Religious art that wasn’t supposed to exist

An ivory carving of Christ, c 800, reflecting earlier Roman models

Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of church history at Oxford University, thinks that the Second Commandment has always posed a problem for Christians and Jews. “This commandment has often been ignored, not just in Christian art, but also in Jewish art,” he says.

We were discussing the upcoming exhibition Imagining the Divine: Art and the Rise of World Religions, which will display examples of the breaking of the Second Commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5).

The exhibition, which explores the imagery and art of the first millennium of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, does not avoid controversy. When it opens at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum on October 19 it will show the iconography and the visual identity of these faiths. Indeed, images, symbols and objects will challenge some commonly held views, especially regarding the contradictions between the Second Commandment and religious expression. One myth is that Jewish culture was then aniconic, that is, without religious imagery.

Professor MacCulloch uses as an example the Jewish artworks from the walls of the 3rd-century synagogue in Dura Europos (now in Syria). Like other places in the Roman Empire, Dura Europos hosted both a Jewish and a Christian community.

The Dura Europos synagogue proves that Jews were sometimes not averse to ignoring the Second Commandment. Vivid scenes from the books of Genesis, Exodus, Samuel, Kings, Esther and Ezekiel decorated its walls. One is of Aaron wearing a brown cloak standing in a sacred enclosure, surrounded by five men who had brought a goat and two cow-like animals to him for ritual sacrifice. The forefront is dominated by a seven-branched menorah, already then a Jewish symbol. ISIS has looted and destroyed Dura Europos, but fortunately all these images are in the Damascus National Museum.

The Dura Europos Jewish murals cannot be dismissed as an exception to the general respect given to the commandment in the 1st millennium. In Palestine alone, archaeologists have found more than 100 synagogues and other buildings with “figural mosaics”. A large graphic from the mosaic floor of the Hamat Tiberias synagogue in Israel depicts a figurative personification of the sun. There is, though, ambiguity in the Old Testament about images. God told Moses that the Ark of the Covenant should include golden statues of Cherubim. (Exodus 20:4-5).

Third-century Christian murals have also been found in a house which had been turned into a church in Dura Europos. One is of a beardless Christ healing a paralytic man. However, Christian symbols and figurative representations, including the Cross, mostly developed later after Emperor Constantine’s recognition of Christianity in 313. Curators Jas Elsner and Stefanie Lenk explain in the catalogue introduction that Christ’s image was “influenced by a combination of Eastern and Greco-Roman styles … Its visual presence, parallel to and in competition with the many religions of the Roman Empire, was in part a response to the Roman pagan arts of its environment.”

As Christianity became established, pagan stories and myth scenes on 4th-century sarcophagi were substituted with narratives from the Old and New Testament, such as Christ’s entry into Jerusalem or the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.

The heritage of Rome resulted not only in a prolific output of images, but also possibly in the appearance of Jesus Christ in art which altered over the centuries. As the curators say: “In the late Roman world, where male gods were numerous and frequent – Christ had to possess some distinctive qualities.” This is seen in one of the earliest surviving images of the Crucifixion, part of the Passion cycle carved on ivory plaques. It depicts Jesus carrying the Cross, then hanging naked from it, wearing only a loincloth. As in Dura Europos, he is beardless, but in Rome he displays muscular legs and chest.

Stefanie Lenk told me: “The exhibition’s main purpose is [to show] the development of religious imagery during the foundation of these religions. What we specifically try to look at are influences, encounters, interactions and differentiation between the faiths.”

Although examples of the intolerance and competition between religions, such as iconoclasm, are given, the emphasis is on the positive connections and how symbols, images, mosaics and sculpture became allied to the practice of religion.

There is not space to cover the art of the five religions in the exhibition, but it is interesting to note how aniconism was not confined to the Abrahamic religions. It is also evident in early Buddhism – there was no image of Buddha until the 1st century. Prior to that, he was represented by symbols such as a footprint, a bodhi tree or a wheel.

Sadly, this fascinating and erudite exhibition will only be open for four months.

Imagining the Divine: Art and the Rise of World Religions will run at the Ashmolean, Oxford, from October 19 to February 18