This Friday, the earliest known images of Christ, from the year 240, go on view in New York for the first time, and they aren’t where you might expect them to be. They are part of a remarkable exhibition at the relatively obscure N.Y.U. Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, a jewel-box of a museum on East 84th Street whose mission, according to exhibitions director Dr. Jennifer Chi, is “to break down preconceived notions of antiquity.”
“Edge of Empires: Pagans, Jews, and Christians at Roman Dura-Europos” does so with a vengeance, in presenting 77 objects from an excavation in Syria that fundamentally altered the understanding of art, culture and religion in the ancient world…
The paintings of Christ are part of a series of New Testament scenes that exhibition co-curator Dr. Peter De Staebler said are “the earliest dated Christian art in existence.” Narratives painted on the walls of Dura’s large synagogue, considered the best-preserved in the world, revealed a Jewish figural tradition that had been totally unknown—that had, in fact, been thought to be nonexistent. The rediscovery of these painted Bible stories—among them, Moses and the Burning Bush, the Sacrifice of Isaac and the Exodus from Egypt with the astounding representation of the hands of God (on display by photo and slideshow; the originals are in Damascus)—sparked a revolution in thinking about art and Jewish religious practice.
The finds at Dura also unexpectedly demonstrated that, far from being modern developments, religious coexistence and multiculturalism were thriving a couple of millennia ago on the outskirts of the Roman Empire.
The New Testament scenes were found in what is believed to be the oldest-known baptistery, which was part of a Christian “house-church” (a house that was used as a church). Dura’s house-church is considered the oldest such structure ever revealed. The Institute is showing three of the baptistery’s original wall paintings. From the city’s synagogue come 10 ceiling tiles, each elaborately painted with astrological signs, pine cones, fruit and faces; they’re being shown together for the first time. Then there are the various beliefs lumped together under the rubric “pagan,” and numerous structures were found in Dura dedicated to Greek, Roman and local gods. Some of the pagan imagery seen at the Institute is itself a blend of different pagan strains.
Not only did Christians, Jews and pagans worship side by side—the Temple of Aphrodite was located across the street from the synagogue—but the city was also inhabited by distinct populations of Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Persians. And they all apparently coexisted in harmony.
“That’s what’s so extraordinary,” said Dr. Chi. The discoveries to be made at this show are legion, but perhaps the most compelling is the fact that it presents objects of major religions and diverse populations that date from the same century and were excavated from the same site, indicating that all those groups apparently lived together peacefully.
Excavators even found a ring in the ruins, also now on display, engraved with the Greek word “omonoia,” meaning “harmony” or “concord.” The concept referred to agreements between individuals or political entities, and, according to Dr. Chi, it also referred to a melding of cultures. (Some scholars think it’s an engagement ring.) The art, artifacts and writings found at Dura spat in the eye of those establishment scholars who over the centuries assumed inherent hostility among religions and cultures.
And there was plenty else that caused people to sit up. The Christian narratives were created before the religion was state-authorized by the Roman Emperor Constantine—i.e., before the persecution of Christians was lifted—and before any institutional Church had even decided what the narrative components of the religion were. The Jewish narratives were created before rabbis reinterpreted, about a thousand years later, what “graven images” meant.
Founded by the Greeks, Dura prospered under the Romans until 256, when it was sacked by what more recently might be called Persian armies. Everything in the exhibit is from the Roman period…
The Christian wall paintings may seem crude, for example, especially when compared with some of the pagan imagery whose forms had been developed by artists over centuries. But consider the mere fact that miracles are being represented—one shows Jesus and Peter walking on water, another the Healing of the Paralytic—at a time when Christian iconography was scarcely in existence and gospel had not yet been separated from apocrypha. These paintings, part of a programmatic series of scenes about salvation, may be the earliest manifestation of the visual church…
Totally awesome! The exhibit should well be worth visiting.
The Archaeological Institute of American has a really good piece on Dura-Europos if you would like to know more on the place here.
Oh and by the way, the image above is not the earliest (so far) known image of Christ. That is a ceiling tile with a female face from the Synagogue in Dura-Europos. Rather, this is the oldest known image of Christ (healing the paralytic):