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A New Pictorial Language: The Image in Early Medieval Art

Essay by Dr. Nancy Ross

Praxiteles, Aphrodite of Knidos, Roman marble copy after 4th century B.C.E. Greek original (Palazzo Altemps, Rome)
Praxiteles, Aphrodite of Knidos, Roman marble copy after 4th century B.C.E. Greek original (Palazzo Altemps, Rome)
An illusion of reality
Classical art, or the art of ancient Greece and Rome, sought to create a convincing illusion for the viewer. Artists sculpting the images of gods and goddesses tried to make their statues appear like an idealized human figure. Some of these sculptures, such as the Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles, were so lifelike that legends spread about the statues coming to life and speaking to people. After all, a statue of a god or goddess in the ancient world was believed to embody deity.

The problem for early Christians

The illusionary quality of classical art posed a significant problem for early Christian theologians. When God dictated the ten commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, God expressly forbade the Israelites from making any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth (Exodus 20:4). Early Christians saw themselves as the spiritual progeny of the Israelites and tried to comply with this commandment. Nevertheless, many early Christians were converted pagans who were accustomed to images in religious worship. The use of images in religious ritual was visually compelling and difficult to abandon.

Tertullian asks: Can artists be Christians?

Tertullian, an influential early Christian author living in the second and third centuries, wrote a treatise titled On Idolatry in which he asks if artists could, in fact, be Christians. In this text, he argues that all illusionary art, or all art that seeks to look like something or someone in nature, has the potential to be worshiped as an idol. Arguing fervently against artists as Christians, he acknowledges that there are many artists who are Christians and indeed some who are even priests. In the end, Tertullian asks artists to quit their work and become craftsmen.

Augustine: illusionary images are lies

Another influential early Christian writer, St. Augustine of Hippo, was also concerned about images, but for different reasons. In his Soliloquies (386-87), Augustine observes that illusionary images, like actors, are lying. An actor on a stage lies because he is playing a part, trying to convince you that he is a character in the script when in truth he is not. An image lies because it is not the thing it claims to be. A painting of a cat is not a cat, but the artist tries to convince the viewer that it is. Augustine cannot reconcile these lies with patterns of divine truth and therefore does not see a place for images in Christian practice.*
Fortunately for art and history, not everyone agreed with Tertullian and Augustine and the use of images persisted. Nevertheless their style and appearance changed in order to be more compatible with theology.
Mosaic in the apse of the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe, 6th century (Ravenna, Italy)
Mosaic in the apse of the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe, 6th century (Ravenna, Italy)

Towards abstraction (and away from illusion)

Christian art, which was initially influenced by the illusionary quality of classical art, started to move away from naturalistic representation and instead pushed toward abstraction. Artists began to abandon classical artistic conventions like shading, modeling and perspective conventions that make the image appear more real. They no longer observed details in nature to record them in paint, bronze, marble, or mosaic.
Instead, artists favored flat representations of people, animals and objects that only looked nominally like their subjects in real life. Artists were no longer creating the lies that Augustine warned against, as these abstracted images removed at least some of the temptations for idolatry. This new style, adopted over several generations, created a comfortable distance between the new Christian empire and its pagan past.
In Western Europe, this approach to the visual arts dominated until the imperial rule of Charlemagne (800-814) and the accompanying Carolingian Renaissance. This controversy over the legitimacy and orthodoxy of images continued and intensified in the Byzantine Empire. The issue was eventually resolved, in favor of images, during the Second Council of Nicaea in 787.
Essay by Dr. Nancy Ross
*There is some irony here since Augustine's position echos, to some extent, the writing of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. In book X of The Republic (c. 360 B.C.E.), Plato describes a true thing as having been made by God, while in the earthly sphere, a carpenter, for example, can only build a replica of this truth (Plato uses a bed to illustrate his point). Plato states that a painter who renders the carpenter's bed creates an illusion that is two steps from the truth of God.

Want to join the conversation?

  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Nurul Bahiyah
    I don't understand this!! Can somebody explain it to me in 'kinda' a short sentence?
    (6 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user google
    At some point was the knowledge and skill necessary to create shading, modeling and perspective lost? The text implies that there was a conscious decision to abandon advanced artistic techniques, so I'm assuming that shortly after that happened the knowledge and skill would be lost.
    (20 votes)
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    • piceratops tree style avatar for user Arthur Smith
      The skills required to draw realistically - seeing in terms of light and shadow, measuring accurately with your eyes, seeing in perspective, seeing color accurately, and thinking three dimensionally - these are not intuitive. They take years of training to develop. So, to answer your question, it wasn't so much a conscious decision to abandon realism so much as a lack of interest to maintain it. Imagine, you spend all those years training and make something incredible, and people call you a heretic. Instead, young artists joined workshops and copied what everyone else was doing, and it was considered a craft, like bricklaying or roofing.
      (6 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user JoAnna P. Deering
    I find this rather difficult to understand. While it makes sense that early Christians, trying to abide by the 10 Commandments (specifically, you shall not make graven images.....), would frown on any depictions of God, how would painting something like a still life violate a commandment? Certainly, a picture of fruit in a bowl, or a picture of the landscape of an area, would not be idolized by the people. What am I missing here?
    (5 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Benjamin
      What Dr. Ross is getting to is that there was a general feeling that "realistic" art was a falsehood (it's not what it appears to be), and that it should be clear when looking at any work of art that it isn't itself pretending to be the thing it's made to look like. Also, most of the professional and well-known artists were working for the church, so what they made was what the church wanted made. Look at what the church commissions, most of it is sacred people and events that the priests want their congregation to think about. I would guess that this is a more general trend away from trying to recreate the natural world in art and towards portraying scenes and people that it would be morally beneficial to think about. You're not supposed to admire the art so much as think about its subject matter.
      (11 votes)
  • starky ultimate style avatar for user kchur
    Ironic that Augustine was influenced by Platonism?
    (4 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Миленa
      Not really. Early Christianity in the West (and as a consequence, Catholicism in general) took on the spirit of Rome, and the Latin tradition left a big imprint on its thinkers. There was a superabundance of heresies in the first few centuries, as Roman converts tried to understand Christianity in terms of their old religion.

