Archaeology & Icon Veneration | From Before Constantine?

This post is the second post in a series on whether the early Christians venerated images. In the other posts, I argue that before 313, the veneration of images was not a legitimate Christian practice.

In this post, I will examine pre-Constantinian images found in archaeology and whether they provide evidence for or against the veneration of images. See below for links to my other posts.

  1. My first post introduces and summarizes the issues around the veneration of icons. It deals with some high-level objections and brings all the different evidence together.
  2. My second post deals with the archaeological evidence for early Christian art. Because the evidence from art is more ambiguous, I demonstrate only the more modest claim that evidence from archaeology does not suggest that before 313, the veneration of images was a common Christian practice.
  3. My third post discusses Scripture and theology and whether they can be used in support of the veneration of images (as opposed to the worship of idols). I conclude that Scripture seems to be against the practice, though it doesn’t explicitly mention it.
  4. My fourth post digs deeply into the pre-Constantinian evidence—the church fathers before 313. It shows very clearly that the consensus of the pre-Constantinian church is against the veneration of images.
  5. My fifth post discusses evidence after 313 to see how the veneration of images could have arisen. I look into the writings of John Chrysostom and others of Orthodoxy’s favorite saints, and show that they did not practice iconodulia. I also sketch out how the veneration of images could have slowly crept into the church, without drawing much comment.

Disclaimer

Since this post will discuss the archaeological evidence surrounding early Christian art, the evidence it includes will be of two kinds: 1) Images and artifacts themselves in their immediate context, and 2) the conclusions of archaeologists as to dating of images and their historical context. That means that this post is subject to a number of issues from the start:

  1. My training is in textual analysis and exegesis (literature and philosophy). Though my English major included some media studies, I don’t have much knowledge of archaeology. I’m leaning on scholarly research.
  2. Archaeology itself is limited by the sometimes spottiness of surviving evidence. We don’t always know whether we’re missing significant evidence or whether what we have is representative.
  3. It can be difficult to know when a scholarly consensus exists and what it is; as well as how strong the evidence underlying it is.

So, in arguing that before 313, the veneration of images was not a legitimate Christian practice, I’m placing most of the weight of my argument on textual evidence, which is a lot more clear, and which I have a lot more right to interpret. I’m using my findings in archaeology for two reasons:

  1. Some proponents of iconodulia (the veneration of images) use archaeological evidence to support their arguments. I want to see whether the evidence actually leans in their direction.
  2. A well-rounded approach to the early Christian view of images should take into account the artifacts we have from that time period. I want to give context for the rest of my argument.

I’ll mainly be summarizing what seems to be uncontroversial among scholars, as well as including some pictures for your reference.

Main Contention

I will only be drawing a very modest conclusion in this article: Evidence from archaeology does not suggest that before 313, the veneration of images was a common Christian practice.

So don’t count on this article to be conclusive in any way. I’ll mainly be letting the experts, and a few relevant artworks, speak for themselves. The results will not be conclusive, only suggestive.

Note: By “veneration of images,” I refer to the practice of venerating Christ, saints, or angels by addressing veneration (defined as bowing, kissing, and prayer) to them through images of them.

The Early Christians Had Images—But What Did They Do With Them?

We all agree that the early Christians had images. We only disagree as to whether they venerated some of the images. So neither side can use the mere existence of images to prove their view, and the images themselves can’t tell us how they were used. So do we throw up our hands and say that they can’t tell us?

No, the answer is that we can find indications of how images were used in general. Images that were venerated will tend to have certain characteristics, and images that weren’t will tend not to have those characteristics. It’s entirely possible that some images which indicate iconodulia weren’t venerated, and that some which indicate otherwise were, but we have to go by the indications, or we can’t use the archeology as evidence at all.

The biggest trouble is that indications are fairly subjective. I married an artist, so I know that evaluating art is fairly holistic, and small differences can make big differences in our perception. However, I’ll try to give indications that are fair and generous.

What do we do if we can’t agree on the indications? Will that mean that we default to using images as evidence for iconodulia? Or against iconodulia? Neither. We simply need to recognize that this is an area that’s too subjective, and we need to go elsewhere for evidence.

Criteria for Venerated Images

It’s impossible for us to tell for sure whether a given image was venerated, short of an accompanying text or inscription (which I would deal with in my article on the early Christian texts). Also, even if some random image was venerated by some random person, that makes little difference as to whether the veneration of images was legitimate.

Thus, I will look for images which give indications that they were intended to be venerated. What aspects of an image would make it possible to use it in a case for iconodulia before 313?

