Crux Vaticana, Reliquary Cross of Justin II
In the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, Princeton history professor Peter Brown eagerly extolls the Kimbell Museum’s current exhibition, Painting the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, calling it a tour de force for former Kimbell director Timothy Potts (subscription required to read the entire article).
For Brown, much of what is significant about the early (mostly Roman) art on display is the way it captures how Christians came to agree that this is how Jesus looked, this is how the Apostles came to embody Christian principles. As a result, Brown says, the show’s catalog presents —
the best short introduction we have to a fascinating theme: How did the Christians of a long-distant age come to clothe their distinctive religious insights … with the solid texture of an ‘Early Christian visuality’?… To put the conclusion bluntly: somehow, by the year 550 or so, Christians could say not only that Christianity was true. They could also say that it looked true.
Brown also detects in many of the images a fearful expression of the “middling classes” who made up the crowd of early converts (“wholesale grocers, transporters of grain … government clerks”) — they express a need for protection and deliverance from danger in their frequent use of such stories as Daniel in the Lion’s Den or Susanna saved from false testimony: “Those who possessed these images (and the Jews who did the same) did not see them, as we might see them, as merely ‘picturing’ the Bible. Rather, these images ‘applied’ the Bible.”
And he has some fascinating things to say about: the Roman circus games (they became expressions of loyalty to a Christian emperor), Constantine’s use of the cross as a mysterious good luck charm to be carried at the head of his army, what happened to those “middling classes” when the barbarians came and how it affected the fate of Christianity itself.