David Corbet

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts in Theological Studies (MATS)




Art is the avenue down which one moves to encounter the divine. It is the expression of a person's or groups spiritual experience. Through art the divine and the human meet. Within the framework of art, there are different means of expression. A symbol serves as a pointer, directing the audience towards the divine. Figurative expression depicts scenes from religious history, which carries meaning to the audience about their tradition and their history. Narrative expressions tell a story with significance to the religious community. Every religion has some type of artistic expression. This is how a religion demonstrates its own spiritual expression to the world around them, but more importantly, it is how they draw themselves towards the sense of the divine. Christianity has had a long history with art. At times, this has been a love/hate relationship based on the idolatrous use of icons. Christian art has always expressed something of the spiritual life of the church and the populace. It is the spiritual expression in art that interests me in this study, especially the relationship between early Christian art and the origins of Christian spirituality. Christianity of the third and fourth centuries had to distinguish itself from the greater culture in both thought and expression. It accomplished this by transforming themes from the social context as well as inventing new ones. Christian thinkers borrowed themes from pagan philosophy. Christian artists borrowed themes from GrecoRoman art. New themes were also established, which were specifically Christian, such as the Trinity in Christian thought and the creation of a Christian iconographic language or program in art. Although previously dismissed as heretical, pre-Constantine Christian converts expected art and it held significant symbolic value in expressing spiritual experiences. Previous scholarship has focused primarily on the literary sources and not the archaeological data providing skewed results towards an idea of an aniconic early Church. Previously it had been believed that the Church Fathers of the Pre-Constantine time were writing against the use of images in the Church. Yet, the eai·ly church made great use of images. Scholars up to the present have relegated all Christian artwork before the fourth century to heretical sects of Christianity. This assumption is being challenged by some of today's art historians. The original assumptions that ancient Christian art is heretical and was officially sanctioned later, rests on two assumptions. First, the Church before Constantine was pure and untainted by its social context, including the idolatrous use of icons. Second, the writings of the Church Fathers and a standard interpretation of them handed down from the iconoclast controversies. The purity of the ancient church is based on the idea that they maintained an aniconic tradition from the Jews. In addition, they desired to maintain a pure religion removed from the evil pagan society. It would seem that the Ante-Nicene Church Father's wrote strongly against the use of images based on their understanding of the second of the Ten Commandments. They also rooted some of their arguments in comparisons with the pagan worship of idols. These writings became the official position of the Church. However, the early Christian converts expected a certain amount of artwork to appear in the religious setting. In both the society in which they lived and the religious culture from which they converted, art was widely used. In addition, artwork had a symbolic value. It was very useful in expressing spiritual truths. A course of study needs to be laid out taking into account both the literary and archaeological evidence in light of the expectation of the use of images in a religious setting and their symbolic value. An examination of the concept of art and the forms of art is in order. An examination of the official position of the Church during this time is also in order. Then from these examinations conclusions about the use of icons as fo1ms of spiritual expression in the pre-Constantine church can be drawn out.

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Christianity Commons