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Religion in Artistic Expression

In this chapter, the author explores how religious experience has been communicated in the visual arts. You should know the following terms, people and concepts:
Icons Iconoclasm
iconostasis catacombs
Apollo Constantine
Edict of Milan mosaic
fresco Ravenna
Icons: In the Orthodox church, visual representations of religious experience have become very much identified with the spiritual truth they represent.   As the text says, "the art is not just an external display; rather it involves both internalization and participation on the part of the viewer."  As a result, the icon itself is venerated (not worshiped!) because of what it represents.  Keep in mind the following points:
  • Icons are honored and venerated because of what they represent
  • Icons are not meant to be realistic; rather they are meant to be symbolic representations of spiritual truths
  • Icons are an important way of teaching spiritual truths
  • Iconoclasm is the belief that all visual representations of the sacred should be banned.
  • Most Orthodox churches include an iconostasis - a wall of icons - in their sanctuaries


Images of Jesus as Christ in the Early Church

The text book considers three images of Jesus in order to demonstrate the various ways that the Church understood Jesus. Generally, we can say that there was an evolution in the way that Jesus was depicted. The earliest image is that of "The Good Shepherd."  Here Christ is portrayed as a youth wearing a Roman Tunic, carrying a lamb and a bucket of water.  The symbolism is obvious: Jesus is the one who cares for the church and is the giver of life (water represents life, the Spirit, and/or Christian baptism). Note that this image comes from the Catacombs in Rome.  Catacombs were underground burial places and may have been the site of early Christian worship.  Especially important is the fact that this image comes from a time when Christianity was illegal and sometimes persecuted. Obviously, the Church found comfort in the image of a caring, life-giving shepherd.

We noted in class, that the image of the "good shepherd" was actually quite ancient and well-known throughout the Roman empire. As early as the sixth century BC, Apollo and Hermes were depicted in sculpture as the good shepherd. Clearly, early Christianity was using familiar symbols to express its religious experience.

The second image is that of Christ teaching the disciples.  Again this image is from the catacombs, but by this time (around 350 A.D.) there has been an important change in the status of Christianity.  In 313, the Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edit of Milan which "legalized" Christianity. Now the Church is "respectable" and exercises some authority.  Not surprisingly, Jesus is now depicted as an older teacher wearing a Roman toga (the dress of a respectable Roman citizen).  Notice how a different aspect of religious experience is emphasized as the times change!
The final image in the text book is a mosaic of Christ as the good shepherd. It is from Ravenna from around 425 A.D. By this time, Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman Empire. Externally, the Empire in Europe was increasingly threatened by barbarians. Internally, the Church was involved in an ongoing debate over the nature of Christ.  The picture may reflect both the internal and external situation facing the Church. The divine nature of Christ is communicated by the fact that his head is surrounded by a halo. The human nature is depicted by the fact that Christ is a shepherd. Once again, care and love for the "flock" (the church) is evident.  Notice now, that Christ is not wearing the toga of a Roman citizen; rather he is depicted wearing the royal (purple) robes of a Roman emperor. Even the face of Christ is similar to depictions of Constantine! Clearly, Christ is now portrayed as the "cosmic" emperor who is fully divine, fully human.  He is the bringer of order and the protector of the Church.  Once again, the religious experience that is communicated is heavily influenced by the time, place and audience.
We also noted in class that the earliest images that depict the crucifixion of Jesus do not appear until the late seventh century. It is probable that a young persecuted church was reluctant to dwell on the suffering and shame of the crucifixion.  Only when Christianity is firmly established does the Church return to contemplate and express this aspect of its experience.