Early Christian Art - Essay

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Keeling1Katilynn KeelingProf. William TronzoVIS 121C21 November 2020Essay #2Depictions of God in the period of Medieval Christian art bears a significance of theimportant theological interpretations that evolved over time. To better understand thecomplicated, overlapping, and incomplete timeline of Christian art, this paper will brieflysummarize what were significant changes and trends in Christian art throughout the MiddleAges and will evaluate the artistic significance of different works of Byzantine Christian art,looking at examples of the visual forms of God in art- referring separately the Holy Trinity: Godthe Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.Before the rule of Constantine in the 3rd century, the enforced persecution of Christianssignificantly impacted the ability to freely create meaningful religious art. Instead, early Christianart was deliberately ambiguous- borrowing from the pagan culture and placing new meaningsinto their symbolic interpretations (Syndicus, p. 30, 1962). However, the extravagant artistry ofclassical pagan art contrasted the desire of early Christians whose art was not meant to beglorified or idolized- viewing it as misappropriated worship of things other than the Creator(Stephan & Sullivan, 2020). Exodus 20:4-5 reads, “4You shall not make for yourself a carvedimage—any likenessof anythingthatisin heaven above, or thatisin the earth beneath, or thatisin the water under the earth;5you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lordyour God,ama jealous God” (NKJV). Early Christian art distinguished themselves from thePagans and idol worship by borrowing iconography plainly, then later, characterizing it so that“[it did] not put the scenes it portrays in an earthly, finite perspective. The figures [stood] flat andincorporeal on bright backgrounds... thereby [taking] on an unearthly quality.... The pictures are
Keeling2signposts, informative rather than beautiful...” (Syndicus, p 30, 1962). Holy representations,therefore, were mostly limited to abstraction and portrayals of artistic metaphors and symbolsthat called on followers to interact with the meanings behind the icons, rather than to idolize therepresentation of the icons themselves...By the late 2nd Century, incipient pictorial art began to make an appearance. It isimportant to note that the ‘starting point’ of Christian pictorial art-“lies in the basic teaching of the Christian revelation itself- namely, theincarnation, the point at which the Christian proclamation is different fromJudaism. The incarnation of the Son of man, the Messiah, in the form of a humanbeing- who was created in the “image of God”- granted theological approval of asort to use the images that symbolized Christan truths” (Stephan & Sullivan).The 4th Century became marked by Constantine’s support and legalization of Christianity,freeing them from religious persecution. The Church grew (wealthier), and theologicalperspectives pushed Christian iconographic art to become more widely accepted as itsymbolized testament to the faith, rather than seen as iconographic representations to beworshipped. Narrative-based art could now be freely made according to Christianity (thoughborrowed pagan icons/symbols were now fixed into Christian symbolism) and individual portraitsof Jesus originated and grew more elaborate.Christian art expanded over the 6th and 7th Centuries and ushered in theFirst GoldenAge of Byzantine art (Demus, p. xiv, 1955). Magnificent churches were erected and lavishlydecorated with religious art which “served as spiritual gateways” (Hurst, 2004). However, the 8thand 9th centuries became notably defined as the Byzantine Iconoclastic Period, in which socialand political upheavals, led by Emperor Leo III (and his later successor), divided the Orthodoxchurch regarding theological interpretations of the Old Testament Ten Commandments whichforbade the worship of “graven images” (“Iconoclastic Controversy”). The Church remainedmostly in support of religious iconographic art throughout these periods of divisiveness;
Keeling3however, theological shifts shaped by the Iconoclastic debate helped establish a set of rulesand expectations for Christian art. The standardization of what and how a religious subject wasto be presented “[did] not aim at evoking the emotions of pity, fear or hope... The pictures maketheir appeal to the beholder not as an individual human being, a soul to be saved, but as amember of the Church, with his own assigned place in the hierarchical organization” (Demus, pp4-5).This brief history sheds light on Byzantine art and illuminates the veneration of holyicons but, most importantly, as religious iconography grew more widely accepted,representations ofGod the Fatherremained prohibited, for “18no one has seen God at any time(John 1:18, NKJV). Artistic metaphors were implemented and standardized in this way. Mostfrequently,the Hand of Godwas used to represent divine intervention or approval. This imageryembodies hundreds of verses in Scripture which involve the hand of God such as; Isaiah 41:40 -“Fear not for I am with you; be not dismayed...I will strengthen you, I will uphold you with myrighteous right hand” (NKJV), and “Was it not My hand which made all these things?” (Acts 7:50NKJV). Thus, God the Father is not seen documented until the 6th century on. A later exampleis the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram, circa 870 A.D. (Figure 1.1), a manuscript made for theCarolingian King Charles the Bald (Pizzinato, p.145, 2018). While this image has a lot todissect, we will remain focused on the depiction of God. Here, theHand of Godemerges fromthe heavens, positioned downward and outstretched as it hovers above the king’s head toinform of God’s divine sanctioning of the king. Emphasis is placed on this symbolism byenforcing it within the focal point- a lush green sun, fringed with golden rays. In some otherinstances, God has been depicted as a burning bush in reference to Exodus Chapter three-where Moses is visited by God in the form of a bush on fire but not burning (Demus, p. 104).Ultimately the iconographic depiction ofGod the Fatherremained prohibited and, “for about athousand years, no attempt was made to portray the First Person of the Holy Trinity inFigure
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