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§ 110. Images of Christ.


Fr. Kugler: Handbuch der Geschichte der Malerei seit Constantin dem Berlin, 1847, 2 vols.; and other works on the history of painting. Also C. Grüneisen: Die bildliche Darstellung der Gottheit. Stuttgart 1828. On the Iconoclastic controversies, comp. Maimbourg (R.C.): Histoire de l’hérésie de l’Iconoclastes. Par. 1679 sqq. 2 vols. Dallaeus (Calvinist): De imaginibus. Lugd. Bat. 1642. Fr. Spanheim: Historia imaginum restituta. Lugd. Bat. 1686. P. E. Jablonski († 1757): De origine imaginum Christi Domini, in Opuscul. ed. Water, Lugd. Bat. 1804, tom. iii. Walch: Ketzergesch., vols. x. and xi. J. Marx: Der Bildersturm der byzantinischen Kaiser. Trier, 1839. W. Grimm: Die Sage vom Ursprunge der Christusbilder. Berlin, 1843, L. Glückselig: Christus-Archäologie, Prag, 1863. Hefele: Beiträge zur Kirchengeschichte, vol. ii. Tüb. 1861 (Christusbilder, p. 254 sqq.). Comp. the liter. in Hase’s Leben Jesu, p. 79 (5th ed. 1865).


While the temple of Solomon left to the Christian mind no doubt concerning the lawfulness and usefulness of church architecture, the second commandment seemed directly to forbid a Christian painting or sculpture. “The primitive church,” says even a modern Roman Catholic historian,11971197   Hefele, 1. c. p. 254. “had no images, of Christ, since most Christians at that time still adhered to the commandment of Moses (Ex. xx. 4); the more, that regard as well to the Gentile Christians as to the Jewish forbade all use of images. To the latter the exhibition and veneration of images would, of course, be an abomination, and to the newly converted heathen it might be a temptation to relapse into idolatry. In addition, the church was obliged, for her own honor, to abstain from images, particularly from any representation of the Lord, lest she should be regarded by unbelievers as merely a new kind and special sort of heathenism and creature-worship. And further, the early Christians had in their idea of the bodily form of the Lord no temptation, not the slightest incentive, to make likenesses of Christ. The oppressed church conceived its Master only under the form of a servant, despised and uncomely, as Isaiah, liii. 2, 3, describes the Servant of the Lord.”

The first representations of Christ are of heretical and pagan origin. The Gnostic sect of the Carpocratians worshipped crowned pictures of Christ, together with images of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and other sages, and asserted that Pilate had caused a portrait of Christ to be made.11981198   Irenaeus, Adv. haer. 1, 25, § 6: “Imagines quasdam quidem depictas, quasdam autem et de reliqua materia fabricatas habent, dicentes formam Christi factam a Pilato illo in tempore, quo fuit Jesus cum hominibus. Et has coronant et proponunt eas cum imaginibus mundi philosophorum, videlicet cum imagine Pythagorae et Platonis et Aristotelis et reliquorum; et reliquam observationem circa eas, similiter ut gentes, faciunt.” Comp. Epiphanius, Adv. haer. xxvi. no. 6; August., De haer. c. 7. In the same spirit of pantheistic hero-worship the emperor Alexander Severus (a.d. 222–235) set up in his domestic chapel for his adoration the images of Abraham, Orpheus, Apollonius, and Christ.

After Constantine, the first step towards images in the orthodox church was a change in the conception of the outward form of Christ. The persecuted church had filled its eye with the humble and suffering servant-form of Jesus, and found therein consolation and strength in her tribulation. The victorious church saw the same Lord in heavenly glory on the right hand of the Father, ruling over his enemies. The one conceived Christ in his state of humiliation (but not in his state of exaltation), as even repulsive, or at least “having no form nor comeliness;” taking too literally the description of the suffering servant of God in Is. lii. 14 and liii. 2, 3.11991199   So Justin Martyr, Dial. c. Tryph.; Clement, Alex., in several places of the Paedagogus and the Stromata; Tertullian, De carne Christi, c. 9, and Adv. Jud. c. 14; and Origen, Contra Cels. vi. c. 75. Celsus made this low conception of the form of the founder of their religion one of his reproaches against the Christians. The other beheld in him the ideal of human beauty, “fairer than the children of men,” with “grace poured into his lips;” after the Messianic interpretation of Ps. xlv. 3.12001200   So Chrysostom, Homil. 27 (al. 28) in Matth. (tom. vii. p. 371, in the new Paris ed.): Οὐδὲ γὰρ θαυματουργῶν ἦν θαυμαστὸς μόνον, ἀλλὰ καὶ φαινόμενος ἁπλῶς πολλῆς ἔγεμε χάριτος· καὶ τοῦτο ὁ προφήτης (Ps. xlv.) δηλῶν ἔλεγεν· ὡραῖος κάλλει παρὰ τοὺς υἱοὺς τῶν ἀνθρώπων.The passage in Isaiah (liii. 2) be refers to the ignominy which Christ suffered on the cross. So also Jerome, who likewise refers Ps. xlv. to the personal appearance of Jesus, and says of him: “Absque passionibus crucis universis [hominibus] pulchrior est .... Nisi enim babuisset et in vultu quiddam oculisque sidereum, numquam cum statim secuti fuissent apostoli, nec qui ad comprehendendum cum venerant. corruissent (Jno. xviii.).” Hieron. Ep. 65, c. 8.