  1. It must come from before 313. Since archaeologists tend to date by centuries, rather than years, however, we may not get a closer date than “fourth century.” Those cases will be a bit less clear-cut.
  2. It must be a venerable portrait, rather than a narrative image.
    1. The central subject should be a person, like Christ, rather than an event, like Christ’s baptism, or a concept, like the Good Shepherd.
    2. It could be a stylized evocation of an event or concept, like this icon of the Resurrection, if it makes clear who in the image is to be venerated (see 2).
    3. Portraits tend to picture a static individual, often but not always frontal rather than profile.
    4. Portraits tend to have details of the subject’s face, and often clothes and hands.
    5. It should be idealized rather than slavishly accurate. For example, it could contain symbolic elements, such as a book, keys, staff, crown, etc. It could include a halo around the central figure’s head, or people bowing to the central figure.
  3. The artwork must contain one or more subjects that are venerated in Christian traditions. It must include only a venerable one, or it must make clear through artistic elements (such as a nimbus) which person or people are meant to be venerated. See the included image, which clearly makes Christ the focal point to be venerated, and singles out Old Testament kings and prophets for veneration due to their artistic treatment. Of course, the “strong man” who is bound and beneath Christ’s feet is not to be venerated.
  4. The artwork must be displayed at a place where it can be treated with special respect, such as bowing to it or kissing it. This means it will be somewhere around shoulder-level or face-level, or it will be portable.

Note: I’ve based these criteria on observation of the images that are venerated by Christian traditions. I may have missed criteria or I may not have stated them in the best way. I welcome suggestions for better criteria.

However, if we can’t agree on criteria, we will just need to give up on archaeology as evidence for or against iconodulia, and we’ll need to rely on the textual evidence, which I think is quite clear.

How to Put the Evidence Together

Now the question is, “What would provide evidence for iconodulia, and what would provide evidence against it?” If most images don’t fit the qualifications, but some do, does that provide support for or against the practice? Or if just one image fits the qualifications, does that provide support for iconodulia?

The problem is that, whether Christians venerated images or not, either way, we would expect to see some images that fit these qualifications. After all, it’s not uncommon to find an image that meets these qualifications in a Protestant church or household.

If I were placing a lot of weight on the archaeological evidence to support my argument, I would work out a detailed set of criteria for how to count each image for or against iconodulia. However, this article is mainly intended to give context and to see whether a good archaeological argument can be made for iconodulia before 313. So I’ll simply lean on recent archaeological scholarship in this area and evaluate some claims made by proponents of iconodulia.

Scholarship

Here are my findings from researching the scholarship on early Christian art.

How Many Images

The earliest Christians either didn’t have many images or very few of them have survived. Robin Jensen notes that

“Historians generally agree that first- and second-century Christians left behind few material artifacts that historians could recognize as specifically theirs. Adherents to this new faith evidently began to decorate their tombs, places of worship, and even small domestic objects with iconography that reflected their distinct religious identity only in the late second or early third century”1Robin M. Jensen, “Introduction: Early Christian Art,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, 1

She adds that no one is quite sure why—multiple theories exist—but currently the more practical theories are winning out:

Instead of seeing its production as an abandonment of some core theological principle or the degenerate influence of a polytheistic culture, it is now more common to attribute the notably late emergence of identifiably Christian material culture (ca. 200 C.E.) to the community’s political, social, and economic insecurity. At least one historian suggests that insecurity could also explain the relatively low quality and limited corpus of the earliest Christian art.2Jensen, “Compiling Narratives,” 3-4

However, we have many artifacts from the third century, some examples of which I’ll include in this article.

Christians were not opposed to art but veneration

Scholars seem to be in agreement with my contention throughout these articles, although their conclusions are also based on texts rather than just on the material objects. Jensen writes, summarizing evidence that I cover in my analysis of the early church:

Generally, early Christian writers were not opposed to pictorial art as such. Rather, they objected to images and cultic practices that they perceived as idolatrous. The apologetic literature is filled with long-standing satirical references to polytheists worshipping inanimate, human-made statues, fabricated from base materials and thereby subject to natural erosion or even destruction. Yet, those apologists’ ridicule of polytheists for worshiping senseless objects was probably more rhetorical than genuine—they acknowledged that the gods’ statues were merely representations of the deities for whom their devotees’ proffered veneration was intended.3“Compiling Narratives,” 4

Christians opposed cultic practices rather than the category of image. But this will be covered later.

Early art is not likely representative of official church beliefs

Our question is not whether or not veneration of images occurred before 313, but whether or not it was considered a legitimate Christian practice. So is the art we have representative of the view of church authorities, or only individuals?

According to Jensen, art during this period was most likely commissioned by “private individuals and we have no evidence that either artisans or their clients were supervised by ecclesiastical officials or underwritten by church funds.”4Ibid., 3

Norbert Zimmermann discusses this in the context of Roman catacomb paintings:

“[Early catacomb] art is usually of a quite modest quality, and in most cases it is an individual expression of self-representation and hope for an eternal life of a private owner/commissioner. The care for the deceased was a duty of the family, and every painted monument reflects a single private order and not an official, public statement of the church. Only very few examples, usually in topographical contact with a tomb of a venerated martyr, show better quality and a richer decoration, and eventually also an ecclesiastical and therefore somewhat official commissioner.”5Norbert Zimmermann, “Catacomb Painting and the Rise of Christian Iconography in Funerary Art,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, 21

So we can’t take most artworks that we have, funerary art, as representative examples of what church leaders would have promoted. Of course, art on church walls would still be a good indication of what the church officially allowed or encouraged.

