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§ 76. Origin of Christian Art.


Christianity owed its origin neither to art nor to science, and is altogether independent of both. But it penetrates and pervades them with its heaven-like nature, and inspires them with a higher and nobler aim. Art reaches its real perfection in worship, as an embodiment of devotion in beautiful forms, which afford a pure pleasure, and at the same time excite and promote devotional feeling. Poetry and music, the most free and spiritual arts, which present their ideals in word and tone, and lead immediately from the outward form to the spiritual substance, were an essential element of worship in Judaism, and passed thence, in the singing of psalms, into the Christian church.

Not so with the plastic arts of sculpture and painting, which employ grosser material—stone, wood, color—as the medium of representation, and, with a lower grade of culture, tend almost invariably to abuse when brought in contact with worship. Hence the strict prohibition of these arts by the Monotheistic religions. The Mohammedans follow in this respect the Jews; their mosques are as bare of images of living beings as the synagogues, and they abhor the image worship of Greek and Roman Christians as a species of idolatry.

The ante-Nicene church, inheriting the Mosaic decalogue, and engaged in deadly conflict with heathen idolatry, was at first averse to those arts. Moreover her humble condition, her contempt for all hypocritical show and earthly vanity, her enthusiasm for martyrdom, and her absorbing expectation of the speedy destruction of the world and establishment of the millennial kingdom, made her indifferent to the ornamental part of life. The rigorous Montanists, in this respect the forerunners of the Puritans, were most hostile to art. But even the highly cultivated Clement of Alexandria put the spiritual worship of God in sharp contrast to the pictorial representation of the divine. "The habit of daily view," he says, "lowers the dignity of the divine, which cannot be honored, but is only degraded, by sensible material."

Yet this aversion to art seems not to have extended to mere symbols such as we find even in the Old Testament, as the brazen serpent and the cherubim in the temple. At all events, after the middle or close of the second century we find the rude beginnings of Christian art in the form of significant symbols in the private and social life of the Christians, and afterwards in public worship. This is evident from Tertullian and other writers of the third century, and is abundantly confirmed by the Catacombs, although the age of their earliest pictorial remains is a matter of uncertainty and dispute.

The origin of these symbols must be found in the instinctive desire of the Christians to have visible tokens of religious truth, which might remind them continually of their Redeemer and their holy calling, and which would at the same time furnish them the best substitute for the signs of heathen idolatry. For every day they were surrounded by mythological figures, not only in temples and public places, but in private houses, on the walls, floors, goblets, seal-rings, and grave-stones. Innocent and natural as, this effort was, it could easily lead, in the less intelligent multitude, to confusion of the sign with the thing signified, and to many a superstition. Yet this result was the less apparent in the first three centuries, because in that period artistic works were mostly confined to the province of symbol and allegory.

From the private recesses of Christian homes and catacombs artistic representations of holy things passed into public churches ill the fourth century, but under protest which continued for a long time and gave rise to the violent image controversies which were not settled until the second Council of Nicaea (787), in favor of a limited image worship. The Spanish Council of Elvira (Granada) in 306 first raised such a protest, and prohibited (in the thirty-sixth canon) "pictures in the church (picturas in ecclessia), lest the objects of veneration and worship should be depicted on the walls." This sounds almost iconoclastic and puritanic; but in view of the numerous ancient pictures and sculptures in the catacombs, the prohibition must be probably understood as a temporary measure of expediency in that transition period.467467    See above, p. 180.67



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