Lapas attēli
PDF
ePub

contained many true prophecies concerning Our Lord. These, however, like the testimony of the Sybils, were pious forgeries of post-Christian date.

Another fable of the pagan mythology reproduced in early Christian art is that of Ulysses and the Sirens. A sarcophagus from the catacombs represents the "muchplanning" wanderer of Ithaca, bound to the mast, deaf to the blandishments of the rather harpy-like daughters of the sea, and so sailing safely by. Maximus of Turin, in the fifth century, explained the ship of Ulysses to be "a type of the Church, the mast being the cross by which the faithful are to be kept from the seductions of the senses." "Thus," he says, "shall we be neither held back by the pernicious hearing of the world's voice, nor swerve from our course to the better life and fall upon the rocks of voluptuousness."*

But Christian art did not servilely follow pagan types. It introduced new forms to express new ideas. It created a symbolical cycle of especially Christian significance. Great care must be observed, however, in the interpretation of this religious symbolism, not to strain it beyond its capacity or intention. An allegorizing mind, especially if it has any theological dogma to prove, will discover symbolical evidence in its support where it can be detected by no one else. This is strikingly manifested in the groundless interpretation by ecclesiastical writers of the imaginary signs of martyrdom, as well as of the so-called "Liturgical Painting," in which they find distinct allusion to most, if not all, of the "seven sacraments."

The range of this art is so extensive and varied that we have only space to indicate a few of its more important subjects. Most of these are derived from Holy Scripture, and indicate the remarkable familiarity of the Christians of pagan Rome with the sacred books, in painful contrast with the prevalent

[blocks in formation]

1

ignorance of the Word of God of the inhabitants of the Rome of to-day. Not one of the subjects is derived from the apocry phal gospels which, with the later legends of the saints, have furnished the motives of so much of modern Roman Catholic art.

The rudely drawn figure of an anchor, in allusion to St. Paul's beautiful reference to the Christian's hope as an anchor of the soul,* is one of the most frequently recurring symbols of the catacombs. This allusion is made more apparent when it is observed how often it is found on the tombstones of those who bear the name of Hope in its Greek or Latin form, as Elpis, Elpidius, Spes, etc. There was a beautiful significance in this symbol to the tried and tempted Christian of the early ages. It assured him that his life-bark should outride the fiercest storm and wildest waves of persecution, and at last glide safely into the haven of everlasting rest.

Associated with this, in thought, is the symbol of a ship, alluded to by Clement of Alexandria,† and applied sometimes to an individual, and sometimes to the Church as a whole. The execution is often extremely rude, the design being evidently taken from the clumsy barges that navigated the Tiber.

The palm branch and the crown are figures that frequently occur. Although common also to Jewish and Pagan art, they have been clothed, in Christian symbolism, with a new and loftier significance. They call to mind the great multitude whom no man can number, whom John saw in apocalyptic vision, with whom Faith beholds the dear departed walk in white, bearing palms in their hands. They are the tokens of victory over the last enemy, the assurance that

"The struggle and grief are all past, The glory and worth live on." The crown is not the wreath of ivy or of laurel, of parsley or of bay, the coveted re* Heb. vi., 19.

+ Navs oupavodpapovoa-Padagogus lib. iii.

ward of the ancient games; nor the chaplet of earthly revelry, which, when placed upon the heated brow soon fell in withered garlands to the feet; but the crown, starry and unwithering, which shall never fade away, the immortal wreath of glory which the Saints shall wear for ever at the marriage supper of the Lamb.

One of the most frequent and beautiful symbols of the catacombs is a dove generally with the olive branch in its mouth, the perpetual "herald of the peace of God." Sometimes doves are represented sipping at a vase or plucking grapes in order, as Di Rossi remarks, with considerable show of interesting evidence for which we have here no room, to indicate the soul released from its earthly cares, and entered into joy and

peace.

