Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 12, 2008
Jeffrey Spier Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art Exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with Kimbell Art Museum, 2007. 328 pp.; 251 color ills.; 52 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300116830)
Exhibition schedule: Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, November 18, 2007–March 30, 2008
Reliquary Cross of Justin II, the Crux Vaticana, Constantinople (568–74). Gilded silver over a bronze core, with inlaid gems. Treasury of Saint Peter’s (Capitolo di San Pietro in Vaticano), Vatican City.

Guest-curator Jeffrey Spier’s Picturing the Bible at the Kimbell Art Museum is the first major exhibition of early Christian art in the United States since the Metropolitan Museum’s The Age of Spirituality in 1977. Where that was a vast installation, responding to the panoramic sweep of what had then only barely begun to be called Late Antiquity, Picturing the Bible is compact and select, focused specifically upon the modes of Christian visual expression and asking much of each object displayed. It is an exhibition of exceptional visual and intellectual elegance. Its governing insight, conveyed in its title, is most fully explicated in its early sections, and it is here that the exhibition is at its best. It opens with a selection of the photographs taken by Carlo Tabanelli between 1897 and 1903 of catacomb images over-painted in color, beginning with the theme of Jonah. Tabanelli’s photographs were made for Josef Wilpert’s magisterial Roma sotterranea: Le pitture delle catacombe romane (Rome: Desclée, Lefebvre, 1903), the first comprehensive publication of the paintings in the Roman catacombs. The imagery of Jonah has been explored exhaustively as a story, an illustrated funerary prayer, or an appropriation of classical iconography (see, above all, Eduard Stommel, “Zum Problem der frühchristlichen Jonasdarstellungen,” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 1 (1958): 112–15; and William D. Wixom, “Early Christian Sculptures in Cleveland,” Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 45 (1967): 75–88). It emerges here as a picture of a way of reading. It exemplifies the capacity of the familiar early Christian vignettes to trigger multiple, associative meanings: typological, sacramental, symbolic, eschatological. Such vignettes, the exhibition argues, presuppose a distinctive way of reading biblical texts. Prompted by Christians’ need to see the teaching of Jesus and his apostles as the fulfillment of Hebrew Scripture, it was a method of reading that layered biblical themes and episodes, linking them so that meanings ricocheted from one to the other, binding them together and amplifying their significance. The visual images exemplified by the catacomb paintings literally “picture” the Bible as early Christians read it. As such, they endowed the image with a distinctive function that shaped its future in Christian expression. It was a way not so much of picturing the word, as of picturing the way reading opened the word to associative and allegorical amplification.

The brightly painted photographs offer an inspired introduction to the exhibition. They invite viewers to enter their implied spatial environments; at the same time, they are exactly comparable in their small scale to the objects that follow, calibrating the eye to their diminutive size and shimmering surfaces. Gold glass is especially beautifully represented among these objects. They show that the catacombs’ repertoire of multivalent little picture-readings was pervasive not just in death but throughout early Christian life. They serve, too, to define the volatility of the early Christian “Bible,” for they include themes that have long since fallen from the canon. Jewish coins, seals, and catacomb images are juxtaposed with Christian ones, showing the former’s similarly epitomic form but their less allegorically layered meaning-structure. Luxury objects with Christian images from far-flung sites demonstrate the wide geographical range of the imagery known from the catacombs. Genuinely symbolic forms—fishes, anchors, and nomina sacra—are gathered toward the end of this section, giving priority in Christian imagination to the images that picture the Bible texts. Most memorable of all the objects in this section may be the finger rings, for they show that “picturing the Bible” was integral not only to worldly but to personal life. What Mary Charles-Murray in her catalogue essay calls the “autobiographical” dimension of early Christian art (60), embracing the individual in the imagery, emerges most strikingly in a bezel engraved, in the genitive, “Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ,” identifying its wearer as “of Jesus Christ” (cat. no. 16). The objects define a distinctively Christian way both of reading the Bible and of picturing that reading, and they claim it for the full geography of Christendom, for Christians in life as well as death.

This first section of the exhibition demands, and receives from its visitors, vivid, concentrated attention. It is followed by an imposing phalanx of sarcophagi, their imagery dense with contrasts. Both the beloved Jonah sarcophagus from the Vatican and an astonishing newcomer—a huge red sandstone sarcophagus from Trier depicting Noah’s ark (cat. no. 40)—retain the familiar, schematic vignettes, but do so in narrative styles so emphatically different from each other that one can only wonder what we must have missed by neglecting to integrate Trier into the story of early Christian art. In the other sarcophagi the character of the imagery shifts, and the empire makes its entry. The rich, ricocheting reciprocity of meaning seen hitherto within the Bible itself now opens to elements from the political and ritual matrix of contemporary Rome. A new chapter in Christian imagery begins, no longer strictly “picturing the Bible,” but using the Bible pictures to picture Christianity’s place in its world.

