An interesting relationship exists between ideologies and imagery, and it is one essentially exponential. The belief system or ideology must in some way influence the images associated with it, yet it is equally important that the images promote, or even shape, the ideology as it evolves. Regarding the former element, there is the inescapable matter of inspiration; an ideology is usually a complex and psychologically powerful force, so it is ordinary for it to generate efforts to present it in a visual form. This is the human – and sometimes political – impulse to literally reveal to others symbolic representations of the thinking or belief, which in turn further validates the ideology for the creators of the images. This accomplished, there is then the process of how the images affect the minds and emotions of those coming in contact with them. Persuasion is typically an agenda here, but it is by no means the only reason such images are made. Depending on the meaning of the ideology, the demand it creates in the believer to offer it visually may be the sole impetus, just as the desire to share the ideology may be the primary motive. In most cases, it seems that all these components play a part in how and why cultures have traditionally created images to reflect their belief systems.
This array of motivations may be seen in how Christianity has been represented in images over the long centuries of its existence and evolution. Certainly inspired by devotion, yet also produced for social and political purposes, the images of the faith exist as a multifaceted example of how a single ideology relies upon imagery, and is also vastly influenced by its own interpretations of itself. Christian imagery has gone through an immense number of shifts over time, sometimes adapting to reflect important changes in the ideology itself, but it nonetheless remains a potent element of both influence and inspiration throughout the faith’s long history.
Early Christian Images
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the earliest forms of Christian imagery lies in how
it employed the forms of other belief systems. The worship of Christ, in no uncertain terms, arose within a vast culture in which polytheistic devotions were commonly expressed in art. The Roman Empire, borrowing extensively from Greek traditions of aesthetics, fused the human and divine to render more accessible and pleasing the tenets of its ideology. Museums around the world display the striking art created to glorify the gods and goddesses, typically portraying them as highly stylized, and usually beautiful, humans. The divine existed within the human form, or the imagery relied upon such a translation, and this same process may be seen in the first images created to reflect Christ and Christianity. For centuries, Christian art was developed in competition with the images made to represent the older ideologies, and the inevitable blending of styles is a hallmark of it. There is, in fact, no strictly Christian art identified as such prior to 200 C.E., so subject to multiple interpretations is the imagery (Johnson, 2004, p. 619). Only the final demise of Romanism would enable a flourishing of indisputably Christian imagery, after 500 C.E.
Several points are important in regard to the development of early Christian imagery, and the first relates to the subject’s being developed from Roman traditions. More exactly, and the essential differences in the faiths notwithstanding, Christian art appears to have very much been swayed by the same cultural forces or inclinations that influenced polytheistic art. The earliest known pictures of Christ, for example, reveal Him as youthful and attractive. He is essentially portrayed, not as God, but as a god often depicted in the Roman lexicon: young, vibrant, and compelling. By the Middle Ages, there would arise alternate representations showing Christ as older and bearded. As both styles intended to portray Christ as divine, it has been speculated that the differing images merely reflect the differing appeals of ancient gods. Young, Christ has the energy and allure of Apollo; older and bearded, He is the more powerful father figure of Zeus (Cormack, 2007, p. 27). That Byzantine and Roman influences shaped the early images of Christ is further supported by the history of the statue of Zeus at Constantinople in the 5th century C.E., which was created by Pheidias in the 5th century B.C.E. There is evidence that Constantine the Great, promoting Christianity, desired that the classic Chryselephantine work representing Zeus be used as the template for representations of Christ (Cormack, 2007, p. 28). It is inescapably clear that such images of Christ at this time, in statuary or painting, reflect a masculine, forceful, handsome presence reminiscent of Greek and Roman images of Zeus. Put another way, it seems that the evolution of Christ in imagery was very much reliant upon employing models established as eliciting admiration, if not veneration.
There is as well the critical element of how even the earliest Christian imagery was reconciled to Christian beliefs. In plain terms, the second commandment prohibits Christians from engaging in any idolatrous worship, which equates to creating and revering art and imagery honoring God. This dilemma is held, in fact, to account for many early Christian images having been seen as incorrectly interpreted works of polytheistic influences. There is some foundation for this, in that early Christian art is not predominantly of portrait form. It may be that Judeo-Christian concerns over indulging idolatry impeded such imagery simply because, in addition to the commandment, other devotional cults greatly used the portrait form to exalt deities (Jensen, 2013, p. 105). However, it is now accepted that such concerns never effectively prevented Christians from creating images of iconography. The commandment precept precludes the celebrating of false gods, after all, and it is more likely that only the current cultural and social shifts of the eras influenced the evolution of Christian imagery as such (Johnson, 2004, p. 619).