This alone, however, did not warrant images of Christ. For, in the first place, authentic accounts of the personal appearance of Jesus were lacking; and furthermore it seemed incompetent to human art duly to set forth Him in Whom the whole fulness of the Godhead and of perfect sinless humanity dwelt in unity.

On this point two opposite tendencies developed themselves, giving occasion in time to the violent and protracted image controversies, until, at the seventh ecumenical council at Nice in 787, the use and adoration of images carried the day in the church.

1. On the one side, the prejudices of the ante-Nicene period against images in painting or sculpture continued alive, through fear of approach to pagan idolatry, or of lowering Christianity into the province of sense. But generally the hostility was directed only against images of Christ; and from it, as Neander justly observes,12011201   Kirchengesch., vol. iii. p. 550 (Germ. ed.). we are by no means to infer the rejection of all representations of religious subjects; for images of Christ encounter objections peculiar to themselves.

The church historian Eusebius declared himself in the strongest manner against images of Christ in a letter to the empress Constantia (the widow of Licinius and sister of Constantine), who had asked him for such an image. Christ, says he, has laid aside His earthly servant-form, and Paul exhorts us to cleave no longer to the sensible;12021202   Comp. 2 Cor. v. 16. and the transcendent glory of His heavenly body cannot be conceived nor represented by man; besides, the second commandment forbids the making to ourselves any likeness of anything in heaven or in earth. He had taken away from a lady an image of Christ and of Paul, lest it should seem as if Christians, like the idolaters, carried their God about in images. Believers ought rather to fix their mental eye, above all, upon the divinity of Christ, and, for this purpose, to purify their hearts; since only the pure in heart shall see God.12031203   In Harduin, Collect. concil. tom. iv. p. 406. A fragment of this letter of Eusebius is preserved in the acts of the council of the Iconoclasts at Constantinople in 754, and in the sixth act of the second council of Nice in 787. The same Eusebius, however, relates of Constantine, without the slightest disapproval, that, in his Christian zeal, he caused the public monuments in the forum of the new imperial city to be adorned with symbolical representations of Christ, to wit, with figures of the good Shepherd and of Daniel in the lion’s den.12041204   Vita Const. iii. c. 49. He likewise tells us, that the woman of the issue of blood, after her miraculous cure (Matt. ix. 20), and out of gratitude for it, erected before her dwelling in Caesarea Philippi (Paneas) two brazen statues, the figure of a kneeling woman, and of a venerable man (Christ) extending his hand to help her, and that he had seen these statues with his own eyes at Paneas.12051205   Hist. Eccl. lib. vii. cap. 18. According to Philostorgius (vii. 3), it was for a long time unknown whom the statues at Paneas represented, until a medicinal plant was discovered at their feet, and then they were transferred to the sacristy. The emperor Juliandestroyed them, and substituted his own statue, which was riven by lightning (Sozom. v. 21). Probably that statue of Christ was a monument of Hadrian or some other emperor, to whom the Phoenicians did obeisance in the form of a kneeling woman. Similar representations are to be seen upon coins, particularly of the time of Hadrian. In the same place he speaks also of pictures (probably Carpocratian) of Christ and the apostles Peter and Paul, which he had seen, and observes that these cannot be wondered at in those who were formerly heathen, and who had been accustomed to testify their gratitude towards their benefactors in this way.

The narrow fanatic Epiphanius of Cyprus († 403) also seems to have been an opponent of images. For when he saw the picture of Christ or a saint12061206   “Imaginem quasi Christi vel sancti cujusdam.” on the altar-curtain in Anablatha, a village of Palestine, he tore away the curtain, because it was contrary to the Scriptures to hang up the picture of a man in the church, and he advised the officers to use the cloth for winding the corpse of some poor person.12071207   Epiph. Ep. ad Joann Hierosolym., which Jeromehas preserved in a Latin translation. The Iconoclastic council at Constantinople in 754 cited several works of Epiphanius against images, the genuineness of which, however, is suspicious. This arbitrary conduct, however, excited great indignation, and Epiphanius found himself obliged to restore the injury to the village church by another curtain.

