Art of Our Fathers

JERUSALEM—Visitors to the Holy Land with two or three free hours on their hands would do well to check out Jerusalem's Bible Lands Museum. This archeological treasure-trove, which is located right next to the equally impressive Israel Museum, recently inaugurated a new exhibit tailor-made for Catholic travelers.

“Images of Inspiration: The Old Testiment in Early Christian Art,” running through next Jan. 6, examines the use of biblical imagery in the art of the first Christians and reveals how the Old Testament provided an important source of inspiration for artists and craftsmen at the very beginning of Christianity.

The 160 artifacts in the exhibit, which date from the second through eighth centuries, reflect very clearly the Jewish roots of Christianity. Early Christians, many of whom were Jews, reinterpreted the Old Testament stories, applying new layers of meaning to the traditional tales.

The first specifically Christian forms did not appear until a century and a half after the Ascension (about 180). Historians attribute the gap to the fact that Judaism had an aversion to representational arts, as expressed in the Second Commandment: “You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth.”

As the exhibition's oil lamps, amulets, pendants, coins, textiles, ceramicware, sarcophagi, statues and other pieces reveal, early Christians' avoidance of human and animal imagery began to disappear by the late-second and early-third centuries.

Over the next few centuries, Christian artists adapted the styles of classical art (Greek and Roman) flourishing all around them, and incorporated their decorative motifs and mythology into their own renderings of Old and New T e s t a m e n t scenes.

This fusion is evident in an ornate fourth-century sarcophagus belonging to a Christian woman named Julia Latronilla which seamlessly combines scenes from the Old and New Testaments. The left panel depicts Adam and Eve after their fall from grace, symbolized by an ear of corn (man's cultivation of the fields) and a spindle (women's craftsmanship); the lower panel illustrates the miracle at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. The upper right panel shows Abraham as he is about to sacrifice Isaac, as told in the Old Testament.

Samuel Rocca, an archaeologist and art historian who helped plan the exhibition, told the Register that “the Church Fathers found many parallels between the near-sacrifice of Isaac and the Crucifixion. For example, it took three days for Abraham to reach Mount Moriah and it took three days for Jesus to be resurrected.”

In retelling the sacrifice story, he noted, Christian art typically places a lamb, rather than the ram mentioned in the Book of Genesis, at Abraham's side.

Like Isaac, Jonah is also portrayed as a symbol of Jesus' life and resurrection, as the Gospel of Matthew makes clear: “For as Jonah remained in the belly of the sea-monster for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights” (Matthew 12:40).

The exhibition includes several depictions of the Jonah story, most appearing on North African plates from the fourth and fifth centuries. Borrowing from the culture around them, one plate sports a Roman merchant ship, while a sarcophagus lid with Jonah includes a Greek inscription with a chris-togram (a circular, graphic symbol of Christ).

The story of Noah and the ark, too, had great significance for early Christian artists, who viewed the flood as a baptism, or cleansing of the sins of humanity. “For Christians,” Rocca said, “the dove with an olive branch came to represent the Holy Spirit, the bringer of peace.” The Gospel of Mark states that the Holy Spirit descended at the baptism of Jesus in the form of a dove (Mark 1:9-10).

Among other items, the exhibition features a perfectly preserved fragment from a sixth-century bronze ring with a dove holding an olive branch in its beak. Beneath the dove, a small arc represents the rainbow which marked God's covenant with Noah.

It is unclear whether a clay lamp from Italy, dating back to the late-first or early-second century, is connected to any biblical episode. More likely, the carved dove was emblem-atic of the goddess Aphrodite or Venus.

At this period, say the curators, Christians did not create explicitly Christian art. Rather, they used earlier images, such as the Good Shepherd, to represent Jesus, endowing them with Christian significance.

While very early Christian art contains none of the symbols we today associate with Christianity, halos, crosses and the like gradually begin to appear in the exhibit's later pieces.

This transition is particularly evident in a collection of seals and amulets depicting Solomon. In a fourth-century oil lamp, Solomon is seated on a throne, dressed in Oriental robes. A sixth- or seventh-century bronze amulet shows a Solomon-like horseman on a horse, a halo on his head. The spear in his hand ends in a cross. The reverse side of the amulet depicts the ascension of Jesus.

It is unclear when this formative period of Christian art came to an end.

Some historians believe that early Christian art existed only in the third and fourth centuries, and say that the art of the fifth and sixth centuries was Western Christian and early Byzantine.

The majority hold that early Christian art began its decline after 639, when the emperer Heraclius I was defeated. This marked the beginning of the end of the Byzantine Empire.

Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.