Another exceedingly common symbol is that of the believers as sheep or lambs and Christ as the good Shepherd. Calling up the thought of that sweet Hebrew Idyl,* of which the world will never grow tired; which, lisped by the pallid lips of the dying throughout the ages, has strengthened their hearts as they entered the dark valley; and to which the Saviour lent a deeper pathos by his parable of the lost sheep: small wonder that this figure was a favorite type of the unwearying lovet that sought the erring and brought them to his fold again. With reiterated and varied treatment, to which we can here only allude, the tender story is repeated over and over again, making the gloomy crypts bright with sweet pastoral scenes, and hallowed with sacred associations.

One of the most ancient and important symbols of this primitive cycle was the Fish. It was exceedingly common in the second and third centuries, but in the fourth gradually fell into disuse, and had almost, if not altogether, disappeared by the beginning of the fifth. The abandonment of this remark

* Ps. xxiii.

+ Compare the exquisite line of the Dies Ira, Quærens me sedisti lassus.

able symbol may be explained by its mystical and anagrammatic character. When the age of persecution passed away there was no longer need to use a tessera whose meaning was known only to the initiate, to express those religious truths which were openly proThis emblem declaimed on every hand. rives its peculiar significance from the fact that the initial letters of the name and title of our Lord—Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς Θεοῦ Υἱὸς Σωτὴρ, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Saviour, make up the Greek word 'IXOYZ, fish. The same words also occur in certain Sibylline verses quoted by Eusebius and Augustine, which have been thought to be of Christian origin, and as such were chanted at Christmas in the Church of France. This symbol is first mentioned by Clement of Alexandria,* and probably had its origin in the allegorizing school of Christianity that there sprang up. It also contained an allusion to the ordinance of baptism. "The fish," says Tertullian, "seems a fit emblem of Him, whose spiritual children are, like the offspring of fishes, born in the waters of baptism."+ This sacred fish is sometimes represented as bearing a basket of bread on its back, and sometimes a loaf in its mouth, which is probably a symbol of the bread of life which Christ breaks to his children, or possibly of the holy Eucharist.

But our space forbids the attempt to describe the whole range of sacred symbols, which for the most part point to the person and work of the Redeemer. Besides these there are others illustrating the character and duty of Christians; as the stag drinking at the water brook, the emblem of the soul panting after the living God; the hunted hare, the emblem of the persecutions of the saints; and the cock, suggesting the duty of unsleeping vigilance. The olive tree indicates the fruitfulness in good works of the Christian character; and the vine, the intimate union of the believer and Christ.

*Pædag., lib. iii., c. xi. + De Baptism. c.i.

Another class refers to the hopes of future blessedness: as the peacock, the emblem of immortality, and the phoenix of the resurrection.

The cycle of Biblical paintings in the catacombs, comprising representations of the principal events in Scripture history, both in the Old Testament and the New, though of exceeding interest, is too vast a field to be here entered upon. It has been treated in detail by the present writer and copiously illustrated elsewhere.* We can only enumerate here some of its more striking characteristics. It is remarkable for the absence of those gross anthropomorphic representations of the Deity into which later art degenerated. All who are familiar with the subject will recall many painful examples of this offence against purity and good taste, to which not even the majestic genius of Michael Angelo can reconcile us. The writer remembers one picture in which the Almighty, in ecclesiastical garb, with a triple crown upon his head and a lantern in his hand, is extracting a rib from the sleeping form of Adam. In Germany, according to Didron, the Supreme Being was generally represented as Emperor; in England and France as King, and in Italy as Pope. The daring artists of the middle ages even at tempted to represent the incomprehensible mystery of the Trinity by a grotesque head with three faces joined together, somewhat after the manner of the three-headed image of Brahma in the Hindoo mythology. According to M. Emeric David, the French artists of the ninth century claim the "happy boldness" (heureuse hardiesse) of first representing the Almighty under human form. We find nothing of this in the catacombs.‡

In a volume now in course of preparation by Messrs. Carlton & Lanahan, New York, entitled "The Catacombs of Rome, and their Testimony Relative to Primitive Christianity."

