Author: Robin Margaret Jensen
Bibliographic info: xii + 234 pp.
Publisher: Routledge, 2000.
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With thanks to Routledge for the review copy!
The author, Robin Margaret Jensen, is Associate Professor of the History of Christianity at Andover Newton Theological School.
It wasn’t until early last year that I came to appreciate art. I was one of those people who never really got art. However, I did a bit of study in the history of biblical interpretation through art and was instantly hooked. One aspect of this field I came to appreciate was how art served many purposes in churches: decorative, liturgical, didactic, iconic, symbolic, and so forth.
This small volume aims to further our understanding of the art of the early Christian era. There are sixty-six black and white images in the book, with most coming from sarcophagi and catacombs. The author provides a valuable analysis of the images that helps in comprehending the context and theology of early Christian art, for as Jensen says, early Christian art was “a highly sophisticated, literate, and even eloquent mode of theological expression.”
The first chapter is the standard introductory chapter. In the second chapter, Jensen discusses early non-narrative Christian art, such as in how Christ was depicted in the guise of pagan deities (e.g. the lamb-bearer, Orpheus, Helios) or other forms (the fish, which is either a reference to the “living waters” that Christ provides or to the IXTHYS acrostic – “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”). In the third chapter, Jensen turns to art that depicts biblical narratives (predominantly scenes from the Old Testament). The fourth chapter discusses portraits of Christ as the incarnate God. The fifth chapter discusses the depictions of Christ crucified, which, strangely enough, came onto the scene later in Christian art. The sixth and final chapter discusses art that depicts resurrection typologies (e.g. Ezekiel’s dry bones).
Overall, I would say that Jensen’s viewpoint on the art she discusses is more theological than historical-contextual or stylistic. An aspect I would have liked to see in her analysis is the putting together of a whole piece of art, rather than just discussing each element on its own. For example, Jensen discusses the depictions of Christ as Orpheus and the image of Lazarus that occur in the same catacomb room, yet they were not discussed in terms of how they occur together and what this could signify.
All in all, this book will be a helpful read for anyone interested in early Christianity or art history. Jensen has made this an accessible study, so it doesn’t matter even if you have no background in art.