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VI. The Cult of Learning Transfigured
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Christ as the Teacher of the True Philosophy

He who would observe the image of God in earthly colors, on the grounds of His having become a man, let him be accursed!
—Bishop Epiphanius of Cyprus (ca. A.D. 400)

With the official recognition of Christianity, sculptors' and painters' workshops in Rome were quick to respond to the changing wishes of their clientele.[35] Traditional imagery, especially drawn from mythology, becomes rare, and a new Christian iconography suddenly takes its place. Bucolic symbolism of peace and happiness is replaced by scenes of miracles, and Christ, the teacher of wisdom, takes the place of the cultivated Roman citizen. The fundamental moral objection to visual imagery on the part of the bishops and church fathers


was evidently outweighed by the layman's powerful need to evoke the new message of salvation in physical form.[36] For our purposes, two aspects of this phenomenon are of particular interest: the remarkable continuity of the imagery and, at the same time, the sharpening of the hierarchical dichotomy between master and pupil.[37] Christ himself, the apostles, prophets, and saints are all depicted like pagan intellectuals. As a rule then, wear the Greek mantle (pallium ) with undergarment and hold a book roll in one hand—even when this seems rather an impediment in certain scenes of miracles.

But it was not through the medium of visual imagery alone that the Christians set themselves firmly in the tradition of the pagan cult of learning. They also assimilated themselves to it in their daily lives. Tertullian first declares the pallium to be the suitable garment for a Christian (De pallio 6). In the Eastern provinces, this would not have been noticeable, but in the West it meant the adoption of distinctively intellectual dress. In addition, from the third century on, church fathers recommend the wearing of a beard. Clement of Alexandria, for example, writes in favor of the beard on the grounds that it gives a man a dignified and awe-inspiring appearance (Paid. 3.11.60). Sometimes the beard is justified on moral grounds, just as earlier the Stoics had done. Augustine writes: "Barba significat fortes, barba significat iuvenes, strenuos, impigros, alacres" (Enar. in psalm. 132 [Migne 37.1733]).[38] Thus Christians who followed this advice on dress and appearance would have taken on the traditional image of the philosopher. This was presumably true above all for the clergy. On the Carrand Diptych of ca. 400 (cf. fig. 161), the apostle Paul and his pupils appear in conventional philosopher dress. This evidently reflects the styles worn by the clergy in this period, since the imperial magistrate and his entourage on the same diptych also wear the official outfits current at the time.[39]

But when there was a need to fashion the very essence of Christ into a single visual image, he was depicted exclusively as the teacher of wisdom starting in the later third century, both in catacomb paintings and on sarcophagi.[40] The usual pose was seated frontally facing the viewer, which had already been used on earlier sarcophagi and was


Fig. 157
Christ teaching, from a column sarcophagus (?).
Ca. A.D. 380. Rome, Terme Museum.

derived from the magistrates in Roman state art. Even earlier, professional teachers had been depicted in this pose of authority (cf. fig. 126). The typological similarity is particularly striking when we compare images of Christ with the "child intellectuals" of Roman funerary art, for example, the youthful statuette of Christ in the Terme Museum in Rome (fig. 157) with a child sarcophagus in the Louvre or the funerary


Fig. 158
Funerary mosaic for the nine-year-old T. Aurelius Aurelianus.
Third century A.D. Split, Archaeological Museum.

mosaic for a nine-year-old boy in the museum at Split (fig. 158).[41] These wunderkinder, chosen at random, match the image of Christ as teacher in pose, gestures, and drapery. Indeed, the so-called statuette of Christ might actually be a fragment from one of the sarcophagi showing scenes of instruction that has been reworked into a statuette by the modern restorer.[42] Thus Christ appears in a pictorial formula that would have been generally familiar and thereby embodies precisely the same qualities that had long enjoyed such high status in the self-image of the ordinary Roman: learning and a philosophical orientation in life. To non-Christians, these pictures of the new teacher of wisdom offered a familiar image as well. In this respect they were well suited to make Christ's teachings appear to be the continuation of a long tradition, one that was trusted and revered.

But whereas the amateur intellectuals of earlier funerary art had been shown accompanied by Muses, philosophical counselors, and


family members, Christ now sits closely surrounded by his disciples, who are also depicted frontally. The pictorial image of the teacher is set within a different context, a kind of public gathering instead of the domestic ambience. Christ invariably holds either a book roll or a codex in his left hand. He does not actually read but rather proclaims his teachings contained therein. On the sarcophagus of Bishop Concordius of Arles (d. 374), the opened codex bears the words dominos legem dat (fig. 159a, b).[43] Often the apostles have opened rolls or books in their hands as well, and they sometimes converse among themselves. At first glance such scenes are reminiscent of earlier gatherings of philosophers, as, for example, on a small mosaic of the Early Imperial period (fig. 160).[44] But while these scenes are composed of several smaller, fragmented groupings, the strict symmetry of the Christian scenes expresses in visual terms the notions of consensus and absolute devotion. The Lex Christi is hailed as the "new philosophy," a metaphor employed as early as Saint Justin and the Alexandrian apologists about A.D. 200. At the same time, however, it is made clear that there is no longer an alternative to this "philosophy."

