Christian Iconography: A Brief Review (Part I)

Another review discovered deep within the bowels of my old computer: a review of Andre Grabar’s landmark Christian Iconography: A Study of Its Origins. As this study (originally presented as a series of lectures in 1961) has had a profound impact on the study of early Christian art, I thought it worthy of an appearance on the blog. I’ve also posted a PDF copy here. Enjoy!


Andre Grabar, Christian Iconography: A Study of Its Origins (Bollingen Series XXXV.10; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968). 432 pp.

Nearly forty years after its initial publication, Andre Grabar’s landmark study of early Christian iconography (originally presented as a series of lectures at the A. W. Mellon Institute for the Fine Arts in 1961) remains required reading for all scholars, students, and others interested in this topic. Grabar states that his intention is not to provide a systematic or comprehensive treatment of early Christian imagery, but rather to demonstrate “that from its beginnings Christian imagery found expression entirely, almost uniquely, in the general language of the visual arts and with the techniques of imagery commonly practiced within the Roman Empire from the second to the fourth century” (p. xliii). Although this contention may appear self-evident to many readers—a possibility which Grabar himself admits—its importance for the evaluation of Christian art, and of the religion as a whole, certainly merits a rich and thorough reexamination.

The study begins with an analysis of the earliest extant Christian artwork, primarily funerary pieces such as catacomb murals and sarcophagi (the first of which are usually dated to 200 CE and 230 CE, respectively). Sensitive exegesis of the images of this category benefits from a number of significant observations which Grabar makes here. The images are more superficially decorative than they are inherently communicative or meaningful, although their “schematic” (i.e., they “imply more than they actually show”; p. 8) nature indicates that this simplicity is somewhat deceptive. The most frequently depicted biblical scenes are those which emphasize God’s salvific intercession on behalf of his faithful servants of old: the deliverance of Noah and his family from the flood, of Isaac from the sacrificial slab, of Daniel from the lion’s den, etc. New Testament pericopes are much rarer, apart from the raising of Lazarus—which should not be particularly surprising, given its similar content. While all of these images are certainly indebted to their larger Greco-Roman milieu, it is interesting that they do not include any explicit references to death. Furthermore, the iconic likeness of Christ, and his principal symbols, are largely absent at this point; more generic representations such as “The Good Shepherd” appear instead. Finally, frequent allusions to the sacraments of baptism and communion strongly suggest that the nascent Christian community was already endowing its art with some theological significance, however basic.

Grabar then turns to a more specific discussion of “Paleo-Christian art” and its reliance upon “the vocabulary of the current language of the visual arts” (p. 31), a language which is also expressed in Greco-Roman work of the same era. A number of relevant examples are offered, including similarities between the sleeping Jonah and the reclining Endymion, the Christian orant and its pious pagan counterpart, and the scroll of knowledge clutched by saint and philosopher alike. But while Christian and Greco-Roman artisans may have shared a single artistic tongue, they were certainly speaking different dialects. Thus Christians could portray Christ with a head similar to those of Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto without incorporating any pagan religious significance; “the powerful head… was a part of the repertory of the art of the period, and both the Christians and the pagans used it, as one can use the same word in different senses” (p. 35). Among the most notable uniquely Christian symbols to appear during this formative period was the Chi-Rho monogram, popularized by Constantine the Great after his successful bid for the Roman throne and subsequent publication of the Edict of Milan in 314 CE. These historical developments inaugurated a surge of imperial influences upon early Christian art.

Having properly set the stage for further discussion, Grabar devotes the next two chapters to the sub-genres of portraiture and scriptural scenes. In both cases, he finds additional affinities between early Christian and Greco-Roman exemplars—strong enough, in fact, to “set aside, or appreciably diminish the weight of, opinions that tend to regard all the early Biblical images as proceeding from direct illustration of the text of the Old and New Testaments” (p. 58). He rightly identifies the critical disparity between all ancient portraits and their modern descendents: the former’s preference for visual and emotional impact rather than accurate physical depiction. But if second-century medallions bearing images of Peter and Paul are greatly removed from Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1 (Whistler’s Mother) or American Gothic, they remain closely tied to contemporary Roman commemorative coinage; both include additional symbols which identify and describe the chosen figures. By the beginning of the seventh century ornate portraits of Christ and the saints had attained a religious quality similar to that enjoyed by earlier portraits of the Roman emperors.

Likewise, representations of biblical events “also bear the imprint of traditions proper to this genre in [other] contemporary art” (p. 87). Grabar traces the evolution of Christian narrative art from the relatively crude, ambiguous “image-sign” to the more explicit “descriptive representation,” and notes that both types are employed by Roman art. While one might naturally expect narrative scenes to appear in biblical manuscripts alongside the corresponding pericopes as a kind of hermeneutical key, the few early illustrated manuscripts do not confirm this hypothesis. Nevertheless, numerous such scenes are extant in a variety of other media—including mosaic, ivory, gold, and wood—and at this point, it should come as no surprise that “pagan art supplies counterparts for the Christian cycles with which we have been concerned” (p. 102). Miniature illustrations of Christ’s childhood which surround portraits of Mary (e.g., a portion of a sixth-century ivory diptych now housed in Yerevan) unmistakably recall the widely portrayed deeds of the heroes Hercules and Mithras, or the deity Dionysus.


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