Iconographie Chrétienne, pp. 216–227.

A single apparent exception is examined in Withrow's Catacombs, Book ii., chap. v.

The nearest approach thereto is a single hand stretched out to arrest the knife of Abraham about to offer up Isaac; and a hand encircled with clouds, as if more strongly to signify its symbolic character, giving the tables of the law.

The entire absence of the slightest approach to anything indicative of the cultus of the Virgin is a striking characteristic of this early art. The Virgin Mary nowhere ap pears other than as an accessory to the Divine Infant, generally in paintings of the adoration of the Magi.*

Another of the most striking circumstances which impresses the observer in traversing these silent chambers of the dead, is the complete avoidance of all those images of suffering and sorrow, or of tragic awfulness, such as abound in sacred art above ground. There are no representations of the sevenfold sorrows of the Mater Dolorosa, or cadaverous Magdalens accompanied by eyeless skulls-a perpetual memento mori. There are no pictures of Christ's agony and bloody sweat, of his cross and passion, his death and burial, nor of the flagellations, tortures and fiery pangs of martyrdom, such as those that harrow the soul in many of the churches and galleries of Rome. Only images of joy and peace abound on every side. These gloomy crypts are a school of Christian love, of gentle charity, of ennobling thoughts, and elevating impulses. "To look at the catacombs alone," says Raoul Rochette, ✦ “it might be supposed that persecution had no victims, since Christianity has made no allusion to suffering." There are no sinister symbols, no appeals to the morbid sympathies of the soul, nothing that could cause vindictive feelings even towards the persecutors of the church, only sweet pastoral scenes, fruits, flowers, lambs and doves; nothing but what suggests feelings of innocence and joy.

* The development of the cultus of Mary is traced in the book last cited. Book ii., chap 3.

+ Tableau des Catacombes, 194.

With the age of persecution, this child-like and touching simplicity of Christian art ceased. Called from the gloomy vaults of the catacombs to adorn the churches erected by Constantine and his successors, it gradually developed to the many coloured splendour of the magnificent frescoes and mosaics of the basilicas. It became more and more personal and historical, and less abstract and doctrinal. The technical manipulation became less understood, and the artistic conception of form more and more feeble, till it gradually stiffened into the formal and immobile types which characterize Byzantine art. It is of importance, however, as enabling us to trace the development of religious ideas, and the introduction of additions to primitive belief, and as showing the slow progress toward the veneration of images. It demonstrates the non-apostolicity of certain doctrines, the beginnings of which can be here detected. It utters its voiceless protest against certain others which are sought for in vain in the place where, according to medieval theory, they should certainly be found. It is to this period that most of the condemnations of art, or rather of its abuse, in the writings of the primitive Fathers, must be referred. Towards the close of the fourth century, Augustine inveighs against the superstitious reverence for pic

tures, as well as the growing devotion to the sepulchres, which he says the church condemned and endeavored to correct.* In the beginning of the century the Council of Elvira, as if with prescience of the evil consequences that would follow their toleration, prohibited the use of pictures in the churches, "lest that which is worshipped and adored should be painted on the walls.”+

Where still employed in the catacombs, art shared the corruption and degradation above described, which became all the deeper with the progressive debasement of the later empire. Amid the gathering shadows of the dark ages, it became more sombre and austere, filling the mind of the spectator with gloom and terror. Thus art, which is the daughter of Paganism, relapsing into the service of superstition, has corrupted and often paganized Christianity, as Solomon's heathen wives turned his heart from the worship of the true God to the practice of idolatry. Lecky attributes this degradation of art to the latent Manicheanism of the dark ages, to the monkish fear of beauty as a deadly temptation, and, later, to the terrible pictures of Dante, which opened up such an abyss of horror to their imagination.

* Aug. de Morib. Cathol., lib. i., c. 34.
+ Concil. Elib. c. 36.

[blocks in formation]
« iepriekšējāTurpināt »