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History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325.
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§ 80. Allegorical Representations of Christ.


Pictures of Christ came into use slowly and gradually, as the conceptions concerning his personal appearance changed. The Evangelists very wisely keep profound silence on the subject, and no ideal which human genius may devise, can do justice to Him who was God manifest in the flesh.

In the ante-Nicene age the strange notion prevailed that our Saviour, in the state of his humiliation, was homely, according to a literal interpretation of the Messianic prophecy: "He hath no form nor comeliness."493493    Isa. 53:2, 3; 52:14; Comp. Ps. 22.93 This was the opinion of Justin Martyr,494494    Dial. c. Tryphone Judaeo c. 14 (εἰς τὴν πρώτην παρουσίαν τοῦ Χριστοῦ, ἐν ᾖ καὶ ἄτιμος καὶ ἀειδὴς καὶ θνητὸς φανήσεσθαι κεκηρυγμένος ἐστίν)c. 49 (παθητὸς καὶ ἄτιμος καὶ ἀειδής); 85, 88, 100, 110, 121.94 Tertullian,495495    Adv. Jud. c. 14: "ne aspectu quidem honestus," and then he quotes Isa. 53:2 sqq.; 8:14; Ps. 22. De carne Christi, c. 9: "nec humanae honestatis corpus fuit, nedum calestis claritatis."95 and even of the spiritualistic Alexandrian divines Clement,496496    Paedag. III. 1, p. 252; Strom. lib. II. c. 5, p. 440; III. c. 17, p. 559; VI. 17, p. 818 (ed. Potter).96 and Origen.497497    Contr. Cels. VI. c. 75, where Origen quotes from Celsus that Christ’s person did not differ from others in grandeur or beauty or strength, but was, as the Christians report, "little, ill favored and ignoble" (Τὸ σῶμα μικρὸν καὶ δυσειδὲς καὶ ἀγενὲς ἦ́ν). He admits the "ill-favored," but denies the "ignoble," and doubts the "little," of which there is no certain evidence. He then quotes the language of Isaiah 53, but adds the description of Ps. 45:3, 4 (Sept.), which represents the Messiah as a king arrayed in beauty. Celsus used this false tradition of the supposed uncomeliness of Jesus as an argument against his divinity, and an objection to the Christian religion.97 A true and healthy feeling leads rather to the opposite view; for Jesus certainly had not the physiognomy of a sinner, and the heavenly purity and harmony of his soul must in some way have shone, through the veil of his flesh, as it certainly did on the Mount of Transfiguration. Physical deformity is incompatible with the Old Testament idea of the priesthood, how much more with the idea of the Messiah.

Those fathers, however, had the state of humiliation alone in their eye. The exalted Redeemer they themselves viewed as clothed with unfading beauty and glory, which was to pass from Him, the Head, to his church also, in her perfect millennial state498498    Comp. Tertullian, Adv. Jud. c. 14 (Opera, ed. Oehler II. 740), where he quotes Dan. 7:13 sq., and Ps. 45:3, 4, for the heavenly beauty and glory of the exalted Saviour, and says: "Primo sordibus indutus est, id est carnis passibilis et mortalis indignitate ... dehinc spoliatus pristina sorde, exornatus podere, et mitra et cidari munda, id est secundi adventus; quoniam gloriam et honorent adeptus demonstrator." Justin Martyr makes the same distinction between the humility of the first and the glory of the second appearance. Dial.c.Tryph. Jud. c. 14 and c. 49, etc. So does Origen in the passage just quoted. We have here, therefore, not an essential opposition made between holiness and beauty, but only a temporary separation. Nor did the ante-Nicene fathers mean to deny that Christ, even in the days of his humiliation, had a spiritual beauty which captivated susceptible souls. Thus Clement of Alexandria distinguishes between two kinds of beauty, the outward beauty of the flesh, which soon fades away, and the beauty of the soul, which consists in moral excellence and is permanent. "That the Lord Himself," he says, "was uncomely in aspect, the Spirit testifies by Isaiah: ’And we saw Him, and he had no form nor comeliness; but his form was mean, inferior to men.’ Yet who was more admirable than the Lord? But it was not the beauty of the flesh visible to the eye, but the true beauty of both soul and body, which He exhibited, which in the former is beneficence; in the latter—that is, the flesh—immortality."499499    Paedag. lib. III.c. 1, which treats of true beauty. Compare also the last chapter in the second book, which is directed against the extravagant fondness of females for dress and jewels ornaments the true beauty of the soul, which "blossoms out in the flesh, exhibiting the amiable comeliness of self-control, whenever the character, like a beam of light, gleams in the form."99 Chrysostom went further: he understood Isaiah’s description to refer merely to the scenes of the passion, and took his idea of the personal appearance of Jesus from the forty-fifth Psalm, where he is represented as "fairer than the children of men." Jerome and Augustin had the same view, but there was at that time no authentic picture of Christ, and the imagination was left to its own imperfect attempts to set forth that human face divine which reflected the beauty of sinless holiness.

The first representations of Christ were purely allegorical. He appears now as a shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep,500500    John 10:11. Comp. above, p. 27600 or carries the lost sheep on his shoulders;501501    Luke 15:3-7; Comp. Isa. 40:11; Ez. 34:11-15; Ps. 23.01 as a lamb, who bears the sin of the world;502502    John 1:29; 1 Pet. 1:19; Rev. 5:12.02 more rarely as a ram, with reference to the substituted victim in the history of Abraham and Isaac;503503    Gen. 22:13.03 frequently as a fisher.504504    Christ calls the apostles "fishers of men," Matt. 4:19.04 Clement of Alexandria, in his hymn, calls Christ the "Fisher of men that are saved, who with his sweet life catches the pure fish out of the hostile flood in the sea of iniquity."

