Pre-Constantinian and Byzantine Christian Attitudes towards Images

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Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...
Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church. Illustrates Jesus’ description of himself “I am the Good Shepherd” (from the Gospel of John, chapter 10, verse 11). This version of the image shows the detail of his face. The memorial window is also captioned: “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of William Wright. Died 6th November, 1932. Aged 70 Yrs.”

Christian attitudes towards images in the early periods have been the subject of many scholarly debates over the more recent centuries.  First it seems necessary to look at the attitudes of Christians before the time of Constantine through the works of academics and Christian images themselves.  Scholars have often maintained that the attitude of the early Christians towards art was very negative.  Klauser set out to define proof of early Christian opposition to images based n the archaeology of the third and fourth centuries and believed that the attitude towards art was decidedly negative and aniconic.[1]  Finney assesses that the consensus view of images was primarily based on the Judaic roots of Christianity and Exodus 20:4.[2]You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters below.’[3]

It is difficult to analysis the attitudes towards images throughout both the pre-Constantinian and Byzantine periods let alone compare them and determine whether there was significant differences in attitudes between the periods.  One of the main reasons for the issues in analysis is the many varying opinions of recent scholars on the attitudes of early Christians.  Adolf Van Harnak for instance believed that early Christianity was undermined and thrown off track by Hellenic influence and that the new ideas and the manufacture of religious images was an intrusive and hostile move by the Greeks.[4] Klauser and Van Harnak among others appear to have set out to prove an opposition to images before the pre-Constantinian period.  This suggests that much of the evidence that scholars were examining of the era was in fact positive towards images.  So how is this positive view of images seen in the archaeology of the period and how does this attitude differ from the post-Constantine/Byzantine period if at all?

Klauser’s three step view of the changing attitudes of the early Christians towards artwork is an interesting standpoint by which to compare the archaeological and written evidence.  Klauser defined the pre-Constantinian period as iconophobic and aniconic on at least a clerical level.  The later periods are defined as a progression through the submission to pressures from the uneducated laity and then the introduction of images into the church itself as a compromise of early attitudes and practices that he describes as typically early Christian.[5]  With these points in mind it is possible to compare and assess the attitudes of the early Christians on art, keeping in mind that the views of the laity and the clerical classes would often differ.  Belting for instance explains that ‘whenever images threatened to gain undue influence within the church, theologians have sought to strip them of their power’[6] where as Klauser’s interpretation of attitudes includes the views of the people being a contributing factor in the placement of images in churches.

The Catacombs at Rome provide a unique standpoint from which the attitude to art and images can be analysed for the first centuries of the Christian religion.  Until recently with the works of Wilpert, the monumental nature of images in the catacombs has been widely ignored.[7]  The catacombs contain a large variety of early Christian artwork and imagery dating from the first to the fifth century AD.[8]  The evolution of imagery can through these examples be traces and in relation the attitudes towards images of the early Christians.  For instance, the earlier images in the catacombs consist of many traditionally pagan ideologies and symbols that have been inserted into a Christian context to serve as part of the new religion with either the same ideas behind them or an idea sculpted to suit a more Christian framework.  The images from the fourth and fifth centuries show an evolution to more crude and clumsy interpretations of the Christian artwork, indicating a change in attitude.  This suggests that the attitudes of the early Christian population pre-Constantine were largely based on a traditional foundation where as the later periods saw a change in attitudes and in relation a change in the imagery displayed.

Virgin and Child. Wall painting from the early...
Virgin and Child. Wall painting from the early catacombs, Rome, 4th century.

Pre-Constantinian attitude to images can also be assessed through the interpretations made of the images in the Rome Catacombs.  Richter asserts that the outcome of the art is very sure of itself indicating that the portrayal of images in a Christian context was a widely accepted and perhaps desirable part of the Christian tradition in the pre-Constantinian period.[9]  This idea is also expressed by the evidence of conformity to prototypes seen in the catacombs which suggests that certain images were widely displayed.  For instance, two images of the good shepherd in the catacomb of Domitilla which resemble each other in ‘conception and motive, but differ in important details…although evidently deprived from a common prototype.’[10]  Other images in the catacombs that appear to conform to a common prototype include the breaking of bread and the adoration of the Magi.[11]  Along with this evidence of commonality, scholars have asserted in recent years that the Christians wished to adorn the tombs of their loved ones with images like those that had been put up in their earthly homes, indicating a link to traditional classical antiquity that the early Christians seem to have continued in part whether purposely or subconsciously.[12]  These points indicate that the Christians of the pre-Constantine period actually held images in some regard despite the opinions of the likes of Van Harnak and Klauser.

