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New Handbook of Early Christian Art

October 11, 2018

Students of early Christian art (and Roman-era art generally), as well as textual scholars and historians of early Christianity now have a valuable resource to survey the emergence and development of early Christian visual culture:  The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, eds. Robin M. Jensen and Mark D. Ellison (London/New York:  Routledge, 2018).  The publisher’s online description, including table of contents is here.

The first sixteen chapters comprise discussions of the various media of early Christian art, including catacomb painting, sarcophagi, sculpture, wall mosaics, floor mosaics, gold-glass, engraved gems, ceramics, icons, ivories, textiles, silver, and illuminated manuscripts.  The remaining seven essays address various themes in early Christian art, including art and ritual, visual references to Jesus’ passion, miracles, Christianization of portraits, mosaics of Ravenna, the interest in early Christian art in sixteenth- and seventeen-century archaeology in Rome, and a concluding discussion of the terms “early,” “Christian,” and “art.”  By my count, there are about 220 illustrations as well (all in black and white).

The time-span covered extends well into the Byzantine period, beyond the focus of this blog site.  But several essays take note of the very early emergence of an identifiable Christian visual culture.  For example, Jeffrey Spier argues that there are extant examples of early third-century Christian engraved gems (for seals and rings) that “clearly announce the religious convictions of the owner” (141). These include inscriptions of the name of Jesus and the acrostic Greek word for “fish,” a well-known device:  ΙΧΘΥϹ = “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”.  Spier also argues that one gem that may be as early as ca. 200 CE depicts the crucified Jesus, and “is probably the earliest surviving representation of the Crucifixion, one that in turn must follow now lost models” (145).  (Cf., however, Jensen’s reference to these gems as “hypothetically dated as early as the late third or early fourth century,” 11).

Felicity Harley-McGowan surveys the visual references to Jesus’ passion, supporting the view that pictorial references appear as early as ca. 200 CE, citing items such as those identified by Spier (291).  She also points to the well-known “Alexamenos graffito” from about the same time, a satirical image picturing a donkey-head figure on a cross and an inscription, “Alexamenos worships his god,” arguing cogently that “for the joke to work, the concept of the crucified Jesus as a figure of power for Christians needed to be both widely understood and the picture recognizable to the viewer” (291).

I am also pleased to find that she takes note of the use of the “staurogram” in early Christian manuscripts (as early as sometime in the third century, acknowledging that the device (combining the Greek letters tau and rho) is a visual reference to Jesus crucifixion “having the appearance of a miniature crucifix” (293).  (I give a full discussion of the device in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins, Eerdmans, 2006, pp. 135-54.)

Unfortunately, the price of the book (£175!!) means that readers will likely have to rely on library copies.  And that means that the wealth of information in the volume may not be accessible (or even noted) to many potential readers.  Personally, I think a more modestly priced volume would sell more widely, and so generate the desired gross income for the publisher.  But, hey, it’s out of my hands.

But rather than end on a somewhat sour note, let me reiterate my admiration for the quality of this volume and the treasure trove of information and analysis that it contains.  The twenty-three essays collectively give a rather good introduction to the development of early Christian art, its various media and themes.

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One Comment
  1. Otto Pecsuk permalink

    Dear Larry,
    thank you for this informative introduction to the studies in the volume. Let me just mention briefly that one of my colleagues from Eötvös University Budapest, Prof. György Németh has argued recently in an article that the Alexamenos drawing is not related to Christ on the Cross. Based on similar archeological findings from a Roman school opposite the Circus Maximus he argues that the drawing is not a man with a donkey head but with a horse head and is the sarcasm is aimed against an enthusiast aficionado of chariot race…

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