The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art

The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art

The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art

The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art

Synopsis

This revisionist study challenges the received opinion that in its earliest manifestations Christianity was a form of religiosity opposed both on principle and in fact to the use of pictures. Paul Corby Finney argues that the well-known absence of Christian pictures before A.D. 200 is due to a complex interplay of social, economic, and political factors, and is not, as is commonly assumed, a result of an anti-image ideology. The book documents the origins of Christian art based on some of the oldest surviving Christian archaeological evidence, and it seeks to show how the Christian products conformed to the already-existing pagan types and models. This study will interest scholars and students in the fields of church history, ancient history, archaeology, art history, classics, and historical theology.

Excerpt

This is a study of early Christian attitudes toward art. As to chronological limits, I have set the upper end (terminus adqmem) at the late third century, roughly the period of Tetrarchy (285-305). Occasionally, as the subject required, I have exceeded this limit, but on principle this study concerns pre-Constantinian evidence. I have left the lower limit (terminus a quo) open-ended because it seems to me the primary evidence demands this. In both its literary and material cultures, pre-Constantinian Christianity continuously reflects the formative influence of earlier thought and behavior. Thus, the chronological point of departure for a study such as the present one must be left open-ended, because it is impossible to isolate and analyze this subject apart from its pre-Christian antecedents.

Obviously a subject and its origins are not the same thing, and I have made every effort to avoid committing yet another version of what some have called the "genetic fallacy," confusing the becoming of a thing for that which it has become. Moses is not Jesus, nor is Plato Paul. But both the legendary Israelite and the Athenian sage are relevant to our subject for the simple reason that the early Christians who wrote about art-related matters thought that Moses and Plato were just as important for this subject as the Palestinian rabbi who founded their religion and considerably more important than the Cilician Jew who promulgated the new religion among gentiles. Homer and Hesiod are also relevant, and for the same reason, as are Xenophanes, Zeno, Antisthenes, and the second Isaiah -- indeed there is a large cast of pre-Christian characters who figure prominently in the study of this subject. A few of them are Israelites, a larger number Jews (the Hellenistic successors of the Israelites), but most are Greeks. In short, one must follow the evidence wherever it leads, and on that principle most of the following discussion, insofar as it concerns sources and origins, will focus on Hellenic and Hellenistic precedents.

In setting the terminus ad quem I have adopted a considerably more restrictive point of view. In doing so my main purpose is to focus on the primary evidence, not on the later history of its interpretation. Our subject is controversial: it has been debated continuously from antiquity to the present. Byzantine polemicists, Carolingian court theologians, Reformers . . .

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