Author: Lee M. Jefferson
Bibliographic info: 176 pp.
Publisher: Fortress Press, 2014.
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With thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy!
Despite the plethora of images available of Jesus of Nazareth, no one obviously knows what he really looked like. Yet thanks to popular artists such as Rembrandt and Da Vinci, the typical image of Christ in Western culture is that of a willowy somber-faced man with long dark hair and a tidy beard. This is not how Jesus was depicted in the earliest extant images. In the earliest depictions of Christ, the emphasis was not in the fine details of how he looked, but was instead focused upon who Jesus was to Christians. In fact, in the earliest depictions of Christ (found in the catacombs), aspects of pagan art were Christianized, thus Christ appears in the guise of pagan deities such as Helios, Orpheus, Jupiter, Dionysius, and Asclepius. Or as the author puts it: “This art was syncretistic, utilizing images, symbols, and themes from the Roman world to create a visual language.”
A peculiarity in regards to depictions of Christ in early Christian art was the complete lack of importance of his suffering and death, with the emphasis instead being on Christ as miracle worker (e.g. Christ healing the paralytic, the bleeding woman, and the blind). In this book, Lee Jefferson explores the early images of Christ in Late Antiquity which utilize this motif of miracle worker.
Jefferson states that the image of Christ as a miracle worker was “ubiquitous in Late Antiquity, especially in the fourth century, and dissipated after the fifth century, nearly disappearing altogether.” According to Jefferson, this prevalence of Christ being depicted as a miracle worker was to promote the supremacy of Christ over the pagan deities; “Jesus is the miracle worker par excellence, superior to any rival deity.” Not only does Christ as miracle worker stand out in early Christian art just due to the number of artworks consisting of this theme, but details in these paintings also make them quite conspicuous. For instance, in many of them Christ is performing the miracle or healing while brandishing something that looks like a magician’s wand (there is, in fact, an entire chapter on this element).
After the introductory chapter, Jefferson provides a look at the reception of healings, miracles, and magic in non-Christian sources, followed by healings and miracles in early Christian writings. After this background information, the author looks at early Christian images of Christ healing people, raising the dead, and the nature miracles he performed (such as walking on water). Then there is a whole chapter devoted to the imagery of miracle-working Jesus wielding a wand-like instrument (which Jefferson sees as having a specific connection to the staff of Moses).
Something I found to be interesting was how Jefferson showed that in the century after Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, there was actually an increase in the prevalence of art portraying Christ as a miracle worker. This runs counter to the common perception that the legitimization of Christianity by Constantine was instantly reflected in Christian art by emphasizing the almighty status of Christ as ruler of all creation (mirroring the imperial cult and status of the Roman Emperor). This is not to say that Constantine’s underwriting of the Christian faith did not alter the image of Christ in art, because it did. For instance, the presentation of Christ as shepherd underwent a decrease in post-Constantinian art (probably due to the church no longer being in need of a shepherd so much as a sovereign ruler). Eventually, images of Christ as miracle worker did begin to wane, with one reason being that a focus on miracles and healings was shifted over to the relics of the saints.
All in all, Jefferson ably shows how a consideration of how early Christian art can provide a window through which we can see how early Christians understood Christ, particularly how they were able to fruitfully utilize the pagan religions for theological, devotional, and missional purposes. Also, his thesis undercuts the common notion that Christian art post-Constantine was solely influenced by the imperial cult.