The motif of frontality had first appeared on "philosopher sarcophagi" of the second half of the third century, but in those scenes the accompanying figures were still turned toward the deceased whose learning they acknowledge. In Christian imagery, however, the viewer is directly confronted by the whole gathering, which gives these scenes an immediacy unknown up to this time. The viewer is drawn into the group receiving instruction, yet at the same time distanced by a sense of awe. If the hypothesis is correct that among the prototypes of the large-scale catacomb paintings and relief sarcophagi were imposing frescoes or mosaics in the apses of Constantinian basilicas, this would only confirm the consciously religious function of the frontal image. We must also keep in mind that the mosaic in the apse was reenacted, as it were, in ritual, whenever, during the service, the bishop and his circle of clergymen took their places on the big bench of the exedra beneath the apse. In this way the bishop drew his authority directly from that of Christ, the teacher of wisdom, and his apostles. We shall return once more to the hierarchical structure of these images.


Fig. 159 a–b
Sarcophagus of Bishop Concordius. Last quarter of the fourth century A.D.
Arles, Musée d'Art Chrétien.

Iconographical formulas are stereotyped images, the vehicles that convey ideas and values. The artist who employs an old formula for a new idea fixes that idea in a specific form, one that carries with it all the connotations still attached to the formula from its earlier use. In so doing, he also, consciously or unconsciously, excludes alternative as-


Fig. 160
Mosaic front Pompeii with a gathering of philosophers. First century B.C.
Naples, Museo Nazionale.

sociations that conceivably are integral parts of the new idea. He may, that is, alter the very character of the idea.

That Christ should appear in the image of the philosopher-teacher was anything but obvious and certainly not so ordained by Scripture. Seeing a youthful Christ in the schema of the intellectual wunderkind, the Christian viewer may naturally have thought of his appearance before the Doctors, while the bearded Christ would have reminded them of the Sermon on the Mount. But the scenes of his


teaching a group of disciples are not tailored to a specific event in the life of Jesus (with the exception of the scene on polychrome plaques, fig. 162), which would have been easy to do through the addition of the appropriate subsidiary figures. For this reason the likeness to the philosopher-teacher achieves its full effect.

The metaphor of Christ as philosopher amid a learned gathering, however, represented a distortion of what was new and distinctive about Christian doctrine, for Christianity, despite its gradual penetration into the upper strata of society, always wanted to remain the religion of the common people. Christ's message of salvation was directed explicitly at slaves as well as free people, poor as well as rich, uneducated and learned. The apostles themselves had been simple people, and Justin Martyr celebrates Jesus specifically as a carpenter. But the men in these early images come across exclusively as educated and upper class. With the adoption of the earlier iconography of the intellectual, the entire "cultural milieu" of the cult of learning, as Marrou called it, permeates the visual image. The tradition must have been so strong that even the Christians could not envisage their savior in any way other than as the familiar teacher of wisdom. This is yet a further, retrospective corroboration of how thoroughly the cult of learning had penetrated the popular mentality. At the same time, the widespread use of the motif of Christ teaching his disciples on the tombs of average middle-class citizens shows that the concept of Christianity as the "true philosophy," a metaphor originally claimed by the learned apologists in their debate with the pagans, had by at least the early fourth century become current and fully accepted by the Christian populace. These images provide powerful testimony in favor of the controversial thesis, first formulated by Adolf von Harnack, of the "Hellenization" of Christianity. Usually what is meant by this is the assimilation into Christian theology of the terminology and thought patterns of earlier philosophers.[45] The visual imagery illustrates in addition a belief, widespread among the faithful, in Christ as above all a great teacher.

These scenes of highly cultivated apostles with their philosopher-teacher raise yet another issue. The Christians were constantly looked down on as uneducated and subjected to the resulting social discrimination at the hands of the wealthy and educated classes, precisely be-


cause the new religion had had its initial success primarily among the poor. Christian apologists were always trying in vain to counter this prejudice. In this light, the imagery of the cultivated gathering of learned men may be seen as a response to these charges. These formulaic scenes functioned at several levels, directed both at the Christian community and outside it.[46]

The close association between miracles and the gospel of salvation reveals a similar dependence on traditional beliefs. As is well known, the iconography of Early Christian art is based largely on the depiction of certain miracles, and these are the very ones ascribed to the pagan "holy men." The great example is once again Apollonius of Tyana, who is credited in Philostratus' biography with healing the sick, driving away demons, out-of-body experiences, and even raising the dead. There are similar accounts in Eunapius' Lives of the Philosophers, recorded about A.D. 390. In both the pagan and the Christian context, the miracles serve to lend credibility to the teachings, as well as to demonstrate the holiness of the teacher. The scenes of Paul on the Carrand Diptych mentioned earlier are a good example (fig. 161a). The apostle teaches in the same pose as Christ, except that he does not face the viewer. The narrative is confined within the scene, where two pupils, also portrayed as philosophers or scholars, devotedly listen to his words. As with both Christ and the pagan "holy men," the authority of Paul's teachings derives from his superhuman powers, which are evoked in two additional scenes. In the central panel, the miracle of the viper on Malta is narrated and, at the same time, substantiated by the secular authority of a magistrate. Below, a crowd seeking salvation presses toward the miracle worker. At the same time, however, Paul's teaching is also seen to derive directly from God by means of the likeness to Adam, who is shown in Paradise at the right side of the image.[47]

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