So recently I’ve been reading up on early Christian painting and in light of my last post, thought there was some overlap.
The art made while Christianity was a persecuted religion had some very different aspects from that of later works that were made in times of peace. The subjects and the way the subjects are represented are different in times of persecution and acceptance.
The earliest paintings of the Christian church that we have are more symbolic in nature, focusing on symbolic representations of the Jonah story or the elements of the Eucharist.
After Christians were more acceptable in the public sphere, some had to combine their heavenly desires with earthly demands. Also, when persecution waned, the style even became a bit more graceful or tranquil. The painting of the Good Shepherd shows an attention to detail, but produced with seemingly less effort than other paintings of the same subject.
There also creeped in more traditionally non-sacred subjects, like landscape scenes and wine making, but still with the goal of the work to be evangelical in nature, telling the story of the gospel.
Even though early Christian art was always heavily influenced by their contemporary society, that influence shows itself even more as Christianity was less and less persecuted. One writer claims that “Christian painting might well be described as Roman painting baptized.”
There are some really interesting things going on in my head, specifically how to interact with the world. How does this teach about being in the world and not of it? How does this teach of serious cultural engagement? How does this teach on how much of the culture we should appropriate for our lives?
Even though the early church was just as sinful as us, I think we can find a few answers. It seems that, from the beginning, Christians were making or doing some kind of art- and not attempting to completely remove themselves from their context. There was some kind of give and take going on. Even though they weren’t perfect, there definitely seems to be a healthy wrestling going on, just from a quick overview. This is a line I believe all Christians will have to ride, accepting certain parts of culture, rejecting others. Not secluding ourselves, not giving in completely. This is a hard thing to do, it requires some critical thinking. It is very easy to be an end on a spectrum (The world is always bad or the world is always good) than it is to come up with a deep interaction between what’s worth keeping and what’s worth chucking.
So when we are searching for how to be in the world and not of the world, we should recognize that even the earliest Christians have been dealing with this problem. But the important thing is that they were dealing with this problem. They wrestled, and we should, too.