Our journey in tracing the use of the sacred image leads us to the catacombs just outside of Rome. Here we have some of the earliest depictions of Christ frescoed on the walls underground where Christians had Masses for the dead who were buried there. The images of ‘Christ and the Samaritan Women’ and ‘Christ the Good Shepherd’ date back to the early third century. Here we see an image of Christ the Good Shepherd from the catacombs of St. Callixtus. The image brings to mind the Gospel of John 10:14-15, “I am the good shepherd; and I know mine, and mine know me. As the Father knoweth me, and I know the Father: and I lay down my life for my sheep.” These images and others from the catacombs were once thought to be the only Christian images to exist from this period. The excavations from the house church in Dura-Europos on the Euphrates however would change all of that. This archaeological treasure would now prove that the early Christians used sacred images in their regular liturgical functions. The Dura excavations of 1932 not only proved to be a pleasant surprise to Christian iconophiles with the discovery of the Christian house chapel and its astounding wall paintings, but also to the Jewish religious scholars who were completely astonished to find a buried synagogue covered interiorly by iconic depictions of the Old Testament. This unearthing event brought new light to Jewish scholars who previously believed that images had no place in Jewish worship. It is also interesting to note that the Jewish mural paintings are for the most part void of movement, a core characteristic of the Christian sacred image. We will talk more about this later in the lecture.
The Dura excavation disproves two common theories that modern iconoclasts often pose against the use of images in the Christian Church. The first being that there were no public places of worship in the early Church that used images, and that the use of images were only an infiltration of Roman pagan practice. We can firmly state, based on the opinions of archaeological scholars, that the Dura house church was not a prototype of the Christian image, but an example of a Christian practice already well established. A scholar commenting on the Dura site as it was being excavated wrote, “We are not dealing with prototypes, but with types that are already firmly fixed. How much earlier than 200 A.D. these iconographical forms were first invented, where, and by whom, we are not yet ready to say. But this much, at least, is certain, as the study of the iconography indicates, the tradition has nothing to do with Rome.” Being that we have images firmly established in the Roman catacombs and in the Syrian desert both in the early to mid third century indicates that the use of images was more than an isolated practice in the Church, confined to under ground burial chambers. Newer archaeological excavations are also increasing our knowledge base of early Christian imagery. For example, the new excavations in the catacombs of St. Thecla near Rome have now revealed late 4th century images of the apostles.
The icon or sacred image, developed in the same way that dogma and doctrine developed in the Church. Just as the Church’s theology advanced in depth and understanding in the first centuries of the Church, the design of the icon also developed and advanced. Through the Church’s Ecumenical Councils, of which the first seven were primarily of a Christological nature, the Church did not invent new teachings, but concretized that which had already been passed down from Christ and His apostles. This development of theology and sacred image are inseparable. The iconographic theologian Leonid Ouspensky writes, “In all its fullness, (the icon) has been inherent in the Church from the very first, but, like other aspects of its teaching, it becomes affirmed gradually, in response to the needs of the moment, as for instance in... reply to heresies and errors, as in the iconoclastic period.” It was the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 that brought upon the repose of the iconoclastic controversy of the eighth century. Certainly controversy was present in the early Church over the use of images, this we cannot not deny. The early Church had good reason to be cautious about the use of images for fear that the idol worship of the pagans would not infiltrate the Church. I believe that this is the main reason we do not see the use of statues earlier. Statues were readily identified more closely with pagan idols, and therefore were not introduced until much later, and primarily in the West. The technique used to paint these images were obviously borrowed from earlier Persian, Egyptian, Roman and Greek secular imagery. Like many things, the Church has always had a unique way of cleansing and elevating secular practices, making them uniquely Christian, and the use of images would be no exception. We can see a similarity of secular Egyptian funerary paintings to the earliest Christian images. However, Byzantine art scholars seem to unanimously state that the Christians, although borrowing artistic ideas from their secular ancestors, created a unique Christian art paradigm that would in essence demonstrate a reversal of the role of images from that of their pagan ancestors. The material world would now be secondary to the eternal spiritual world. For the Christian the spiritual world was not some far off journey across the river of Styx as it was for the Egyptians, it was a very clear and present reality for them. For the Christian, the sacred image was a direct reminder of the corporeal integrating with the eternal.
The harsh persecution against the early Christians made the widespread and open use of images difficult, and many were probably destroyed under such persecutions. This is certainly one reason we do not have earlier archaeological evidence than the early third century. The persecutions made the symbolic images such as the fish, the cross, the sailing ship, the lamb, or the palm expedient to use, being that they were not explicit enough to attract attention, yet the images such as that of the fish were invented to contain certain truths of the faith, yet hidden to the untrained eye. We must recognize that after the rise of Constantine and his Edict of Milan in 313, that many small older house churches were most likely destroyed and replaced with larger churches. The edict which allowed the free practice of Christianity in the Roman Empire made the house church obsolete, and any that may have had images have probably been long buried or destroyed, as the Dura Church. What early evidence we do have however demonstrates that the early Church used images in her places of worship. This evidence also gives us good reason to think that the Church authorities of the era also approved of their use, since they would have been present at the liturgical functions which took place at these sites.
The universal Tradition among all of the apostolic Churches, including not only the Eastern and Western Catholic Churches, but also the Eastern Orthodox and Coptic Churches, etc all retain the use of the sacred image. The Church Fathers of the 4th century such as Saint Gregory of Nyssa firmly substantiate the use of images as one rooted in apostolic tradition and readily present in the larger churches of his age. Saint Gregory describes one of them with great enthusiasm, “When a man comes to a place like the one we are gathered here today, ... he is at once inspired by the magnificence of the spectacle, seeing as he does, a building splendidly wrought with regard to size and the beauty of its adornment, as befits God’s temple,...The painter too has spread out the blooms of his art, having depicted on an image the martyr’s brave deeds, his resistance, his torments...” In Saint Gregory’s time, the mid fourth century, the Church had begun a new phase of large basilica type churches which utilized fresco and mosaic mediums in iconography. The iconography from some of the churches of the mid fourth century in Italy and Greece give us examples of what Saint Gregory was speaking about. Examples include the chapel of San Aquilino in Milan, and the Hagios Giorgios in Salonika. These mosaic and frescoed images became the standard medium of the icon until the turn of the millennium, when other mediums became more predominate.