Types of Images in the Third Century

Robin Jensen sketches out the history of early Christian art from the earliest years to its completion of development in the fifth and sixth centuries:

“In general, Christian art proceeds from being primarily symbolic, to illustrating biblical narratives, to presenting certain dogmatic developments, and finally to embracing iconic, or portrait, types as it proceeds from domestic and funereal settings to monumental, ecclesial spaces.”6Jensen, “Introduction,” 2

Symbolic images arise earliest, she says, including images such as fish, Good Shepherds, and praying souls (called orant or orans).7Jensen, “Introduction,” 4–5 In the third century, scenes from Old and New Testament stories became common.8Jensen, “Introduction,” 9

At this stage, Christian art was dominated by symbolic motifs that had little obvious—or exclusively Christian—narrative content. Birds (doves and peacocks), praying figures (orants), fish, ships, and anchors were especially popular for epitaphs and were not dramatically distinct from those found on their pagan counterparts. Soon, however, biblical themes appeared and began to dominate the decorative schemes. Among the earliest were depictions of the Good Shepherd, Noah (Fig. 6), and a series of Jonah episodes: Jonah being tossed overboard and swallowed by the sea monster, Jonah being spit up by the creature, and Jonah reclining on dryland under his gourd vine.

By the end of the third century, the standard catalog of Christian motifs had expanded to encompass biblical scenes that had no obvious antecedents in Greco-Roman art. Some of the most popular were drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures or Christian Old Testament. Joining Jonah and Noah were Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, Daniel and his lions, the three Babylonian youths in the fiery furnace, Susanna, and Moses striking the rock in the wilderness. A few of these figures had polytheist parallels (e.g., the Good Shepherd, Daniel, and Jonah), but most appear to have been created sui generis.

New Testament stories also emerged and mingled with those from the Hebrew Scriptures. The favorites seem to be based on miracle or healing stories in Jesus’ ministry, particularly those drawn from the Fourth Gospel: Jesus changing water to wine, giving sight to the man born blind, healing the invalid, and raising Lazarus. The multiplication of loaves was also popular. Depictions of Jesus’ baptism appeared earlier than other episodes from his life, while portrayals of his nativity, and scenes related to the Passion were gradual additions throughout the fourth century. Apart from many characters’ proper Roman garb, these compositions have no discernable counterparts in earlier or contemporary Greco-Roman art.9Jensen, “Compiling Narratives” 13-15)

As Christian art grew into its own in the third century, pre-Constantinian Christians tended to use concepts or subjects that were already common in their culture. Jensen describes some of them:

“What looked like a Good Shepherd to one set of eyes could be regarded as a representation of Hermes as the ram bearer to another. An image of Sol Invictus, Apollo, or Orpheus could be adapted to a Christian iconographic purpose in order to relay the idea of Christ as bringer of light into the world or a tamer of souls, without necessarily verging on religious syncretism.”10Jensen, “Introduction,” 2

In the following quote, Jeffrey Spier discusses the Good Shepherd, one of the most common of these images, and its meanings to Christians and pagans:

“The Good Shepherd was one of the first images created by Christians at the beginning of the third century. The composition itself—usually a young, beardless shepherd standing facing frontally, carrying a lamb over his shoulder—is traditionally pagan and commonly found, for example, on contemporary sarcophagi in Rome as an allusion to the paradise in the afterlife. Christian artists were able to appropriate this figure and invest it with purely Christian significance.11Jeffrey Spier, “The Earliest Christian Art: From Personal Salvation to Imperial Power,” Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, 6

“By the end of the third century,” Norbert Zimmermann says, “a relatively limited repertory of scenes had developed in catacomb paintings and had begun to appear also on Christian sarcophagi.”12Zimmermann , “Catacomb Painting,” 23 This included the Good Shepherd, Orpheus (since Jesus descended into hell), the orant, and a banquet scene. To these were added Old and New Testament stories.13Ibid., 24–25 Portraits of the deceased also appear around this time.14Ibid., 26

In scenes of Jesus’ miracles, which were some of the most common New Testament scenes, Jesus sometimes is and sometimes isn’t visible.15Ibid., 26 Christ healing the blind man is a very common miracle image, as is the raising of Lazarus.16Lee M. Jefferson, “Miracles and Art,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, 313, 317

These artistic subjects are the ones that Christians of this era preferred across the board. On sarcophagi (marble caskets), basically these same themes are apparent around this time.17Jutta Dresken-Weiland, “Christian Sarcophagi from Rome,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, 45–49

Interestingly, it seems that there were secular workshops that catered to those who wanted Christian themes. The workshop of Florentius, for example, sold lamps like this one with the Good Shepherd and scenes from the story of Jonah.