2. The prevalent spirit of the age already very decidedly favored this material representation as a powerful help to virtue and devotion, especially for the uneducated classes, whence the use of images, in fact, mainly proceeded.

Plastic representation, it is true, was never popular in the East. The Greek church tolerates no statues, and forbids even crucifixes. In the West, too, in this period, sculpture occurs almost exclusively in bas relief and high relief, particularly on sarcophagi, and in carvings of ivory and gold in church decorations. Sculpture, from its more finite nature, lies farther from Christianity than the other arts.

Painting, on the contrary, was almost universally drawn into the service of religion; and that, not primarily from the artistic impulse which developed itself afterwards, but from the practical necessity of having objects of devout reverence in concrete form before the eye, as a substitute for the sacred books, which were accessible to the educated alone. Akin to this is the universal pleasure of children in pictures.

The church-teachers approved and defended this demand, though they themselves did not so directly need such helps. In fact, later tradition traced it back to apostolic times, and saw in the Evangelist Luke the first sacred painter. Whereof only so much is true: that he has sketched in his Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles vivid and faithful pictures of the Lord, His mother, and His disciples, which are surely of infinitely greater value than all pictures in color and statues in marble.12081208   Jerome, in his biographical sketch of Luke, De viris illustr. c. 7, is silent concerning this tradition (which did not arise till the seventh century or later), and speaks of Luke merely as medicus, according to Col. iv. 4.

Basil the Great († 379) says “I confess the appearance of the Son of God in the flesh, and the holy Mary as the mother of God, who bore Him according to the flesh. And I receive also the holy apostles and prophets and martyrs. Their likenesses I revere and kiss with homage, for they are handed down from the holy apostles, and are not forbidden, but on the contrary painted in all our churches.”12091209   Epist. 205. Comp. his Oratio in Barlaam, Opp. i. 515, and similar expressions in Gregory Naz., Orat. 19 (al. 18). His brother, Gregory of Nyssa, also, in his memorial discourse on the martyr Theodore, speaks in praise of sacred painting, which “is wont to speak silently from the walls, and thus to do much good.” The bishop Paulinus of Nola, who caused biblical pictures to be exhibited annually at the festival seasons in the church of St. Felix, thought that by them the scenes of the Bible were made clear to the uneducated rustic, as they could not otherwise be; impressed themselves on his memory, awakened in him holy thoughts and feelings, and restrained him from all kinds of vice.12101210   Paulinus, Carmen ix. et x. de S. Felicis natali. The bishop Leontius of Neapolis in Cyprus, who at the close of the sixth century wrote an apology for Christianity against the Jews, and in it noticed the charge of idolatry, asserts that the law of Moses is directed not unconditionally against the use of religious images, but only against the idolatrous worship of them; since the tabernacle and the temple themselves contained cherubim and other figures; and he advocates images, especially for their beneficent influences. “In almost all the world,” says he, “profligate men, murderers, robbers, debauchees, idolaters, are daily moved to contrition by a look at the cross of Christ, and led to renounce the world, and practise every virtue.”12111211   See the fragments of this apology in the 4th act of the second council of Nicaea, and Neander, iii. 560 (2d Germ. ed.), who adds the unprejudiced remark: “We cannot doubt that what Leontius here says, though rhetorically exaggerated, is nevertheless drawn from life, and is founded on impressions actually produced by the contemplation of images in certain states of feeling.” And Leontius already appeals to the miraculous fact, that blood flowed from many of the images.12121212   Πολλάκις αἱμάτων ῥύσεις ἐξ εἰκόνων γεγόνασι.

Owing to the difficulty, already noticed, of worthily representing Christ Himself, the first subjects were such scenes from the Old Testament as formed a typical prophecy of the history of the Redeemer. Thus the first step from the field of nature, whence the earliest symbols of Christ—the lamb, the fish, the shepherd—were drawn, was into the field of pre-Christian revelation, and thence it was another step into the province of gospel history itself. The favorite pictures of this kind were, the offering-up of Isaac—the pre-figuration of the great sacrifice on the cross; the miracle of Moses drawing forth water from the rock with his rod—which was interpreted either, according to 1 Cor. x. 4, of Christ Himself, or, more especially—and frequently, of the birth of Christ from the womb of the Virgin; the suffering Job—a type of Christ in His deepest humiliation; Daniel in the lion’s den—the symbol of the Redeemer subduing the devil and death in the underworld; the miraculous deliverance of the prophet Jonah from the whale’s belly—foreshadowing the resurrection;12131213   Comp. Matt. xii. 39, 40. and the translation of Elijah—foreshadowing the ascension of Christ.