Finney asserts that the early third century and before, though being a time of artistic license for much Christian artwork, was also a time of aniconism where many Christians did see images and the display of those images as being against their beliefs.  Finney though also attributed external forces to changing this view suggesting that the negative attitude towards images in relation to the early Christians was from near the beginning a part of their ideals but not so big a part of the overall christian attitude that I could not be swayed.[13]  For instance, in the pre-Constantinian period, Christians who carried out acts of violence directed at Pagan religious artworks would have ‘invited disaster’ suggesting that that attitude was pro-image or at least tolerant.[14]  This tolerance towards images is further evidence in Rome, Ravenna and in many other places in the west which saw works of great importance ‘executed in the early years of Christendom.’[15]

The attitudes of the early Christians towards images in the period of Constantine appear to be continually mixed.  The wide variety of ecclesiastical paintings and works of art displayed and attributed to this period suggests that the general attitude was positive rather than the negative view that Klauser and Van Harnak contribute.[16]  Constantine’s edict of Milan in 313 suggests that he aimed to impress the populace and express the new state religion in a way that would appeal to all.  These edicts saw a turning point in ecclesiastical history but not in art as the old pagan ideas and motifs were simply taken over and ascribed new meanings with few changes in style that could be attributed to the new faith.[17]  Constantine did this through the creation of elaborate churches, paintings and monuments to press the impression of the new religion of the state.[18]  This suggests that the general populace in the time of Constantine had an attitude that was decidedly positive and images were appealing rather than feelings concerning heresy. By impressing the populace in this manner it is indicative that the early Christians who were converted with the enforcement of the state religion and those who were already Christian were not opposed to images and they were accepted in this period as part of the religion itself.

Mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, section: Maria as...
Mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, section: Maria as patron saint of Istanbul, detail: Emperor Constantine I with a model of the city.

There are many elaborate examples of images being used in conjunction with the new religion early on.  Eusebius for instance describes in his ecclesiastical history the church at Type and its painting and architecture as well as describing in his Vita Constantini the Christian monuments at Constantinople, Nicomedia and Antioch and the architecture of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem.[19]  From these descriptions we can assess that the attitude of Christians in the Constantinian period was not entirely negative with Constantine himself (though he is reported to only have become a Christian on his deathbed) encouraging a taste for the liberal arts.[20]  Not only does this express the appeal of artwork to the people and the encouragement of its creation but it also illustrates that with the influence of traditional and pagan attitudes, which were still a significant part of Constantine’s thinking and the state’s, the Christians of this period appear to have acknowledged that art and in relation images had there place in society.

The attitude of early Christian is also illustrated through examples such as the early Christian mosaic at Deir Dakleh.  Dating to about the fourth century AD and discovered in 1918, the mosaic is a fine example of the high standard of art and workmanship that prevailed in the period suggesting that the attitude towards images and artwork was not completely negative.[21]  Artwork such as this indicates again that attitudes were not always towards the negative like many scholars believe but the degradation of the artwork and how like many images it was covered up over time suggests that either by the process of time or influence of changing views even the most highly of praised artwork saw a period where it was in a way downgraded in the hearts of the Christian population.

The use of images was continued in classical themes and elegance in a number of areas after the time of Constantine, for instance in Alexandria long after the adoption of Christianity.[22] This illustrates further that the attitudes were often mixed within the Christian populace as while many condemned it on the influence of Exodus and certain clerical groups and individuals, the artwork of the periods after Constantine before the era of the iconoclast still depicts many classical symbols and traditional images.  Such examples showing this include the niloctic landscape first applied to church decoration in the second half of the fourth century suggesting some symbolic meaning.  Also the famous letter of St. Nilus to Olympiodorus discussing the increasing number of biblical scenes in churches, and scenes on the walls of St. Maggiore in Rome dating to the fifth century indicate an acceptance of imagery despite much negative attention by the church.[23]