The closest thing I can find to a Byzantine icon before 313 is this ceiling mosaic, which is probably of Christ as the sun god, from the third century.19Mary Charles-Murray, “The Emergence of Christian Art,” Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, 51-52

Mary

I’ll make special note in this section to images that include the Virgin Mary during this time period. That’s not because there are so many of them, but because it’s a question that will probably arise in everyone’s mind due to the centrality of the veneration of Mary to the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.

We have very few images that include Mary from this time period. In comparison to miracle stories and other Bible stories, she wasn’t an especially popular subject at all—in fact, she is probably mainly included because her story is a miracle story.

In the so-called “Crypt of the Virgin” in the Catacombs of Callixtus, there’s a wall with multiple Bible scenes, dated to the early fourth century.20Spier, Picturing the Bible, 181 One of them is the adoration of the Magi, which has the wise men bringing gifts to the Christ child who sits in Mary’s lap. Of course, this story is most centrally about Jesus, so it’s not a good example of an image intended to honor Mary specifically.

These next two images may or may not be from before 313, and in fact may or may not be of Mary. In the Catacomb of Priscilla, there’s a fourth-century fresco21Mary Charles-Murray, “The Emergence of Christian Art,” Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, 52-53 called the Donna Velata or “veiled lady,” which features a central orant, some figures to the left, and a seated woman holding a child on her right. This is probably a picture of Mary with Jesus, although no one can be sure. Note that it is not the main subject of the fresco—the main subject is the orant.

Also in the Catacomb of Priscilla, from the mid–fourth century, is a fresco dubbed “Virgin and Child.”22Spier, Picturing the Bible, 177 It’s of a woman holding a child, with a man standing in front of her, pointing upwards. It’s unclear who the man is; the woman is probably Mary holding Christ, but it’s hard to be sure.

Changes Around the Time of Constantine

So that is what archaeologists have found from before 313. They note that multiple changes occurred in Christian art around the time of Constantine. Norbert Zimmermann notes the “Constantinian turn” in Christian art:

“For the church now everything changed drastically: its members turned in less than ten years from public enemies to imperial friends, supported and promoted in many ways by the emperor. If we look, for example, at the basilicas and their decoration, we see the clear imprint of the imperial court. From that moment on [313], we can really talk about an official, ecclesiastical art and architecture.23Zimmermann, “Catacomb Painting,” 29

The “dogmatic” images previously mentioned by Robin Jensen appeared in the mid-fourth century (after Constantine). Now portraits began to be common that weren’t merely funereal representations of someone in the catacombs. Christ and the saints began to be represented in portraiture.

“By the mid-fourth century, the biblical narrative scenes of Old Testament characters and Jesus’ miracles were joined by more dogmatically oriented and imperially influenced subjects. Some of this evolution may reflect the contemporary debates over the nature of the Trinity or the person and work of Christ, but the increasing prosperity and security of the Church during the fourth century must have contributed as well. . . . Portraits of Christ, the apostles, and other saints also began to appear with more regularity, often as devotional images without specific narrative contexts”24Jensen, “Introduction,” 11

Stephen Bigham also notes that portraits of Christ and the saints tend to be post-Constantinian, with exceptions such as the images Eusebius records (which I will discuss in more detail later).

The fourth stage, in which Christ or the saints were represented without any historical setting, facing the observer, is generally beyond the time frame of our study [pre-Constantinian] even though Eusebius says that he had seen such portraits at the beginning of the fourth century.25Stephen Bigham, Early Christian Attitudes Toward Images

According to Lee Jefferson, the miracles of Jesus at first rise in popularity, and then “are portrayed with less frequency after the fifth century . . . More images involving a crucified Jesus or a Jesus enthroned begin to proliferate.”26Jefferson, “Miracles and Art,” 321 Speaking of the Roman catacomb art, Jeffrey Spier says,

“Although the Christian symbolism of the third century continued in the paintings of the fourth century, much of the catacomb decoration displays the new concerns of a Christian community no longer suffering from persecution and benefiting from extraordinary patronage. There is a wider range of Old and New Testament scenes . . . New depictions of Christ emphasize both his teachings and his majesty. Peter and Paul become more prominent . . . and local Roman saints and martyrs also appear”27Spier, “The Earliest Christian Art,” 7

So Spier also points out the appearance of saints and martyrs, especially Peter and Paul. Note the change in the way Jesus was portrayed, as stated by Jefferson and Spier. Instead of appearing in a nondescript way other than the deeds he did, he was shown as enthroned.

