Christian Iconography: A Brief Review (Part II)

The second (and final) portion of my review of Andre Grabar’s Christian Iconography: A Study of Its Origins.


The final two chapters discuss images of a more explicitly theological nature, which are partitioned into two general categories: the fairly basic “dogmas expressed in a single image” and the elaborate “dogmas represented by juxtaposed images.” Together these groups represent the most novel and innovative aspects of early Christian art, as “the pagan religions had no iconography of their dogmas, lacking, as they did, any dogmas to express” (p. 110). Due to the ever-present constraints of time and space, Grabar restricts his analysis to images illustrative of the five major dogmas of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, baptism, and communion. He does not consider the initial stage of the marriage between depiction and doctrine to have been particularly successful, but rather “incomplete and accidental” (p.112). The thorny difficulties which still plague any attempt to visually present the Trinity account for its virtual absence from the early Christian portfolio, and also for the fact that only one Trinitarian trope (the hand and the dove with Christ at his baptism) survived through the medieval era. In short, “[W]hile such representations as these [of the Trinity and the Resurrection] were sometimes attempted, themes corresponding to dogmas seem nevertheless not to have held a central place in early Christian works” (p.127).

Grabar concludes with a brief survey of doctrines expressed through combinations of images. His whirlwind tour of illustrations of the Incarnation notes the general importance of the theme of (miraculous) conception, as well as clues to the development of the iconographical language behind this tenet. For example, the occasional representation of Joseph as an aloof figure, with his back turned to the rest of the Holy Family, may symbolize his status as surrogate parent only (as it does in a pavement mosaic depicting the birth of Alexander the Great, who, according to legend, also had no human father). Eventually, some artisans adopted a more abstract approach, preferring to use signs such as a star or rays of light to represent the divine presence in the Incarnational act. Grabar also discusses the utilization of Old Testament pericopes as prefigurations of and buttresses for the New Testament counterparts with which they often appear. He closes with the apt observation that the Christian artist’s use of both testaments “increased his potentiality for expression and rendered him more capable of accomplishing the tasks that the Christian religion set for him” (p. 146).

The fact that this study remains in print and available after so many years reflects the enduring quality and value of both its research and its conclusions. The painstakingly selected visual examples provide the perfect complement to Grabar’s learned examination of the interplay between early Christian art and its contemporaries. As Alfred Neumeyer writes, “The important message of Grabar’s work is presented in a dry and self-effacing style.” The study is, however, susceptible to a few minor critiques. In the introductory section, Grabar describes the iconographical language of the Greco-Roman world as “the most nearly perfect we know” (p. xliv), without elaborating further upon this apparently obvious conclusion. What is it that makes this particular language inherently superior to any other? This seems to be a bias in favor of Western culture and traditions. Similarly, Grabar states that the lack of any extant Christian imagery prior to 200 CE is a result of iconoclasm, without providing any evidence to support such a claim. Iconoclastic struggles certainly play a prominent role in later Christian history, but this does not require us to retroject them into the first and second centuries. It is equally possible that the nascent Christian movement’s intensely eschatological bent, with its disdain for most established cultural norms and practices, accounted for the first generations’ seeming failure to express themselves visually. Furthermore, while Grabar’s representation of ancient Christianity and Judaism as entirely separate communities was most likely a reflection of then-current scholarship, such views have since become dated. A number of influential scholars, including E.P. Sanders and Daniel Boyarin, have argued persuasively that the partition of Christianity from Hellenistic Judaism was a gradual occurrence, and may not have been completed for centuries. Finally, it should be noted that recent critics such as Thomas Mathews have objected to Grabar’s linkage of post-Constantinian Christian art and imperial propaganda. Mathews contends that only two early images of Christ, which amount to less than one-tenth of one percent of the total, display unmistakable imperial elements. But in Grabar’s defense, Mathews may be overstating his case; Grabar himself writes that only between the sixth and seventh centuries did the connection between portraits of Christ and those of the emperors become explicit (p. 86).

A volume which benefits experienced scholars, introductory students, and interested laymen is rare indeed, but Andre Grabar’s Christian Iconography: A Study of Its Origins fills this difficult order. The scholar will find provocative conclusions to weigh and consider and a dazzling array of images to pursue further. The student will find the perfect “buffet” introduction to early Christian iconography—just enough of everything to stimulate the palette, without providing too much of any single dish. And the layman will find expert analysis presented in a readable style surprisingly free of the convoluted sentences and excessive jargon which often mar academic writing. Other handbooks on this subject will certainly appear in the coming years; this one, however, is likely to continue to stand the test of time.

1 Alfred Neumeyer, “Review of Christian Iconography: A Study of Its Origins,” in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 29.1 (1970), 139.
2 Thomas F. Mathews, The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art (rev. ed.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 193.

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March 2009


© 2006-2009, Matthew Burgess. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized use of the original content of this website is strictly prohibited. Quotations or citations should include a link to this website. The views and opinions given here are my own and do not represent those of the University of Virginia (or anyone else, for that matter).

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