About the middle of the fifth century, just when the doctrine of the person of Christ reached its formal settlement, the first representations of Christ Himself appeared, even said by tradition to be faithful portraits of the original.12141214   The image-hating Nestorians ascribed the origin of iconolatry to their hated, in opponent, Cyril of Alexandria, and put it into connection with the Monophysite heresy (Assem., Bibl. orient. iii. 2, p. 401). From that time the difficulty of representing the God-Man was removed by an actual representation, and the recognition of the images of Christ, especially of the Madonna with the Child, became even a test of orthodoxy, as against the Nestorian heresy of an abstract separation of the two natures in Christ. In the sixth century, according to the testimony of Gregory of Tours, pictures of Christ were hung not only in churches but in almost every private house.12151215   De gloria martyrum, lib. i. c. 22.

Among these representations of Christ there are two distinct types received in the church:

(1) The Salvator picture, with the expression of calm serenity and dignity, and of heavenly gentleness, without the faintest mark of grief. According to the legend, this was a portrait, miraculously imprinted on a cloth, which Christ Himself presented to Abgarus, king of Edessa, at his request.12161216   4 First mentioned by the Armenian historian Moses of Chorene in the fifth century, partly on the basis of the spurious correspondence, mentioned by Eusebius (H. E i. 13), between Christ and Abgarus Uchomo of Edessa. The Abgarus likeness is said to have come, in the tenth century, into the church of St. Sophia at Constantinople, thence to Rome, where it is still shown in the church of St. Sylvester. But Genoa also pretends to possess the original. The two do not look much alike, and are of course only copies. Mr. Glückselig (Christus-Archaeologie, Prag, 1863) has recently made an attempt to restore from many copies an Edessenum redivivum. The original is of course lost, or rather never existed, and is simply a mythical name for the Byzantine type of the likeness of Christ which appeared after the fifth century, and formed the basis of all the various representations of Christ until Raphael and Michael Angelo. These pictures present the countenance of the Lord in the bloom of youthful vigor and beauty, with a free, high forehead, clear, beaming eyes, long, straight nose, hair parted in the middle, and a somewhat reddish beard.

(2) The Ecce Homo picture of the suffering Saviour with the crown of thorns. This is traced back by tradition to St. Veronica, who accompanied the Saviour on the way to Golgotha, and gave Him her veil to wipe the sweat from His face; whereupon the Lord miraculously imprinted on the cloth the image of His thorn-crowned head.12171217   This Veronica likeness is said to have come to Rome about a.d. 700, where it is preserved among the relics in St. Peter’s, but is shown only to noble personages. According to the common view, advocated especially by Mabillon and Papebroch, the name Veronica arose from the simple error of contracting the two words vera icon (εἰκών), the true image. W. Grimm considers the whole Veronica story a Latin version of the Greek Abgarus legend.

The Abgarus likeness and the Veronica both lay claim to a miraculous origin, and profess to be εἰκόνες ἀχειροποίηται, pictures not made with human hands. Besides these, however, tradition tells of pictures of Christ taken in a natural way by Luke and by Nicodemus. The Salvator picture in the Lateran chapel Sancta Sanctorum in Rome, which is attributed to Luke, belongs to the Edessene or Byzantine type.

With so different pretended portraits of the Lord we cannot wonder at the variations of the pictures of Christ, which the Iconoclasts used as an argument against images. In truth, every nation formed a likeness of its own, according to its existing ideals of art and virtue.

Great influence was exerted upon the representations of Christ by the apocryphal description of his person in the Latin epistle of Publius Lentulus (a supposed friend of Pilate) to the Roman senate, delineating Christ as a man of slender form, noble countenance, dark hair parted in the middle, fair forehead, clear eyes, faultless mouth and nose, and reddish beard.12181218   The letter of Lentulus has been rightly known in its present form only since the eleventh century. Comp. Gabler: De αὐθεντίᾳ Epistolae Publii Lentuli ad Senatum R. de J. C. scriptae. Jenae, 1819, and 1822 (2 dissertations). An older, and in some points different, description is that of John of Damascus, or some other writer of the eighth century, who says: “Christ was of stately form, with beautiful eyes, large nose, curling hair, somewhat bent, in the prime of life, with black beard, and sallow complexion, like his mother.”12191219   Epist. ad Theoph. imper. de venerandis imag. (of somewhat doubtful origin), in Joh. Damasc. Opera, tom. i. p. 631, ed. Le Quien. A third description of the personal appearance of Christ, but containing nothing new, occurs in the fourteenth century, in Nicephorus Callisti, Hist. Eccl. lib. i. cap. 40.

No figure of Christ, in color, or bronze, or marble, can reach the ideal of perfect beauty which came forth into actual reality in the Son of God and Son of man. The highest creations of art are here but feeble reflections of the original in heaven, yet prove the mighty influence which the living Christ continually exerts even upon the imagination and sentiment of the great painters and sculptors, and which He will exert to the end of the world.



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