That Christian imagery grew over the centuries then only emphasizes how the work was deemed necessary to promulgate the faith, inspiration notwithstanding.
Evolutions in Imagery
By the Middle Ages, images in and of Christianity were taking on an identity which, while still borrowing from older traditions, was increasingly its own. This was directed related to the power that the Church was accumulating in these centuries. The faith was spreading and, as its influence expanded, the Church developed what has been termed an iconographic scheme or agenda. On one level by these years Christian scholars had reconciled the conflicting ideologies of the Old and New Testament, so there was less fragmentation in belief. On another, the dominance of the Church as a political and social authority called for an emphasizing in imagery of its presence. Essentially, Christian images were being designed to reflect the power of the ideology, and there was a clear direction to follow. All aspects of creation, including natural and spiritual law, were to be represented in images, and as widely as possible (Didron, 2003, p. 189).
Given the extent of this commitment, it is inevitable that a variety of interests and agendas are reflected in it. There was, first and foremost, an effort to create Christian images that would be perceived as fully authentic, in terms of the appearances of the characters. The “true likeness” was the goal because this would establish a basis in reality for the divine worship. To that end, descriptions of Christ, Mary, and the apostles, which do not exist in the Old or New Testament, were developed by 6th century Christian scholars and used as templates. St. Peter, for example, was old, pale, of medium height, and with a receding hairline (Nees, 2002, p. 142), and artists were strongly encouraged to remain faithful to this description provided by Ioannes Malalas, the 6th century chronicler. Christ, it was settled upon, was to consistently appear slender, bearded, and not too young. It is then tempting to speculate as to the strength of the political component in the many images based on these descriptions. If the people see the same likeness, they will be more inclined to accept it as a truthful representation of an individual, and thus attach more weight to the integrity of the ideology. At the same time, however, there exists also the likelihood that those sponsoring and/or creating the images merely sought to reflect a truth to which they themselves adhered.
A decidedly social or political aspect may be more readily seen in the way the representations of the the Virgin Mary evolved. These images, almost always incorporating the Christ baby, were the most frequently repeated Christian themes in the Middle Ages, and going into the Renaissance. What is particularly interesting is how the backgrounds change. In the earlier images, there is a stark simplicity; the Madonna is usually gazing at the baby in a simple setting, and she is unadorned. This type contrasts strongly with the highly stylized settings soon to appear. One of the most celebrated panels depicting the Virgin and Child is dated from 609 C.E., and reveals Mary on a jeweled throne. The angels surrounding her stare in absolute awe, and there is clearly a sense of majesty conveyed (Nees, 2002, p. 142). In these years, Christian imagery was very much concerned with promoting the cult of the Virgin, so presenting her as a glorious queen, cradling the infant king, had immense effect. This is imagery serving multiple purposes, and expertly so. On one level, the belief system is fully supported by the aspect of reverence shown to the mother of God. On another, the ornate settings certainly resonated with cultures inevitably attaching respect to wealth and power. It may be argued that, in seeking to promote the worship of Christ through imagery, the Church took advantage of the power of the human, or maternal, element in the divine. If some took issue with Christianity, motherhood was a chord to which all viewers could respond.
Nearly as pervasive as images of Mary were those depicting the suffering of Christ. Christian art here took its cue from all writings on the Passion, which went into excruciating detail as to the physical torment Christ endured (Campbell, 1986, p. 149). Here too is imagery as evolving, however. In the earlier centuries of the Middle Ages, Christ is usually pictured on the cross as tranquil. He is serene, triumphing over the pain of the body and His enemies. Later, there would be an intense emphasis on pain. Christ’s body was altered to reflect starvation and torture, as He would be rendered dead instead of alive. By the 1oth century, Gero of Cologne commissioned for his cathedral a life-sized crucifix in painted wood which stands as a model for centuries to come. Here, Christ is not divine, nor a young and valiant hero. He is an emaciated, miserable martyr (Couchman, 2010, p. 93). It is then reasonable to conclude that the Church was simultaneously affirming its faith in the facts of the execution and seeking to emphasize to the people the sacrificial scope of Christ’s death. The severity of such images sends a clear message: this is a belief based on the very human murder of the semi-mortal son of God, which message also more directly relates the pain of the sacrifice to human suffering. When the people are presented with images portraying God Himself as an object of pain and scorn, the essential foundation of Christianity, in that Christ died for them, is rendered all the more potent.