Norbert Zimmermann describes this in more detail, and explores the significance of this change in portraying Jesus:

“beside the figure of Jesus represented as a young philosopher in the biblical scenes, a new image of a long-haired and bearded Christ was developed for non-biblical scenes. Adopting the model of a Father God [e.g., Jupiter], Christ appeared now with all honors of imperial iconography, such as the nimbus, the throne, the suppedaneum (a little footrest), and the imperial purple as the color for his mantle or chlamys. From at least the late Constantinian time or the mid-fourth century on, this image in the form of a bust or full figure takes the central positions, usually getting the highest attention”28Zimmermann, “Catacomb Painting,” 29

Jutta Dresken-Weiland notes similar developments on Christian sarcophagi in the second third of the fourth century:

“it has long been noted that in the course of time Christ the miracle worker was replaced by Christ the sovereign. The first examples of this concept are the sarcophagi with a representation of the enthroned Christ, venerated by apostles and the deceased who enshroud their faces.”29Dresken-Weiland, “Christian Sarcophagi,” 49

She notes three examples that actually appear in the first third of the fourth century, so it’s possible one or more are pre-Constantinian. Of course, it was not a new idea for Jesus to have power and majesty, but it is significant that the idea proliferated in art at this time. Johannes Deckers explores this concept and what it may imply:

Emperor Constantine assigned a new task to late antique Christian art. During his reign, both its content and style changed radically. Up until his conquest of Rome in the year 312, images of Christ had been found mainly in the private realm, such as the funerary art of Rome. Such images could also be seen in local churches, as in Dura Europos. In the third century, Christ was perceived exclusively as the Son of God in human form, as teacher, physician, and fount of life for the faithful. In his outward appearance, he resembles an unassuming philosopher. With his miracles, he puts into practice and demonstrates the truth and power of his doctrine of brotherly love and nonviolence. His simple garments are white, as a rule—as seen in Dura Europos and in many catacomb paintings. His divinity is apparent from his deeds and does not have to be indicated with a nimbus. He does not carry a scepterlike staff in the form of a cross, and when he addresses his followers he is not seated on a golden, gem-encrusted throne. . . . The typical third-century image of Christ, in which he appeared as an unassuming teacher of brotherly love and nonviolence, was hardly appropriate as a representative of the omnipotent deity to whom a Roman emperor owed his triumphs.30Johannes G. Deckers, “Constantine the Great and Early Christian Art,” Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, 107

Interestingly, at this time, crowns became a significant part of the repertoire of Christian symbolism in art: “In fourth-century Christian art the crown became a symbol of spiritual victory, including the victory of Christ over death . . . and the victory of martyrs.31Mark D. Ellison, “‘Secular’ Portraits, Identity, and the Christianization of the Roman Household,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, 337

Jeffrey Spier sums up the changes that occurred at the time of Constantine. He notes that before the fourth century and Constantine,

“Previously most pictures focused on events with symbolic significance, such as the Baptism, or miracles allegorically understood as referring to salvation, such as the Raising of Lazarus or the Multiplication of Loaves. In the fourth and fifth centuries, however, entire pictorial cycles of the life and miracles of Christ became popular . . . Earlier depictions of Christ as the Good Shepherd gave way to an emphasis on his dual nature—human and divine—and his role as Son of God and King of Heaven. Similarly, as the Virgin Mary became an important subject of theological discussion and devotion at the beginning of the fifth century, pictorial cycles drawing on apocryphal tales of her life began to appear . . . The growing importance of the apostles and other saints in popular belief is reflected in images of the fourth century.”32Spier, “The Earliest Christian Art,” 13

Icons

Of course, this study is mostly focused on art that is intended to be venerated, so I’ll include a section on what archaeology can tell us about icons during this time. We don’t know as much about them as we do about wall paintings, but some conclusions can be drawn.

Katherine Marsengill, writing about panel paintings and icons, writes, “Unfortunately, no Christian icon firmly dated earlier than the sixth century survives.”33Katherine Marsengill, “Panel Paintings and Early Christian Icons,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, 192 She notes that even Greco-Roman panel paintings are few, since the medium is fragile and easily lost. Marsengill trusts to “visual and textual evidence to piece together an overview of the Greco-Roman tradition in order to understand the conceptual reasons why the painted panel became so important in Christian worship.”34Ibid., 192

Marsengill suggests, based on textual evidence which I also cover in my analysis of the early Christians, that icons of Christian subjects did exist “as early as the second century, even if perhaps few in number, and these painted images were a natural part of contemporary Greco-Roman culture that was adopted by Christians.”35Ibid., 192 The “Christians” mentioned in these texts are heretical groups and the odd lay Christian. Marsengill writes,

“It is clear that the second century saw the use of Christian portraits—perhaps only a few—and that these could be venerated in the privacy of a bedroom, or in a more ritualized way in conjunction with other important figures [such as pagan philosophers], though these behaviors might not yet be within the bounds of official Christianity.”36Ibid., 202

Marsengill delves deeper into what it meant for Christians to be adopting this Greco-Roman practice. During the first centuries AD, a common practice among pagans was the veneration of the images of philosophers.37Ibid., 200–1 Katherine Marsengill notes,

More often than not, these “portraits” conformed to an expected and idealized type, usually an older bearded man with a high forehead or balding, while still maintaining certain traits or relying upon inscriptions to identify them. . . .

