The Roman garrison town of Dura-Europos in what is today Syria was deserted around 257 AD. In the 1920s archaeologists uncovered what is believed to be the oldest known Christian church. This ‘house church’ has a baptistery and a mural of the Good Shepherd making it the oldest known form of Christian art. It is clear that even in the third century Christians employed figurative art in devotion.
In the early church the material world was important —just as the body was important for Christians. The ultimate Christian hope is, according to scripture and the creeds, is a bodily resurrection in a world brought to perfection, not simply floating about in a disembodied spiritual realm. It was the early Gnostic heretics, who devalued the physical world and claimed that good spirits needed to escape wicked bodies. Orthodox Christians on the other hand proclaimed the healing of the body which has been wounded by sin and death, and thus the firm belief in the resurrection.
The early monastic rules, such as those written by John Cassian and St. Benedict, instruct the monks to pray at specific times during the day. The idea was to correspond a scriptural event with each of these moments during the day. For instance, at 9 a.m. the monks were to reflect on the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Likewise, three o’clock in the afternoon was the moment of Christ’s death on the cross, so that time was given over to an active remembrance of Christ’s death on the cross.
Sometime in the 380s, a woman named Egeria, who has come down to us as Egeria the Traveler, visited Jerusalem. We believe that she was probably a nun from Spain, but we aren’t 100% on that. While in Jerusalem she made a ‘travel log’, and in this travel diary she recorded marvelous devotions at biblical sites.
While the Christians of Rome built shrines to the Christian martyrs, the Christians in Jerusalem built shrines to the sacred spots recorded in the Bible. For instance, there was a great shrine we know about even in the fourth century for the Cave of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Christians wanted to insert themselves into the biblical narrative. They wanted to see all the places connected with Jesus’ life - but not just to see them like a tourist would, but they wanted to PRAY AT THOSE PLACES. Egeria the Traveler in her diary recorded vibrant images of Christian devotional life at locations throughout Jerusalem.
The Second Council of Nicaea — which was held in 787 — affirmed the place of art in Christian devotion. The Second Council of Nicaea distinguished between adoration given to God and veneration of saints, holy places, and holy things. Following the lead of the Second Council of Nicaea, the eastern churches developed a robust spirituality tied to icons. When one stared into the eyes of an icon, the notion was that one was staring through them into the eyes of the saint — or Christ. Conversely, the saint or Christ himself stared back, and into you.
We might love ‘art’ today, and cherish its ability to help us meditate. But for the medieval Christian, painted tears on the face of the Virgin could be very, very real in the flickering candlelight. And it is not that hard to fall into the sin of idolatry. We cannot simply say that art serves as a teaching tool, when Christians have always used art to help in devotion. So perhaps the challenge for faithful Christians is to never forget the distinction found in the early centuries of our faith between adoring God on one hand and veneration of images on the other.
Please join us on Wednesday, October 19, when our speaker will be Fr. Rusty Richard, pastor of St. Martin de Tours Church in St. Martinville. Everyone is welcome!
Gathering begins at 11 a.m.; lunch is served at 11:30 a.m. for the cost of $10 per person. The presentation will begin at 12 noon.
Deacon Jerry Bourg is the Regional Assistant in the South Region. Please contact him for more information on Monthly Manna at 337-923-4591.