The complicated relationship of imperial imagery and Christian art, correlated perhaps too categorically in Johannes Deckers’s catalogue essay, is more subtly explored in the exhibition itself through the theme of Pilate, and above all though a room dedicated to the rewriting—or really, re-picturing—of the lives of Paul and especially of Peter to give them the same layered, typological, sacramental, and eschatological meanings found in the stories of the Bible. Paralleling the lives of the apostle princes with those of the biblical prophets and binding those lives to the city of Rome, Christian imagery embedded the economy of salvation in the history of Rome. The exhibition returns once again to small objects here, mostly of bronze and silver; but its labels emphasize that the images, especially the Traditio Legis, were conceived for monumental art. Constantinian Christianity produced art of truly prodigious monumentality. Its immensity is indicated by a wall-sized enlargement of Giovanni Paolo Panini’s painting of the nave of San Paolo fuori le mura. The vast nave of the enlargement faces a suspension in the exhibition, as the small metal objects shrink to the edges of the room. In some sense an effective solution to a magnitude that beggars museum space, this installation struggles nonetheless in the face of what was in fact a stentorian achievement, for the Bible was pictured in San Paolo on a scale that literally rivaled the triumphal art of Rome.

The wedding of Christianity and empire in the imagery of the apostle princes opens the way to the climax of the exhibition, which is studded with objects of extraordinary artistic, intellectual, and historical weight. The Carrand (cat. no. 78) and Andrews Diptychs (cat. no. 52), the silver reliquary box from Milan (cat. no. 77), the Crucifixion ivories (cat. no. 57) and a Crucifixion amulet (cat. no. 55) from the British Museum, the Sinope (cat. no. 81) and Rabbula (cat. no. 82) Gospels, fragments of the Cotton Genesis (cat. no. 80), two of the David Plates (cat. no. 84), the Milan book covers (cat. no. 76), a fine small ivory from the Vatican of Christ healing the blind man (cat. no. 51)—a recurrent theme of both early Christianity and the exhibition itself—are gathered in two rooms. To be in their presence is pure privilege. The labels present the Carrand Diptych, the book covers, and the reliquary box as “visual sermons.” The elegance with which they orchestrate their messages is indeed magisterial, demanding that—greedy as one is to feast upon their sterling and precious substance—one nonetheless reads the exegetical labels first. The obligation of association and allegory that had been placed upon the Christian image from its very beginning is realized in these works with a richness that looks both into the layered texts of the Bible itself and from these layers into the contemporary world. Yet a dimension of magnitude still eludes the display. Early Christian art was not rich in its allegory alone. It opened its texts to a play of affect as powerful as that of content. Neither gold nor color was negligible in the art of early imperial Christianity. The “autobiographical dimension” was exploited with extraordinary force, engulfing the viewer in light and also in hue of saturated intensity. Visual rhetoric was as highly colored as the verbal in this era of sermons by men known as “Chrysostom” and “Chrysologus.”

Color emerges here in the manuscripts, above all in the bifolium from the Sinope Gospels where the word glints in gold on pages quite literally made of flesh the hue of what Caroline Bynum would call “wonderful blood” (Caroline Walker Bynum, Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).The amulet with the Crucifix amid magic signs, too, is made of bloodstone. It might have been possible to set the manuscripts into a space of their own, where viewers could concentrate on the very special demands—discussed so well in the catalogue by Herbert Kessler—of the image in the book itself, as well as on the exceptional intensity of both gold and color that explodes in the manuscript pages. The amulet might also have been a place to bring out the visceral appeal of blood and gold, and the way it pulled at the boundaries of faith and magic, doctrine and belief. As it is, color blazes out with abrupt, aggressive impact only in the very last space of the exhibition. This is devoted to the cross of Justin II (cat. no. 83). Here gold, color, relics, emperors—all the things that a Protestant might regard as excess—gleam with dazzling force.

It is not richness that one misses in the rooms before this last one, for silver and ivory are both materially superb, and the exhibition has assembled objects of the most distilled eloquence. But the coloristic reticence of silver and ivory, so tempting for an exhibition of the word, tones the word to the era of print. Thus it strips some of the distinctively early Christian color from what is presented so compellingly as “picturing the Bible.”

Annemarie Weyl Carr
University Distinguished Professor of Art History, Southern Methodist University

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