a ship, a baker, a winegrower, a coachman, or coopers at work.

The other characteristic trait of Christian art which can be seen already in the first centuries is that the image is reduced to a minimum of details and to a maximum of expression. This laconism, this sobriety in methods also corresponds to the laconic and sober character of Scripture. The Gospel dedicates only several lines to those events which decide the history of humanity. Similarly, the sacred image portrays only the essential. Details are tolerated only when they have some significance. All of these traits directly lead us to the classical style of the Orthodox icon. From this time on, the painter had to give a great simplicity to his works in which the profound meaning was understandable only to the eye initiated by the spirit. The artist had to purify his art of all individual elements; he remained anonymous (the works were never signed), and his first concern was to pass on tradition. Simultaneously, he had to renounce aesthetic joy for its own sake and use all the signs of the visible world in order to suggest spiritual reality. Indeed, to represent the invisible to the eyes of the flesh, a confused haze is unnecessary. On the contrary, one must be very clear and very precise, just as the Fathers, when they speak of the spiritual world, use particularly clear and vigorous expressions.

The Christian painter gradually renounces naturalistic representation of space, very noticeable in the Roman art of this time. With depth, the shadows disappear. Instead of representing a scene which the spectator can only look at, but cannot participate in, this art represents figures mutually bound to the general meaning of the image, and, above all, to the faithful who contemplate them. They are almost always represented face on, as we have said. They address the spectator and communicate their inner state to him, a state of prayer. What is important is not so much the action which is represented, but this communion with the spectator.

The beauty of this art of the first centuries of Christianity consists above all in the possibilities which it contains. It does not yet realize the fullness of its meaning, but it promises an infinite development.

The general character of the art of the catacombs allows us to conclude that the icons themselves originated from the same principle and that, through them, the Church not only represented some historical event or some person, but that it also conveyed, with a symbolic language, the spiritual reality manifested by this event or this person. The decoration of the catacombs, in fact, did not consist only in frescos. There were also so-called icons, that is, representations of saints painted on boards, and it would be difficult to believe that these icons would have been painted following a different principle than the one used for the frescos. The existence of icons in the catacombs is not simply a supposition. In 1913, when a new section of the catacombs of St. Calixtus was opened, the great Russian Byzantinist, N. P. Kondakov examined in it a sarcophagus of the end of the second or beginning of the third century. Here is what he writes: "We have personally had the chance to see an example of the use of portraits by Christians in the end of the second or in the beginning of the third centuries. Above a stone sarcophagus, which was found empty because the relics had been removed centuries ago, there was found on the wall an elongated linen cloth, covered with levkas [a white coating used for painting], from which a portrait of a martyr who had lain here was removed" (12). And so, Kondakov, who until that time had taught that icons of saints appeared only in the fourth or fifth centuries, was forced to admit that icons already existed in the second and third centuries.

This analysis of the art of the Roman catacombs should not lead us to forget that we are concerned here with only one branch of primitive Christian art: the Greek and Roman art, which has been better preserved. The characteristic trait of the Graeco -Roman art of this epoch is its naturalism, that is, its tendency to duplicate nature or visible objects exactly. The examples we have used demonstrate to what extent Christian art was breaking away from the principle of Graeco -Roman art. The technique used in Graeco -Roman art was very developed and very perfected, and Christian art inherited this perfection. This is why the Christian art of the first and second centuries is characterized by the same lightness and spontaneity which distinguishes the art of antiquity. But from the second century on, the technique already begins to change, to elaborate on the methods which bring this art closer to iconographic art (13).

Besides this branch of Graeco -Roman art, there were others. Thus, the frescos in the Christian Church of Dura Europus from the third century have a clearly Oriental character; the essential traits of these frescos are described by A. Grabar in his study of a pagan temple in this same town: "Contracted space, flat figures with stressed outlines, isoceph-alous bodies, without volume or weight; the figures moving forward turning their heads towards the spectators; in short, an art of expression which does not pretend to imitate optical vision or give the illusion of material reality" (14). These traits of Oriental art were frequently used by Christianity. Several other monuments and certain indicators lead us to the conclusion that sacred art was no less developed in the Eastern part of the Empire than in the Western. In any case, when Constantinople was founded in 330, Christian art in Rome and in the East already had a long history.


(1) Though we must constantly refer to the Roman catacombs, this does not mean that there were no Christians, or Christian art, elsewhere. On the contrary, Christianity spread much faster in the East than in the West, so much so, that when St. Constantine came to the throne, the Christians had already formed more than 50% of the population in parts of the East, in contrast to the 20% in Rome . But it is in the Roman catacombs that most of the Christian monuments of the first centuries were preserved. Outside of Rome, catacombs also existed in Naples, Egypt and Palestine . These were underground cemeteries; Roman law considered these burial places inviolable no matter what .religion they belonged to. The pagans also had catacombs, but these were always personal or family tombs, while those of the Christians were public. All the members of a community, irrespective of social rank, were buried there. The catacombs consisted of a network of underground passages, sometimes reaching ten to fifteen meters in depth (the catacomb of Calixtus ), in which the walls were hollowed out and the bodies, covered with a slab of rock, were placed in the niches. The name of the deceased, the date of his burial and his age, either from birth or from his baptism, were usually inscribed on this slab. Symbols, such as the fish, the initials of Christ, or a palm, as well as prayers, were also engraved. There were small chapels in the catacombs where the liturgy was celebrated, particularly during the persecutions when burials were more frequent. The sanctuary is either an apse or an alcove, separated from the rest of the chapel by a low railing (a primitive form of our iconostasis), of which traces can be seen in some catacombs. It is into this apse that the sarcophagus of a martyr was placed, serving as an altar for the celebration of the Eucharist; this is the origin of our custom of placing the relics of a martyr either in the altar itself, or on the altar in the antimension . Frescos, the remains of which still exist, were painted on the walls. (See N. Pokrovsky, op. cit., p. 11.)

(2) Historiia vizantiiskoi zhivopisi ( Moscow, 1947), vol. 1, p. 38.

(3) Or. Cat., 6, 29, PG 33: 589.

(4) Paedagogos . I, cap. 5, PG 8: 634.

(5)Strangely enough, in the eighth book of the Sybils, that is, of the pagan prophetesses, written before our era, there is an acrostic in which the first letters form the words: Ἰῦ ῦ ἱ ; which means, "Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Savior, the Cross" .

(6) Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, St. Augustine ( 430 A .D.), St. Jerome ( 420 A .D.), Origen, Melito of Sardis, Optatus of Mileve (around 370 A .D.), St. Zeno of Verona (around 375 A .D.), St. Peter Chrysologus ( 450 A .D.), St. Prosper of Aquitaine ( 463 A .D.) and many others used the symbolism of the fish.

(7) Sisto Scaglia, Manuel d'archéologie chritienne (Turin, 1916), p. 248.

(8) The custom of the first Christians was for the faithful to receive the consecrated bread in the palm of the right hand which was crossed over the left. This is how the Orthodox clergy receives Communion even today.

(9) This almost always happens in the catacombs, to the point that, on the tombs of adults, the ages of four years or three months are indicated, obviously counted not from birth, but from baptism.

(10) Epistle 125, to Bishop Exuperius; quoted from S. Scaglia, op. at., p. 239.

(11) See Ochsé, La nouvelle querelle des images (Paris, 1952), p. 41.

(12) N. P. Kondakov, The Russian Icon ( Prague, 1931), p. 14.

(13) See N. D. Kondakov, Ikonografia Bogomateri (St. Petersburg, 1914), p. 20.

(14) A. Grabar, La peinture byzantine ( Geneva, 1953), p. 38.


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