by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Conversion of Rome

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 3 March 2001
Museo Ostienese, Ostia
Marble intarsia of bearded figure depicting Jesus or ancient philosopher,
late 4th century AD



Christianity began as a religion of words, not images. Christ's first followers were as deeply imbued as their fellow Jews with a suspicion of the graven images forbidden by Mosaic Law. But when the new faith spread westward, it found itself in a world teeming with figurative art, and one in which images were a central part of worship.

The environment Christianity encountered in the capital of the Roman Empire, and how Christians came to express themselves there in figurative terms, is the subject of 'Golden Rome: From Pagan to Christian City,' an exhibition of some 380 objects, some of great rarity, at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni (which continues until April 20). This extensive survey of all kinds of aspects of the city in the centuries during which it was gradually Christianized is not always easy to digest, nor well-planned in its presentation, but is thought-provoking nevertheless.

The earliest Christian symbols were familiar components in pagan art and of the utmost simplicity, but instilled with new meaning by the faith's converts. Accordingly, a bird represented the soul: if in a garden or a tree, a soul in paradise; if holding in its beak an olive branch, in peace; if a palm, triumphant in death. The peacock's flesh was popularly reputed to be immune to decay, so for Christians this bird came to stand for eternal life; the pagan image of the supplicant carrying the lamb to ritual slaughter became the Good Shepherd, and the lamb in general the emblem of Christ's sacrifice to save the world, and so on. That these signs were not exclusively Christian, but contained a secret language, made them ideal for a sect that became increasingly persecuted.

Pagan Rome was tolerant of new religions, as demonstrated by the vogue for Egyptian gods. Many pagans were also monotheists, interpreting the gods as in reality symbolic facets of a single, Supreme Being. What shocked even the most enlightened pagans was Christianity's claim to a monopoly of the truth. And what brought the wrath of the authorities down on the faith's adherents was their refusal to acknowledge the symbols of the state.

Very few Romans can have believed in the literal divinity of their emperors, but making obeisance to them, like pledging allegiance to a flag, was regarded as an essential means of holding together a vast, sprawling, multi-ethnic and multi-religious state.

Christian intransigence was rewarded with punishment and death - sometimes in the arena, the traditional stage where common criminals were publicly dispatched to set an example and provide mass entertainment. Roman governors and magistrates were baffled that Christians, even those of high birth, should court what they regarded as the most humiliating conceivable form of death. If they found existence in Rome intolerable, why did the Christians not follow the example of Cato, who committed suicide (a respectable Roman option) rather than endure tyranny?

But Christians relished the idea of 'bearing witness' before capacity crowds. And their amazing fortitude in the face of torture and extermination only served to win new converts to their cause.

Yet words and superhuman demonstrations of endurance were not in themselves sufficient for many Romans, who were accustomed to seeing images of the gods they worshipped. However, the elapse of time before Judaic resistance to figurative representation had been overcome meant that what Christ had actually looked like had become a matter of pure speculation

Two principal versions came into being: that of the beardless, Apollo-like divine youth, and the grave, long-haired, bearded sage, inspired by archetypal images of Greek philosophers. Consequently, it is still unclear, for example, whether the beardless third-century figure in the Tomb of the Julii (now beneath St. Peter's) is intended to be Christ or Sol Invictus, the sun god and focus of pagan monotheistic devotion; or conversely, whether the bearded, hirsute portrait that appears in the magnificent late fourth-century expanse of opus sectile, or marble inlay, excavated at Ostia, and displayed in the show, is Jesus or some venerable ancient philosopher.

Both the Vatican and Ostia figures' heads are encircled by halos - but this is indecisive since the nimbus was an attribute of power and divinity imported from the pagan East, and subsequently adopted by the Christians.

It was, of course, the Christ as bearded ascetic rather than as smooth-chinned beautiful boy that finally won the day. And after Constantine favored Christianity, Christ acquired the paraphernalia of a celestial Roman emperor, enthroned in majesty.

The absence of genuine contemporary portraits of Jesus and his disciples gave rise to various pious forgeries. St. Luke was credited with having painted the Virgin from life, and numerous icons were attributed to him. Also a number of miraculous images 'not made by human hands' appeared. One of the most famous of these was the Mandylion from Edessa, now Urfa in Turkey. First recorded as an icon around the sixth century, by the eighth century it had become a mandylion (from the Arabic for handkerchief), allegedly mysteriously imprinted with an image of the savior's face. A similar cloth, the Veronica, turned up in the West in the late 10th century, and later still the Shroud of Turin (the most puzzling survivor of these relics).

The development of these and other 'true' images from the sixth to the 16th century is the main theme of 'The Face of Christ,' a show of nearly 100 pieces organized by the Vatican Library, which runs until April 16 on the upper floor of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni. This is a useful adjunct to the Golden Rome exhibition in that it chronologically continues part of the story begun there, but the Vatican's show is frustratingly vague in distinguishing between fact and fiction.

Both shows, however, make evident the absolutely decisive role played by pagan art in the formation of the entire repertoire of early Christian imagery. For in the visual realm the new faith absorbed rather than replaced paganism. And the lingering awareness of this after Christianity had triumphed contributed to the mutilation and destruction of antique statuary and painting in the West and eighth to ninth century iconoclasm in the East.

But European fascination with the incredibly rich visual tapestry of the pagan past was never fully eradicated in the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance saw the wholesale revival of pagan imagery and its associated mythologies, and after an eclipse of many centuries Rome became architecturally and artistically one of the world's great cities once again.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023