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christian art
by collette mcfarland 
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Sunday, March 23, 2008


There truly is nothing new under the sun. I went from exhibit to exhibit at the “Picturing the Bible, the Earliest Christian Art” presentation at the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, totally enchanted. A collection of art from the early church history, starting around the third century when Christianity was sanctioned by Constantine and was allowed to come out of hiding, filled room after room guarded by gallery attendants. The visitors to the museum all walked about reverently viewing the display cases and listening to audio presentations. It was as solemn as a church service.

The early Christians had the same emotions and desires we have in the twenty first century! Things really don’t change as far as humans go. They wanted to bury their dead in style. I thought our coffins could be unrealistically elaborate, but….these sarcophaguses would have been beyond my budget even by the standards of the third century. Marble with detailed carvings of bible scenes depicting salvation. Noah and the ark, Jonah and the serpent, Moses leading his people through the red sea, Jesus raising the dead, Jesus rising from the dead, all images of rebirth, salvation and hope. These were obviously paid for by society‘s elite. We place our 12,000 dollar plus boxes in the ground, while these sarcophagus were placed in catacombs where they could be admired occasionally, at the next burial. Where the dioramas could lead someone else to a life changing decision. I wonder how many artisans came to Christ as they researched their subject matter while etching for long hours bible stories into the marble.
And our mausoleums…nothing compared to the artwork on these frescos in the catacombs. Done by hand they told story after story from the old and new testaments. They were modern day devotionals. Testaments of the faith.

And the statures they used for funerary art, spectacular, intricate in detail. Jonah and the Good Shepherd were popular themes. The statures could also have set on end tables in some family’s house to remind them of the bible and its truths, just like we decorate our homes with crosses and angels. They had lamps to burn oil in, made of silver or clay, shaped like ships with Peter and Paul in them, or the ark with Noah and the animals, similar to our novelty lamps. Ornately engraved silver platters like you can find at any modern day department store to add festive touches to dining. Goblets with Christian symbols for church. Crosses? Oh they had some fantastic crosses. One reliquary gold cross with forty or so semi precious jewels that once held a splinter from the cross of Jesus was specially cared for in a temperature controlled display case. I’m no big believer of things that once belonged to the dead having any miraculous significance but I do know God had the Israelites set up stones in the red sea and alters along the way for memorials, so little reminders of our loved ones go a long way.

Two of the saddest tombstones I saw were of a 22 year old wife and a six year old child (not related). Even back then, especially back then, death hit early and hard. Even back then some parents cried: Why me? Why my son? Why so young? And a husband went to bed alone one night, saddened by loss but proud he was able to provide a marble headstone for his loved one who he knew he’d see again some day.

One question that came to mind though as I walked past sarcophagus after sarcophagus, was …where are the inhabitants. Some one paid dearly for their cherished one to be properly interred and now, the sarcophagus is empty and where are the remains? I see the possessions of deceased people, but no people. How long after death does grave robbing turn into an archeological excursion? If I spent tons to bury someone, I’d want them to stay buried. If I paid for a luxury coffin, I wouldn’t want it to be used freely for show without my permission, something that would be hard to acquire millennia after I die.

Other Items that interested me included the reliquary boxes, made of sheet silver with elaborately embossed scenes from the bible. A reliquary box held the remains of martyrs, or pieces of cloth that might have come in contact with the apostles, or even actual pieces of the apostles. Some reliquaries were buried under churches named in honor of it’s contents. How different are we today? We bury prestigious people in the National Cathedral where the public has access to pay eternal respects. Why? They’re dead. There is nothing special about their bodies. No special dispensation will fall on us for touching their remains. We carry hair snippets of our kids, place cremated remains of dad and mom on our mantels, and get personal belongings of loved ones to hold on too.

The early Christians even wore jewelry just like you and I do. Rings with saints and bible characters. The third and fourth century James Avery’s were kept busy with a growing market. Jewelry made of gold, and silver. Nothing has changed. These were real people who were born, lived, loved, married, had their own children, worked, bathed, dressed up, dined, worshiped and died. They craved the same things we do. Food, prestige, adornment, illumination for their homes, freedom to worship, and a place to be buried where they could find their bodies again at the resurrection.

Yes, I disapprove of grave digging, of intruding into the personal lives of the deceased, but nothing has changed. I’m just as much a voyeur as the next person. Count me in the long line of hypocrites because I do recommend this display of our early church family’s lives as worth paying to see.

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