The attitude towards the image in the Byzantine period was influenced greatly between then and the pre-Constantinian era.  The constant attack on art by the Christians is seen with the belief that images were linked to atheism and superstition as well as sexual misconduct, a common complaint based on observed behaviour and a link to Judaism.[24]  Images were also condemned in light of apologist standpoints, though Clement applies platonic doctrine to refute the charge of atheism, seeing images as belonging to the plane of error and falsehood as related to platonic doctrine.[25]  For instance, some of the earliest Christian apologists interpreted the story of Diagoras as being in good sense when he ‘recognised a statue as a ‘mere piece of wood and he had the good sense not to confuse divinity…with hyle, which is created and perishable.’[26] This illustrates one of the most prominent attitudes of clerical society on and off throughout the periods which would have influenced the attitudes of the early Christians towards art as the Byzantine period went on despite the regeneration of positive iconophilic ideas and desire for images.

The attitudes towards images however would have like anything been subject to regional diversity and political, cultural and religious spheres of influence.[27]  For example, it is evidence that the elites of the fifth century suddenly and purposely turned against classicism and artistic tradition.  This can be seen in a series of diptychs made by officials in the west.[28]  The fifth century saw many conflicts surrounding this point though works of art continued to be executed in private and public sectors pointing to a continual desire for images in churches by the public and the clerical majorities.  For instance, the detail on the dome at the church of St George at Thessaloniki, showing Saints Onesiphorus and Porphyrius.[29]  This indicates that while in some areas the attitudes towards images were negative especially to the upper classes that held power, in other areas images were being embraced still by the population.

Icons in the Byzantine period are an excellent source of assessment of changing and differing views on images in the period that we can use in our discussion of early Christian attitudes.  Throughout the Byzantine period icons were continually the subject of debate throughout the empire and in a number of Councils in the eighth century.  Belting’s point is considerably the case in relation to iconography as these councils indicate that many ecclesiastical and political groups and individuals condemned the use of art when held a position of power.[30]  The debate over iconography is particularly illustrated as the icon became motive enough for murder and political repression.[31]

From the outset the display of icons was recognised as an adaption of many pagan practices and hence debate on their use appeared almost instantly.[32]  In the eighth century they became the subject of much debate, Gregory of Neo-Caesarea for instance said that ‘the foul name of images, falsely so-called, cannot be justified by the tradition of Christ, nor can it be justified by the tradition of the apostles and the fathers’ at the council of Nicaea in 787.[33]  The opinion of Gregory of Neo-Caesarea, as the tradition of Christians can not justify giving images a foul name, is just one example of one side of the debate that raged for several centuries.  The second Iconoclastic council, that of 787, condemned the definition of the first Iconoclastic council at Hiereia in 754 held under the rule of Constantine V. Both councils and the content of their debates illustrate the strong differing opinions between the iconoclastic and iconophiles factions in the Byzantine world and the mixed attitudes of early Christians on images in this period.

An Iconoclast is describes in the Oxford English dictionary as a person who attacks cherished beliefs or institutions or ‘a person who destroys images used in religious worship, especially one belonging to a movement opposing such images in the Byzantine Church during the eight and ninth century.’ The Iconoclasts were a faction that had a strong holding in Byzantine society and their attitude towards images is a prime example of what many early Christians thought of images.  This iconoclastic attitude is one of the main reasons that attitudes towards images would have differed from the pre-Constantinian period compared to the Byzantine period.  This attitude whether held by the many or the few within the Christian population had a great influence on the exhibition and creation of images in the public and private sectors.  The influence of the iconoclastic movement would have stuck in the mind of the Christians just as the influence of an historical event or opinion sticks in the minds of anyone as displayed in our own morals and values today; they are based if not completely then at least slightly on those of the past.

The attitude of the majority of the Christian populace is seen with the restoration of icons under Irene from 780 to 802AD during her joint reign with her son Constantine VI.  This illustrates that the attitudes of the populace which Irene is said to have represented were some what differing from that of the powerful clerical individuals and groups in the period.[34]

Hagia Sophia provides us with an excellent source of interpretation for attitudes towards images in the Byzantine period after the Iconoclastic periods.  Hagia Sophia envelopes the trends Byzantine artworks after the controversies that, as discussed above, ruled the eighth and ninth centuries of Christian tradition and thought and expresses a newly registered desire for images to be portrayed that in many ways parallels earlier models.[35] Hagia Sophia also shows us that the attitude of the early Christians in the Byzantine period paralleled in some ways those of the pre-Constantinian age as the Christians looked again to antiquity to help represent aspects of the Christian faith.  For instance, the representation of Christ in the Byzantine times in comparison to pagan representations of Hermes, Dionysis or Apollo, and also often Zeus, Hades and Poseidon.[36]