Reformation and Alteration
The history of Christianity is such that it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify any single point within it as best reflecting how images conveyed specific intent or meaning. Nonetheless, there exists in the Reformation years a striking instance of how Christian images, for centuries based upon a strictly Catholic premise, were revised to accommodate the rising Protestant faith. Moreover, and inevitably, social and political concerns here were certainly as emphatic as the spiritual. If such factors influenced Christian images in the past, they were inescapably relevant to the agendas of the new Christianity of Protestantism.
In simple terms, the rejection of the Catholic Church giving rise to the Protestant faith carried with it a complete dismissal of what was perceived as idolatry, and this inevitably included the Christian art glorifying the tenets of Catholicism and papal authority. A large part of this entailed the Catholic glorification of saints, which typically were variations in art and imagery on the physical suffering endured by Christ. This was to the Protestant Christian a form of pagan belief, in which myths and fables were employed to reinforce a vastly flawed interpretation of Scripture (Hamrick, 2009, p. 57). All images that were based on Catholic concepts were viewed as unnatural, if not evil, and the new faith emphasized simplicity above all. Idolatry was the great sin and, as existing Christian images were based on veneration and ornate glorification, there was no place for them in the reformed faith.
This new ideology would spread rapidly throughout all of Europe, but it is particularly interesting to note its effect in England, which was the most powerful Protestant state under Elizabeth I. Simply put, a dilemma soon became apparent. The people, long accustomed to perceiving images as representations of belief essential to their ideas of it, were frustrated, as even Elizabeth held to observing certain forms of Catholic ritual. What occurred, and remarkably so, was a kind of Protestant variation on the cult of the Virgin Mary. As Elizabeth frequently and vigorously emphasized her desire to remain an unwed virgin, and as the nation prospered under her rule, a divine quality was attached to Elizabeth that very much reflected the Catholic worship of Mary. An absence of Christian images coincided with a growing public appetite to see an image of the queen, and the former actually became infused within the latter. As the reign went on, portraits of Elizabeth increasingly revealed emblems of virginity, such as pearls, ermines, and the moon.
Historians have extensively noted specific contrasts within the iconography inspired by Elizabeth; while certainly celebrating her virgin status, it is nonetheless held that these were images more in traditions of classical majesty (Montrose, 2006, p. 104). There were also plain references in the images to Elizabeth as a Grecian or Roman goddess, on the order of Diana. However, the various interpretations only support that this process of imagery development was spontaneous, and created as the culture required it to be created. Certainly, political patronage and individual ambitions generated a great deal of the worship of “Gloriana.” There is nonetheless the inescapable factor of the impact of the royal images on a public hungry for devotional representations, and it is powerfully argued that images of Elizabeth fulfilled this need: “The cult of Gloriana was skillfully created…to replace the pre-Reformation
cult of the Virgin and saints with their attendant images, processions, ceremonies” (Montrose, 2006, p. 106). Put another way, even the pageantry and excess of the royal portraits was filling the void left by the abandoned Catholic imagery. If Elizabeth was hailed as the “Virgin of the state,” she served to satisfy the cultural demand for an object of Christian worship.
As even the brief review of imagery in Christianity reveals, there is no absolute means of identifying where the influence of images ends and the motivations creating them begins. When images are in place to promote or express a belief system, the process is intrinsically exponential. In early Christian images, for example, there may be seen simultaneous distancing from polytheistic traditions and an employment of those same traditions, as in mythological presentations of Christ. Then, the immense and growing power of Christianity translated to gradual shifts in content, in that it was felt that humanizing the actual suffering of Christ would more firmly entrench the ideology within the people. The extraordinary transference of a state leader into a symbol of Christian devotion, as in the case of Elizabeth and the Reformation, only underscores the complex relationship between culture, ideology, and images. Christian imagery has undergone an immense number of shifts over the centuries, and sometimes adapting to reflect important changes in the ideology itself. What is consistent, however, is that it remains a powerful element of both influence and inspiration throughout the faith’s long history.
Campbell, J. (1986). Popular Culture in the Middle Ages. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Press.
Cormack, R. (2007). Icons. Boston: Harvard University Press.
Couchman, J. (2010). The Mystery of the Cross: Bringing Ancient Christian Images to Life. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
Didron, M. (2003). Christian Iconography or: The History of Christian Art in the Middle Ages, Part 2. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing.
Hamrick, J. (2009). The Catholic Imaginary and the Cults of Elizabeth: 1558 – 1582. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing.
Johnson, S. L. (2004). Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide. Boston: Harvard University Press.
Jensen, R. M. (2013). Understanding Early Christian Art. New York: Routledge.
Montrose, L. (2006). The Subject of Elizabeth: Authority, Gender, and Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.