      Even the most orthodox of Christians did not escape tradition's influence - apparently Jerome (another famous Church Father contemporary with Augustine) had a dream in which God asks him if he is a Christian or a Ciceronian. This led to a great personal dilemma - yet, his style after this dream is just as classicizing as before. After many years of struggle, Jerome's solution to this Pagan VS Christian problem is simple: classical literature is like a "prize" won by Christians that can be freely used once purified and converted to Christian topics.

      Augustine himself makes a similar comparison - when the Israelites were fleeing from Egypt, they were permitted by God to steal gold and silver because they had earned it by their slavery. Thus, Christians, by their labor, may take the spoils of the classical tradition:

      "If those who are called philosophers, especially the Platonists, have said things which are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith, they should not be feared; rather, what they have said should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use. Just as the Egyptians had not only idols and grave burdens which the people of Israel detested and avoided, so also they had vases and ornaments of gold and silver and clothing which the Israelites took with them secretly when they fled, as if to put them to a better use."

      What is really ironic is that if Augustine had been born a few centuries later, he would have certainly been a Muslim (he was from North Africa). Imagine learning about a great 9th century philosopher called Ibn Al-Agustu!
      (7 votes)
  • male robot johnny style avatar for user Arindam Ghosh
    Nice and crisp. Never read about this anywhere before.
    (6 votes)
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  • female robot grace style avatar for user Antonio Fellini
    But, I thought that the lack of shading, modelling and perspective was actually a lack of artists' skill.
    (3 votes)
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    • piceratops tree style avatar for user Arthur Smith
      Actually, Picasso isn't a good example, because he was a modern artist of the 20th century, although I get the point that art is about more than realism. I think it's safe to say that, yes, medieval artists did lack the skills of the ancient Greeks, however they did have skills of their own. It's like comparing apples and oranges. Medieval artists probably had the potential to create works to rival that of classical Greece & Rome, but as the article states, people were drawn away from that kind of art, so the traditions were lost, along with the learning. The example Milena posted is good, but it's a far cry from the skill level of the ancients.
      (5 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Alice Dupler
    When was medieval art officially started?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user wc.cactis
    Why is this a question "When God dictated the ten commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, God expressly forbade the Israelites from making any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth?" (quote from the article text).
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Brenda Jalaie
    I would love to see some thoughts or opinions regarding the following development of Eastern and western Roman Empire:
    As both "halves" of the Roman Empire develop their own interpretations of Christianity (worship space, language, mosaics...) I find it interesting that BOTH start to abstract human forms similarly. There are even references back to Classical ideas in 2 dimensional works.
    Dr. Ross, or any other art historian reading, do you have have any thoughts on why we don't see a farther spread in design regarding 2 dimesional works like illuminated manuscripts?
    (3 votes)
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  • leafers seed style avatar for user amylong14174
    Regarding the dates:
    I have a silly question. My children are coming home with homework in history, math, science, etc. and I cannot believe how much has changed from what I learned in school. You see I was born in 76' so I wasn't taught the things we know today about the cold war and Vietnam. My reality completely melted when my son said Pluto's not a planet anymore when I tried to help him with his science project of the solar system. So my silly little question has to do with the dates. In the the last paragraph about Plato it refers to his book X of The Republic (c. 360 B.C.E.). Please excuse my ignorance. I do in fact hold a Master's Degree from Niagara University but I was always told there is no such things as a stupid question so here it is. Is it still Before Christ B.C. and After Christ A.D.? What does the B.C.E. stand for? Or when I see just a "c." before the year? I'd appreciate anyone's patience and time explaining the change in the labels of the years. Thank you, ~Amy
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Anna Sanders
      BC stands for Before Christ, and AD stands for anno Domini, or "year of our Lord" in Latin (as it is based on the reckoned year of Jesus' birth).

      The other system is the BCE/CE one. BCE stands for "Before Common Era," while CE stands for "Common Era." The BCE/CE system and the BC/AD systems coincide exactly (so year 110 BCE is the same as year 110 BC, and the current year is 2015 AD as well as 2015 CE). Again, the dates are the same, you are simply swapping the terms BCE for BC, and CE for AD.

      The reason for this shift in nomenclature is to move to a more culturally neutral, less Christian-centric terminology.
      (4 votes)