The attitudes of early Christians in the Byzantine period, though maintaining much of earlier positive vibes that are assessed with the existence and form of pre-Constantinian imagery, was however subject to the influence of the controversies of the centuries.  Morey asserts that the Christians, while they returned to a less negative attitude towards images, remained instinctively distrustful of sculpture and similar forms of imagery due to them being ‘too real’ in their depiction of supernatural themes.[37]  Hagia Sophia is a prime example of how images evolved over time after the Christians decided to look for an ideal ‘commensurate with both the humanity and the divinity of the Son of God.’[38]  The images of Christ and his associates which were for so long through blasphemous by much of the Christian population is seen at places like Hagia Sophia in abundance, displaying how the attitude towards images returned to a more desirable want for them.  The attitude to these images is further backed up by the existence of inscriptions in the same or similar contexts.  For example the inscription on the face of the apsidal arch bearing a similar line to that preserved in the Palatine Anthology, ‘Icons which the imposters here destroyed, the pious sovereigns have restored again.’[39]

Christian Attitudes towards images changed and differed through out the periods from pre-Constantine to the Byzantine period.  Not only was it subject to change over the natural course of time but due to the events that define some of this time; the reign of Constantine, the reigns of emperors after Constantine, the iconoclastic councils and the establishment of an attitude in the majority of the population which was pro-icons. Due to these influential events, edicts and the like, though the attitudes of the early Christians towards images in the Byzantine period were in some ways similar to that of the Pre-Constantinian period, they also differed.  The attitudes of the early Christians throughout the ages is seen in a large number of examples such as the catacombs at Rome in relation to pre-Constantine and the Hagia Sophia in the later times.  These show that attitudes differed over time though some ideas were maintained and renewed at intervals.


Bibliography

An Early Christian Mosaic at Deir Dakleh, in The Burlington Magazines for Connoisseurs, Vol.34, No.193 (Apr., 1919), pp.144-145

Belting, H., Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (London, 1996), pp.1-14, 17-26, 30-36, 49-63, 102-109, 144-155, 164-173, 184-195

Cameron, A., The Later Roman Empire: AD 284-430 (London, 1993), pp.14-92

Cormack, R., Byzantine Art (Oxford, 2000), pp.1-37, 38-75

Downey, G., Education in the Christian Roman Empire: Christian and Pagan Theories under Constantine and His Successors, in Speculum, Vol.32, No.1 (Jan, 1957), pp.48-61

Finney, P.C., The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art (Oxford, 1997), pp.1-15, 39-58, 69, 146, 229

Frend, W.H.C. Religion Popular and Unpopular in the Early Christian Centuries (London, 1976)

Frend, W.H.C., The Rise Of Christianity (Philadelphia, 1984), pp.600-610

Harl, K.W., Sacrifice and Pagan Belief in Fifth- and sixth-Century Byzantium, in Past and Present, No.128 (1990), pp.7-27

Hillgarth, J.N., Christianity and Paganism, 350-750: The Conversion of Western Europe (Pennsylvania, 1969), pp.46-65

Holy Bible: New International Version, Hodder and Stroughton (London, 1996), Exodus 20:4

Kitzinger, E., Byzantine Art in the Making: Main Lines of Stylistic Development in Mediterranean Art 3rd-7th Century (Massachusetts, 1980), pp.7-22, 45-66

Laistner, M.L.W., Christianity and Pagan Culture in the Later Roman Empire (New York, 1951), pp.4, 131-138

Mango, C., The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453 (Canada, 1986), pp. 3-21, 32-50, 55, 113-117, 123-181

Mathews, T.F., The Art of Byzantium (London, 1998), pp.7-9, 17-32, 43-70, 111, 137-143

Michaelides, D., The Early Christian Mosaics of Cyprus, in The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol.52, No.4, From Ruins to Riches: CAARI on Cyprus (Dec., 1989), pp.192-202

Morey, C.R., The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol.2, No.7 (Mar., 1944), pp.201-210

