The Impermanence of Archetypes

In today’s society we are exposed to countless religions, faiths, opinions and everything in between. Not-so-surprisingly, this is not much different than the early Christians in Rome (pre-Byzantine); in fact, the iconography and practices of the early Christians were very similar to their Jewish roots and their pagan neighbours. Many Christians closely identified themselves with certain Jewish practices and/or doctrines, so much so that the very definitions of early Christianity and Judaism are problematic. [1]

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 1.31.53 PMFragmentary gold glass disc from the Catacomb of San Marcellino e Pietro. Rome, ca. 4th Century CE

Exemplifying the iconographic transience between Christian and Jewish iconography is a gold glass fragment found in the Catacomb of San Marcellino e Pietro (these types of fragments are common to the loculi of tombs) [2]. The fragment appears to depict a flaming Menorah before a tomb or shrine, to the right of which are palm trees [3]. Images such as these are prevalent in the polytheistic societies of ancient Greece, Rome and the Near East; however, this is much more Jewish in iconography. The inscription, written in Greek, writes “House of Peace. Accept a blessing…with all yours.” [4] This is a common Christian formula; to add to the mix, the images of palm trees and Menorahs were acceptable images linked to the emergence of Christianity in its own right and as well, Temple and palm tree motifs are very prominent iconography in Jewish art and architecture (such as the Bar Kokhba coins and the engraved palm trees on the olive-wood doors to the Inner Sanctuary of the First Temple, cf. 1 Kgs 6:32). However, the central structure does not parallel the Temple façade as it is depicted in contemporary coins, which makes this fragment’s images to be inconsistent with typical Jewish motifs and iconography of the time. In that regard, the imagery does not follow archetypal imagery of the Temple, central to the Jewish faith. If so, we could be witnessing the formation of early Christian iconography, which focuses more on the spiritual afterlife, rather than remembering and celebrating the First Temple.

The palm tree represents the righteous man and it was the emblem of Judea after the Exodus. Sumerian tradition holds it to be the Tree of Life and the emblem of the Phoenician deity, Baal-Tamar, the Lord of the Palm, and of Astarte and the Assyro-Babylonian Ishtar. The flames may suggest the Maccabean revolt and would therefore be far more poignant for Jews than Christians. Furthermore, other glass objects have been uncovered that depict the saints themselves, leaving no question regarding whether or not these are Christian artefacts. In addition, the Menorah is a candle, which symbolizes the darkness of life and at death the it illuminates the darkness and represents the light in the world to come.

The imagery of palm trees was very vivid in the descriptions of the Temple of Solomon but also signify glory, triumph, and resurrection (very Christian themes). If the fragment belongs to a Christian, it would nicely bring together Christianity’s Jewish heritage while at the same time emphasizing the sovereignty of Christ as their saviour.

Interestingly, then, it appears that early Christians did not see their tradition as much different from that of their neighbours and likely continued to practice Jewish customs and held similar beliefs as the Jews, the only fundamental difference being that they saw their way to enter paradise (represented by the palm trees) in the afterlife was through Christ. Therefore, until at least the end of the Third Century CE there was either reluctance or no need for Christians to create a new iconography and differentiate themselves from contemporary Jews and pagans.

However, the question remains: did this glass fragment belong to a Jewish individual and not necessarily indicative of the fluidity of emerging Christian iconography? Even though the answer will likely remain unanswered it is intriguing and eye-opening to recognize how closely early Christians identified themselves with their neighbours and fellow non-Christians, at least iconographically. It appears, then, that certain archetypes of Jewish art (such as the Temple and palm trees) served the early Christians as a distinct visual language that presents the theology of their faith.

Citations

1. Mary Beard et al. Religions of Rome: A Sourcebook, vol. 2 (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1998),340.
2. Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai et al. The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions (Regensburg: Verlag Schnell & Steiner GmbH, 1999), 20: (loculi are tombs large and closed off with marble slabs or tiles aligned along walls and alternate with wide segments of tufa.
3. Jaś Elsner, “Archaeologies and Agendas: Reflections on Late Ancient Jewish Art and Early Christian Art,” Journal of Roman Studies 93 (2003): 114.
4. Ibid.

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