One of the reasons for the popularity of philosopher cults was philosophy’s gradual elision with theurgy and mysticism in the first few centuries CE. This led to greater veneration of ancient philosophers, who were attributed god-like qualities. It also produced new spiritual exemplars and purported miracle workers who became regarded as holy men. Portraits were an important part of this phenomenon.38Ibid, 201.

Interestingly, Irenaeus and Eusebius link the heretical veneration of images of Christ with this practice.39

[The Carpocratian heretics] also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honouring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles.

(Against Heresies 1.25.6 ANF)

Eusebius to Constantia: “Once— I do not know how—a woman brought me in her hands a picture of two men in the guise of philosophers and let fall the statement that they were Paul and the Saviour—I have no means of saying where she had had this from or learned such a thing. With the view that neither she nor others might be given offence, I took it away from her and kept it in my house, as I thought it improper that such things ever be exhibited to others, lest we appear, like idol worshippers, to carry our God around in an image. [. . .] It is said that Simon the sorcerer is worshipped by godless heretics painted in lifeless material.” From this site.
Understanding this pagan practice helps us to put Christian iconodulia into context.

Marsengill suggests that the full-fledged theology of iconodulia didn’t arise right away, but developed:

“While Christians in the fourth and fifth centuries valued seeing holy persons in images, likely using them to channel their intercession in earthly matters and for veneration in preparation for their eternal life in heaven, at some point viewing icons also became spiritually charged and potentially transformative. Not just commemorative images, icons of virtuous, spiritual men and women, martyrs, and other godly persons were believed to convey their spiritual nature. The faces presented in icons were understood as the visible aspects of perfected souls. . . . Icons were perceived to have power.”40Marsengill, “Panel Paintings,” 204

The practice of prominently displaying icons had cultural context in the practice of distributing the image of the emperor:

“This practice [of displaying imperial images] ran parallel to other kinds of Christian portraiture, where authoritative panel portraits of bishops occupied civic and ecclesiastical spaces. How and when holy icons became accepted parts of public display is not yet fully understood, though the sixth century presents itself in texts as a watershed moment for civic icons.”41Ibid., 197

I’ll finish this section with just a few early icons. These are all from the 500s, so they come after our period of interest, but they provide an idea of what actual Christian icons could have looked like. First is an early form of “Christ Pantocrator” or “Christ, Ruler of All,” which became a very popular image of Christ.

An interesting comparison can be made between these two images of the same time period, one Christian and the other pagan. The Christian one is of Mary, the pagan one of the goddess Hestia.42For the comparison, I’m indebted to Jennifer L Ball, “Textiles: The Emergence of a Christian Identity in Cloth,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, 230-232

Dura Europos

Finally, I’ll wrap up with one of the most commonly-discussed examples of Christian art. This one is of especial note, because it has been demonstrated to be pre-Constantinian (somewhere around the 240),43Felicity Harley-McGowan, “Picturing the Passion,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, 294. Stephen Bigham puts the dates between 240-256 (Cited in his footnote 348 as follows: Kraeling, “Date and Dating,” The Christian Building, pp. 34–39) and it is in an official Christian space. Thus, it isn’t just an example of some random lay person’s actions.

That’s a Christian building that was found in the excavated village of Dura Europos. I’ve heard it called a “church,” but scholars don’t tend to, that I know of. It contains both an assembly hall and a baptistery.

The Dura Europos images are wall paintings in a Christian worship space. Here is a reconstruction of where some of them would have been located (apologies for the poor quality of the image).

You can explore the Christian building on Yale’s art gallery website, which has a lot of helpful information.

The art found in the Christian building in Dura doesn’t differ significantly from what has been found in the catacombs from that time period. Here is a list of all the images on the walls that I am aware of:

  1. A procession of women (the wise virgins? Procession to Christ’s tomb?)
  2. Jesus healing the paralytic, who is shown walking with his bed
  3. Jesus and Peter walking on the water
  4. The Good Shepherd
  5. Adam and Eve
  6. Woman at the well
  7. David and Goliath
  8. Woodland scene (Eden?)

This art is often brought up in discussions of iconodulia, so it’s important to note the types of art that were present.

Does the Evidence Look Like Veneration of Images?

So that’s a sampling of the evidence that we have. What conclusions can we draw? As a reminder, due to the ambiguous nature of artistic evidence, I’m not putting much weight on this article to prove my contention. However, I think we have enough information at least to know that my modest contention is true: Evidence from archaeology does not suggest that before 313, the veneration of images was a common Christian practice.

