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Early Depictions of Jesus (Strike Two for Waldemar Januszczak )

December 5, 2012

Well, he did it again! Last night here in the UK we had part 2 of the series on “The Dark Ages” presented by Waldemar Januszczak, and he again demonstrated that, though he can recognize and appreciate pretty things, he hasn’t done his homework enough. 

His main point (I think) was that the various “barbarian” tribes (Goths, Vandals, Huns, etc.) weren’t . . . “barbarians” in the popular sense.  Ok.  Sure, Atila did sort of ravage much of Eastern Europe, but, hey, he (and the others) also had a hankering for objects in gold, so, they weren’t all that bad.

But, such simplicity aside, the thing that annoyed me was his misinformed (and so misleading) references to early Christian art, which he obviously doesn’t understand . . . at all!   Last week, we were shown the depiction of Jesus’ baptism in the “Arian Baptistry” in Ravenna, in which Jesus is portrayed as a beardless youth, even slightly pubescent, and dear old Waldemar opined that this reflected a supposed early Christian attempt to combine masculine and feminine traits in Jesus.  This week, showing the same mosaic, he told us that it reflected Arian christology, and that this involved more of an emphasis on the human Jesus, in contrast with “Catholic” christology featuring a bearded and more august Jesus.  Wrong on both counts.  The Arians and “orthodox” differed over how to understand Jesus’ divinity, not particularly over his humanity. 

In fact, the tendency in the earliest depictions of Jesus, of whatever version of early Christianity, is the beardless, youthful figure.  It’s nothing to do with Arianism, or with some supposed feminization of Jesus.  And when the bearded and more mature-looking Jesus appears in Christian art, for a while the two representations continue being used, sometimes in the same setting.

The beardless Jesus is typically featured performing miracles, and the bearded Jesus tends to be depicted teaching or seated in judgement.  Both draw upon established iconography, derived from pagan art and depictions of their gods.  The early Christians appropriated the iconography (as they did a lot of other things), adapted it for their own purposes, and deployed it to express their faith. 

For an informed discussion of the matter by one of the most impressive of current scholars in early Christian art, turn to Robin Margaret Jensen, Face to Face:  Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity (Minneapolis:  Fortress, 2005), esp. pp. 131-65.

Jensen has produced a succession of fine studies of early Christian art in recent years.  Her earlier book, Understanding Early Christian Art (London/New York:  Routledge, 2000), is the best introduction that I know (Waldemar, are you listening?).

And, hot off the printing presses is another valuable study from her:  Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity:  Ritual, Visual, and Theological Dimensions (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2012).  This latest volume is packed with little/lesser-known information about early Christian baptismal imagery, architecture, and ritual practices.  As an example, I was very impressed with her richly informed discussion of “the Ogdoad as a Figure of Resurrection,” in which she notes how early Christians appropriated and used the number 8 as a deeply meaningful symbol of Jesus’ resurrection and the hope for eternal life.  So, e.g., a number of early Christian baptistries are octagonal. 

And, on the subject of early Christian baptism, the other recent and crucial book to mention is Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church:  History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2009).  This massive tome covers pretty much every early Christian reference to baptism, gives information on various practices and issues about baptism, and has chapters on early baptistries.

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  1. Matthew G. Zatkalik permalink

    I just spent several hours reviewing articles by Robin Margaret Jensen on EBSCOhost. Thank you for mentioning her contributions. As usual, your blog provides an excellent resource. Thank you for the investment of your time and energy

  2. Robert F. Hull, Jr. permalink

    In his little book, Early Christians Speak (57), Ferguson notes that “early Christian art often depicts the one being baptized as a naked child (or more accurately a diminutive adult), not because he is in fact a child (Christ himself is so shown) but because of the new birth symbolism.”

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