The most favorite symbol seems to have been that of the fish. It was the double symbol of the Redeemer and the redeemed. The corresponding Greek Ichthys is a pregnant anagram, containing the initials of the words: "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour."505505    ἾΧΘΨΣ =’Ἰ-ησοῦς Χ-ριστὸς Θ-εοῦ Υ-ἱὸς Σ-ωτήρ. Comp. Augustin, De Civit. Dei xviii. 23 (Jesus Christus Dei Filius Salvator), The acrostic in the Sibyline Books (lib. viii. vs. 217 sqq.) adds to this word σταυρός, the Schultza (Katak., p. 129), not satisfied with this explanation, goes back to Matt. 7:10, where fish (ἰχθύς) and serpent (ὄφις) are contrasted, and suggested a contrast between Christ and the devil (comp. Apoc. 12:14, 1. 2 Cor. 11:3) Rather artificial. Merz derives the symbol from ὄψον (hence ὀψάριονin John 21:9) in the sense of "fish, flesh." In Palestine fish was, next to bread, the principal food, and a savory accompaniment of bread. It figures prominently in the miraculous; feeding of the multitude (John 6:9, 11), and in the meal of the risen Saviour on the shares of the Lake of Tiberias (John 21:9, ὀψάριον καὶ ἄρτον). By an allegorical stretch, the fish might thus; become to the mind of the early church a symbol of Christ’s body, as the heavenly food which he gave for the salvation of men (John 6:51).05 In some pictures the mysterious fish is swimming in the water with a plate of bread and a cup of wine on his back, with evident allusion to the Lord’s Supper. At the same time the fish represented the soul caught in the net of the great Fisher of men and his servants, with reference to Matt. 4:19; comp. 13:47. Tertullian connects the symbol with the water of baptism, saying:506506    De Baptismo, c. 1.06 "We little fishes (pisciculi) are born by our Fish (secundum ἸΧθΥΣ nostrum), Jesus Christ in water, and can thrive only by continuing in the water;" that is if we are faithful to our baptismal covenant, and preserve the grace there received. The pious fancy made the fish a symbol of the whole mystery of the Christian salvation. The anagrammatic or hieroglyphic use of the Greek Ichthys and the Latin Piscis-Christus belonged to the Disciplina Arcani, and was a testimony of the ancient church to the faith in Christ’s person as the Son of God, and his work as the Saviour of the world. The origin of this symbol must be traced beyond the middle of the second century, perhaps to Alexandria, where there was a strong love for mystic symbolism, both among the orthodox and the Gnostic heretics.507507    So Pitra, De Pisce symbolico, in "Spicil. Solesm.," III. 524. Comp. Marriott, The Testimony of the Catacombs, p. 120 sqq.07 It is familiarly mentioned by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian, and is found on ancient remains in the Roman catacombs, marked on the grave-stones, rings, lamps, vases, and wall-pictures508508    The oldest Ichthys-monument known so far was discovered in 1865 in the CŒmeterium Domitillae, a hitherto inaccessible part of the Roman catacombs, and is traced by Cavalier De Rossi to the first century, by Becker to the first half of the second. It is in a wall picture, representing three persons with three loaves of bread and a fish. In other pictures we find fish, bread, and wine, with evident allusion to the miraculous feeding (Matt. 15:17), and the meals of the risen Saviour with his disciples (Luke, ch. 3; John, ch. 21). Paulinus calls Christ "panis ipse verus et aquae vivae piscis." See the interesting illustrators in Garrucci, Martigny, Kraus, and other archaeological works.08

The Ichthys-symbol went out of use before the middle of the fourth century, after which it is only found occasionally as a reminiscence of olden times.

Previous to the time of Constantine, we find no trace of an image of Christ, properly speaking, except among the Gnostic Carpocratians,509509    Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. I. 25. The Carpocratians asserted that even Pilate ordered a portrait of Christ to be made. Comp. Hippolytus, Philos, VII.c. 32; Epiphanius, Adv. Haer. XXVI. 6; Augustin, De Haer, c. 7.09 and in the case of the heathen emperor Alexander Severus, who adorned his domestic chapel, as a sort of syncretistic Pantheon, with representatives of all religions.510510    Apollonius, Orpheus, Abraham, and Christ. See Lampridius, Vita Alex Sev. c. 29.10 The above-mentioned idea of the uncomely personal appearance of Jesus, the entire silence of the Gospels about it, and the Old Testament prohibition of images, restrained the church from making either pictures or statues of Christ, until in the Nicene age a great change took place, though not without energetic and long-continued opposition. Eusebius gives us, from his own observation, the oldest report of a statue of Christ, which was said to have been erected by the woman with the issue of blood, together with her own statue, in memory of her cure, before her dwelling at Caesarea Philippi (Paneas).511511    H. E. VII. 18. Comp. Matt. 9:20. Probably that alleged statue of Christ was a monument of Hadrian, or some other emperor to whom the Phoenicians did obeisance, in the form of a kneeling woman. Similar representations are seen on coins, particularly from the age of Hadrian. Julian the Apostate destroyed the two statues, and substituted his own, which was riven by lightning (Sozom. V. 21).11 But the same historian, in a letter to the empress Constantia (the sister of Constantine and widow of Licinius), strongly protested against images of Christ, who had laid aside his earthly servant form, and whose heavenly glory transcends the conception and artistic skill of man.512512    A fragment of this letter is preserved in the acts of the iconoclastic Council of 754, and in the sixth act of the Second Council of Nicaea, 787. See Euseb. Opp. ed. Migne, II.col. 1545, and Harduin, Conc. IV. 406.12



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