Mike Aquilina

The Artful Blogger

Tuesday May 09th 2006, 5:27 am

I can tell by the clicks that visitors to the site love early Christian art as much as I do. If that’s true of you, I hope you’ve had the pleasure to read Understanding Early Christian Art, by Robin Margaret Jensen. It’s, by far, the best survey I’ve found for the subject. Early Christian art is a difficult field, because the samples are scant and difficult to interpret. There’s a wide range of hypotheses about what the art means, who produced it, and even when it was produced. And that’s just the sort of situation that can make academics go a little loopy. But Jensen is a judicious scholar. She considers all the major interpretations (and even some flaky ones), and she takes what is valuable from each. But she always comes round to sound and reasonable conclusions. For example, many critical scholars in the twentieth century insisted that patristic texts must not be used in the interpretation of artworks — texts are from Venus, as it were, but images are from Mars. One prominent advocate of that interpretive principle goes so far as to say that symbols in catacomb art mean exactly the opposite of what the same symbols mean in the preaching and letters of Saints Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement, and Irenaeus!

Jensen gives that argument a fair hearing, but ultimately rejects it: “in the end, interpretation cannot be done without reference to the community and to the many ways its central values are expressed, including texts, rituals, and artifacts.” This frees her to provide ample historical setting for each artwork, and it also enables her to draw richly from the Church Fathers. Her theological analyses — of the sacramental setting and content of the artworks, of the risk of idolatry, and of the spirituality of praying with images — are profound and generally orthodox in their conclusions (though here, too, she gives some consideration to the arguments of ancient heretics and modern flakes). She writes with clarity, charity, and grace. (I do wish her publisher’s proofreaders worked with equal skill.)

In a more recent book, Face to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity, Jensen tracks the Church’s devotional art through the age of the Fathers, from representations that are mostly narrative or symbolic to icons that approach portraiture. The book provides a historically sound, theologically sensitive analysis of the way the Church, in its approach to art, confronted the implications of doctrines such as the incarnation and the Trinity, as well as Old Testament prohibitions against idols. Jensen gives us sympathetic readings of the entire range of ancient opinions. A well-documented work of scholarship in both art history and theology, Face to Face is also an accessible and even enjoyable tour for interested lay readers.