Mike Aquilina

Picture This

Saturday December 15th 2007, 8:16 pm

You’re probably looking for a drop-dead-gorgeous last-minute gift to buy the early-Church-history nerds in your life. This is just the thing: Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art. It’s a big, coffee-table volume with photographs of hundreds of beautiful artworks and essays by the top scholars in the field.

Picturing the Bible is actually the companion volume to an exhibit by the same name, currently showing at Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. And what an exhibit! The only comparable collection of important paleochristian art I’ve seen is the permanent collection in the Vatican Museums — and many of the Vatican’s best pieces are in this exhibit at the Kimbell. I’m not exaggerating. If I had the cash, I’d be on a plane yesterday to see, up close and in one place, so many items that are the standard illustrations in the history texts — alongside several stunning (so-called) “magical gems” that rarely venture forth from the museums they call home. National Review posted something on the exhibit, and so did Touchstone.

But, whether or not you can fly to Fort Worth, do buy the book. The price is right. Here’s a partial table of contents:

1. The Earliest Christian Art: From Personal Salvation to Imperial Power (Jeffrey Spier)
2. Jewish Art and Biblical Exegesis in the Greco-Roman World (Steven Fine)
3. The Emergence of Christian Art (Mary Charles-Murray)
4. Early Christian Images and Exegesis (Robin M. Jensen)
5. Constantine the Great and Early Christian Art (Johannes G. Deckers)
6. Bright Gardens of Paradise (Herbert L. Kessler)
7. The Word Made Flesh in Early Decorated Bibles (Herbert L. Kessler)

The authors know the material, and they know how to present it afresh. Even if you’ve amassed a respectable library on early-Christian art (as I have), I can almost guarantee you’ll see in these pages several pieces you’ve never seen before. And all the contributors draw from deep knowledge of Christian theology, so there’s none of the bonehead speculation you sometimes find in books of art history by clueless secularists. Some readers will disagree strongly with the suggestion that the Constantinian “peace of the Church” brought about an essential change in Christian religion. The idea arises in at least a couple of these essays. But it’s never obnoxious. These scholars are respectful of their subject — the artistic product and the devotion of its practitioners.

Picturing the Bible belongs under your tree, either for you or for someone you love.

For other last-minute gift suggestions, see here.