Richter, J.P., Early Christian Art in the Roman Catacombs, in The Burlington Magazines for Connoisseurs, Vol.6, No.22 (Jan., 1905), pp.286-262

Spieser, J.M., The Representation of Christ in the Apses of Early Christian Churches, in Gesta, Vol.37, No.1 (1998), pp.63-73

Talbot Rice, D., Art of the Byzantine Era (London, 1997), pp.47-67, 132-135

Talbot Rice, D., Byzantine Icons, in The Burlington Magazines for Connoisseurs, Vol.86, No.506 (May., 1945), pp.127-128

Treadgold, W., A History of the Byzantine State and Society (California, 1997)

Vermeule III, C.C., Roman Art, in Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol.20, No.1, Ancient Art at The Art Institute of Chicago (1994), pp.62-77

Whittemore, T., The Unveiling of the Byzantine Mosaics in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, in American Journal of Archaeology, Vol.46, No.2 (Apr.-Jun., 1942), pp.169-171


[1] Finney, P.C., The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art (Oxford, 1997)

Kitzinger, E., Byzantine Art in the Making: Main Lines of Stylistic Development in Mediterranean Art 3rd-7th Century (Massachusetts, 1980), p.9

[2] Ibid., p.15

[3] Holy Bible: New International Version, Hodder and Stroughton (London, 1996), Exodus 20:4

[4] Finney, op.cit., p.8

[5] Finney, op.cit., p.10

[6] Belting, H., Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (London, 1996)

Cormack, R., Byzantine Art (Oxford, 2000), p.1

[7] Richter, J.P., Early Christian Art in the Roman Catacombs, in The Burlington Magazines for Connoisseurs, Vol.6, No.22 (Jan., 1905), p.286 – even though the source for this information is rather old in comparison to today’s newer resources, written 1905, it is still a well defined and structured description of the catacombs at Rome and holds significance evidence of points that are unchanged in the century since it’s publication.

[8] Ibid., p.287 – fifth century is the latest date that can be given to the catacombs images with any certainty as the latest inscription found in the catacombs does not go higher than this century.

[9] Richter, op.cit., p.290

[10] Ibid., p.290

[11] Ibid., p.292

[12] Ibid., p.292

[13] Finney, op.cit., p.9

[14] Ibid., p.39

[15] Talbot Rice, D., Art of the Byzantine Era (London, 1997), p.7

[16] Finney, op.cit., p.8

[17] Talbot Rice, op.cit., p.9

[18] Mango, C., The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453 (Canada, 1986), p.3

[19] Eusebius, Hist. Eccles X, 4.37ff – the church of Tyre (c.317) – describing painting in 63 – Mango, op.cit., p.9

[20] Cod.Theod XIII, 4.1 – edict of Constantine to the Praetorian Prefect Felix, posted at Carthage in 334 – ‘need as many architects as possible…encourage…a taste of liberal arts’ – Mango, op.cit., p.14

[21] An Early Christian Mosaic at Deir Dakleh, in The Burlington Magazines for Connoisseurs, Vol.34, No.193 (Apr., 1919), p.145

[22] Talbot Rice, op.cit., p.14

[23] Mango, op.cit., p.22

[24] Finney, op.cit., p.40

[25] Ibid., p.43

[26] Ibid., p.49

[27] Kitzinger, E., Byzantine Art in the Making: Main Lines of Stylistic Development in Mediterranean Art 3rd-7th Century (Massachusetts, 1980), p.45

[28] Ibid., p.47

[29] Ibid., p.54

[30] Belting, op.cit., p.1

[31] Mathews, T.F., The Art of Byzantium (London, 1998), p.43

[32] Ibid., p.45

[33] Finney, op.cit., p.5

[34] De sacris aedibus Deiparae ad fontum, p.880, Mango, op.cit., p.156

[35] Morey, C.R., The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol.2, No.7 (Mar., 1944), p.202

[36] Ibid., p.202

[37] Ibid., p.202

[38] Ibid., p.202

[39] Morey, op.cit., p.206

One thought on “Pre-Constantinian and Byzantine Christian Attitudes towards Images

    Mysteria Misc. Maxima: February 8th, 2013 « Invocatio said:
    February 8, 2013 at 10:33 pm

    [...] much art this week! Here’s a post on how early Christians viewed religious images. (Graeco [...]

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