Here is a summary of what we can know from the artistic and scholarly evidence:

  1. We have virtually no images that fit the four criteria I suggested at the beginning of the article. Most images couldn’t have been venerated. They included animals, symbols, and Bible stories.
  2. Early images seem to be instructive and decorative, not liturgical. In the Dura-Europos church, for example, there are paintings that seem to be of Adam and Eve, Christ’s miracles, the ten virgins, Christ as the Good Shepherd, and David and Goliath. They are exactly the subjects that we would expect if their purpose was to decorate the church and serve as teaching tools for Bible stories and concepts, but not exactly what we would expect if they were to be venerated.
  3. During the period we’re looking at, there aren’t many portraits, other than portraits of the deceased, often as orants. There are next to no portraits of Christ and the saints.
  4. Christ is portrayed, but typically in Bible stories rather than in portraits. One could, of course, venerate the figure of Christ as displayed in a Bible story, but the artwork wouldn’t seem to be intended to be venerated.
  5. The most common image of Christ, the Good Shepherd, was not very different from art that pagans would have made of their gods. I doubt pagans venerated that particular art—given the Christians’ deep concern about pagan idolatry, it’s unlikely they would have copied an image that was venerated by pagans. It would have looked like they were being idolaters. But even if they had copied an image that pagans venerated, it’s also unlikely they would have venerated an image that they copied from pagans—again, it would have looked like they were being idolaters.
  6. The pre-Constantinian Christians weren’t especially interested in creating pictures of Mary.
  7. The favorite subjects of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox come from the fourth century. This includes an enthroned Jesus, Christ and saints with nimbus (halo), and crowns for individuals.
  8. In most cases, these images are representative of individual people, not churches—thus, even they may not be representative of what the church taught.
  9. In the area of icons, the archaeological evidence isn’t complete, but what is there seems more against than for an early Christian iconodulia.
  10. There was a definite progression in the styles and content of Christian art, starting out mostly symbolic, and finally ending up with portraits of Christ and the saints—but this stage post-dates Constantine. This is not surprising. As at least one scholar suggested, and as one of my previous articles noted, we would expect to see changes in Christian practice at the time of Constantine, and other changes occurred as well.

How Might Persecution Have Affected Christian Art?

One question that will probably arise concerns the persecution of Christians. Might that have skewed the type of evidence that we have available from Christians?

It’s possible—that’s one of the possible reasons scholars offer (though most don’t seem to prefer it) for why there’s basically no Christian art dated before the third century. However, would persecution have an effect on the evidence for or against iconodulia? I don’t think so.

That’s because we have plenty of early Christian images, including many that couldn’t be well-hidden, like wall paintings and ceiling paintings. If early Christians had to hide their images for fear of persecution, one could expect to see more mobile images like icons, not less. Those images could more easily be hidden by Christians in order to keep people from suspecting their Christianity, if that were their goal. So it’s unlikely they had to hide their images.

Furthermore, as another article shows, one of the things the early Christians were criticized for was not having icons. They would have been more accepted if they had—thus, they would have had an incentive to be more public about their images, if they had venerated them.

Conclusion

What’s the story that the evidence tells? Does it look like the story told by the Eastern Orthodox—that their church has never changed from the apostles? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t see the slightest merit in that interpretation, given the evidence that we have.

But might it look like story told by Roman Catholics, and by Eastern Orthodox who believe in doctrinal development? These people suggest that the veneration of images was always a practice, even if an uncommon one, that was accepted by Christian leaders. It simply became more and more common, and was finally codified. This view fits the archaeological evidence much better, although there’s nothing really in the archaeological evidence to support it. And as we’ll see in a later article, the textual evidence contradicts it.

In sum, the art from before Constantine doesn’t look like art you’d venerate, and the art that looks like it was intended to be venerated shows up after 313. The art that exists from before 313 looks very much like what you’d find in a Protestant church or graveyard today, not so much like what would be found in a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox church. I conclude that evidence from archaeology does not suggest that before 313, the veneration of images was a common Christian practice. Right around then, changes in types and subjects of Christian art began. One might speculate that around that time, the veneration of Christian art also entered the church. However, as we’ll see in the rest of my articles on the subject, the textual evidence, which is much clearer, suggests that even veneration didn’t occur significantly until later.


Works Cited

The works linked above or easily available online aren’t included here.

Jennifer L Ball, “Textiles: The Emergence of a Christian Identity in Cloth,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York, 2018.

Stephen Bigham, Christians and Images: Early Christian Attitudes Toward Images, Orthodox Research Institute, Rollinsford, NH, 2004. Translated from the French: Les Chrétiens et les images: Les attitudes envers l’art dans l’Église ancienne, 1992.

Mary Charles-Murray, “The Emergence of Christian Art,” Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, in association with the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 2007.

Johannes G. Deckers, “Constantine the Great and Early Christian Art,” Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, in association with the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 2007.

Jutta Dresken-Weiland, “Christian Sarcophagi from Rome,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York, 2018.

Mark D. Ellison, “‘Secular’ Portraits, Identity, and the Christianization of the Roman Household,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York, 2018.

Felicity Harley-McGowan, “Picturing the Passion,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York, 2018.

Lee M. Jefferson, “Miracles and Art,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York, 2018.

Robin M. Jensen “Compiling Narratives: The Visual Strategies of Early Christian Visual Art.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 23.1 (2015): 1–26. Web.

Robin M. Jensen, “Introduction: Early Christian Art,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York, 2018.

Katherine Marsengill, “Panel Paintings and Early Christian Icons,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York, 2018.

Jeffrey Spier, “The Earliest Christian Art: From Personal Salvation to Imperial Power,” Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, in association with the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 2007.

Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, in association with the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 2007.

Norbert Zimmermann, “Catacomb Painting and the Rise of Christian Iconography in Funerary Art,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York, 2018.

  • 1
    Robin M. Jensen, “Introduction: Early Christian Art,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, 1
  • 2
    Jensen, “Compiling Narratives,” 3-4
  • 3
    “Compiling Narratives,” 4
  • 4
    Ibid., 3
  • 5
    Norbert Zimmermann, “Catacomb Painting and the Rise of Christian Iconography in Funerary Art,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, 21
  • 6
    Jensen, “Introduction,” 2
  • 7
    Jensen, “Introduction,” 4–5
  • 8
    Jensen, “Introduction,” 9
  • 9
    Jensen, “Compiling Narratives” 13-15)
  • 10
    Jensen, “Introduction,” 2
  • 11
    Jeffrey Spier, “The Earliest Christian Art: From Personal Salvation to Imperial Power,” Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, 6
  • 12
    Zimmermann , “Catacomb Painting,” 23
  • 13
    Ibid., 24–25
  • 14
    Ibid., 26
  • 15
    Ibid., 26
  • 16
    Lee M. Jefferson, “Miracles and Art,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, 313, 317
  • 17
    Jutta Dresken-Weiland, “Christian Sarcophagi from Rome,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, 45–49
  • 18
    Spier, Picturing the Bible, 171
  • 19
    Mary Charles-Murray, “The Emergence of Christian Art,” Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, 51-52
  • 20
    Spier, Picturing the Bible, 181
  • 21
    Mary Charles-Murray, “The Emergence of Christian Art,” Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, 52-53
  • 22
    Spier, Picturing the Bible, 177
  • 23
    Zimmermann, “Catacomb Painting,” 29
  • 24
    Jensen, “Introduction,” 11
  • 25
    Stephen Bigham, Early Christian Attitudes Toward Images
  • 26
    Jefferson, “Miracles and Art,” 321
  • 27
    Spier, “The Earliest Christian Art,” 7
  • 28
    Zimmermann, “Catacomb Painting,” 29
  • 29
    Dresken-Weiland, “Christian Sarcophagi,” 49
  • 30
    Johannes G. Deckers, “Constantine the Great and Early Christian Art,” Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, 107
  • 31
    Mark D. Ellison, “‘Secular’ Portraits, Identity, and the Christianization of the Roman Household,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, 337
  • 32
    Spier, “The Earliest Christian Art,” 13
  • 33
    Katherine Marsengill, “Panel Paintings and Early Christian Icons,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, 192
  • 34
    Ibid., 192
  • 35
    Ibid., 192
  • 36
    Ibid., 202
  • 37
    Ibid., 200–1
  • 38
    Ibid, 201.
  • 39


    [The Carpocratian heretics] also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honouring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles.

    (Against Heresies 1.25.6 ANF)

    Eusebius to Constantia: “Once— I do not know how—a woman brought me in her hands a picture of two men in the guise of philosophers and let fall the statement that they were Paul and the Saviour—I have no means of saying where she had had this from or learned such a thing. With the view that neither she nor others might be given offence, I took it away from her and kept it in my house, as I thought it improper that such things ever be exhibited to others, lest we appear, like idol worshippers, to carry our God around in an image. [. . .] It is said that Simon the sorcerer is worshipped by godless heretics painted in lifeless material.” From this site.
  • 40
    Marsengill, “Panel Paintings,” 204
  • 41
    Ibid., 197
  • 42
    For the comparison, I’m indebted to Jennifer L Ball, “Textiles: The Emergence of a Christian Identity in Cloth,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, 230-232
  • 43
    Felicity Harley-McGowan, “Picturing the Passion,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, 294. Stephen Bigham puts the dates between 240-256 (Cited in his footnote 348 as follows: Kraeling, “Date and Dating,” The Christian Building, pp. 34–39)

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