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§ 111. Images of Madonna and Saints.
Besides the images of Christ, representations were also made of prominent characters in sacred history, especially of the blessed Virgin with the Child, of the wise men of the east, as three kings worshipping before the manger,12201220 Into the representation of the child Jesus in the manger the ox and ass were almost always brought, with reference to Is. i. 3: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.” of the four Evangelists, the twelve Apostles, particularly Peter and Paul,12211221 Usually Christ in the middle, and the leading apostles on either side. Augustine, De consensu Evangelist. i. 16: “Christus simul cum Petro et Paulo in pictis parietibus.” of many martyrs and saints of the times of persecution, and honored bishops and monks of a later day.12221222 Especially the pillar-saint, Symeon. The Antiochians had the picture of their deceased bishop Meletius on their seal rings, bowls, cups, and on the walls of their apartments. Comp. Chrysostom, Homil. in Miletium.
According to a tradition of the eighth century or later, the Evangelist Luke painted not only Christ, but Mary also, and the two leading apostles. Still later legends ascribe to him even seven Madonnas, several of which, it is pretended, still exist; one, for example, in the Borghese chapel in the church of Maria Maggiore at Rome. The Madonnas early betray the effort to represent the Virgin as the ideal of female beauty, purity, and loveliness, and as resembling her divine Son.12231223 The earliest pictures of the Madonna with the child are found in the Roman catacombs, and are traced in part by the Cavaliere de Rossi (Imagini Scelte, 1863) to the third and second centuries. Peter is usually represented with a round head, crisped hair and beard; Paul, with a long face, bald crown, and pointed beard; both, frequently, carrying rolls in their hands, or the first the cross and the keys (of the kingdom of heaven), the second, the sword (of the word and the Spirit).
Such representations of Christ, of the saints, and of biblical events, are found in the catacombs and other places of burial, on sarcophagi and tombstones, in private houses, on cups and seal rings, and (in spite of the prohibition of the council of Elvira in 305)12241224 Conc. Eliberin. or Illiberitin. can. 36: “Placuit picturas in ecclesia esse non debere, ne quod colitur aut adoratur, in parietibus depingatur.” This prohibition seems to have been confined, however, to pictures of Christ Himself; else we must suppose that martyrs and saints are accounted objects of cultus and adoratio. on the walls of churches, especially behind the altar.
Manuscripts of the Bible also, liturgical books, private houses, and even the vestments of officials in the large cities of the Byzantine empire were ornamented with biblical pictures. Bishop Asterius of Amasea in Pontus, in the second half of the fourth century, protested against the wearing of these “God-pleasing garments,”12251225 Ἱμαν́τια κεχαρισμένα τῷ Θεῷ.. and advised that it were better with the proceeds of them to honor the living images of God, and support the poor; instead of wearing the palsied on the clothes, to visit the sick; and instead of carrying with one the image of the sinful woman kneeling and embracing the feet of Jesus, rather to lament one’s own sins with tears of contrition.
The custom of prostration12261226 Προσκύνησις. before the picture, in token of reverence for the saint represented by it, first appears in the Greek church in the sixth century. And then, that the unintelligent people should in many cases confound the image with the object represented, attribute to the outward, material thing a magical power of miracles, and connect with the image sundry superstitious notions—must be expected. Even Augustine laments that among the rude Christian masses there are many image-worshippers,12271227 De moribus ecclesiae cath. i. 75: “Novi multos esse picturarum adulatores.” The Manichaeans charged the entire catholic church with image-worship. but counts such in the great number of those nominal Christians, to whom the essence of the Gospel is unknown.
As works of art, these primitive Christian paintings and sculptures are, in general, of very little value; of much less value than the church edifices. They are rather earnest and elevated, than beautiful and harmonious. For they proceeded originally not from taste, but from practical want, and, at least in the Greek empire, were produced chiefly by monks. It perfectly befitted the spirit of Christianity, to begin with earnestness and sublimity, rather than, as heathenism, with sensuous beauty. Hence also its repugnance to the nude, and its modest draping of voluptuous forms; only hands, feet, and face were allowed to appear.
The Christian taste, it is well known, afterwards changed, and, on the principle that to the pure all things are pure, it represented even Christ on the cross, and the holy Child at His mother’s breast or in His mothers arms, without covering.
Furthermore, in the time of Constantine the ancient classical painting and sculpture had grievously degenerated; and even in their best days they reached no adequate expression of the Christian principle.
In this view, the loss of so many of those old works of art, which, as the sheer apparatus of idolatry, were unsparingly destroyed by the iconoclastic storms of the succeeding period, is not much to be regretted. It was in. the later middle ages, when church architecture had already reached its height, that Christian art succeeded in unfolding an unprecedented bloom of painting and sculpture, and in far surpassing, on the field of painting at least, the masterpieces of the ancient Greeks. Sculpture, which can present man only in his finite limitation, without the flush of life or the beaming eye, like a shadowy form from the realm of the dead, probably attained among the ancient Greeks the summit of perfection, above which even Canova and Thorwaldsen do not rise. But painting, which can represent man in his organic connection with the world about him, and, to a certain degree, in his unlimited depth of soul and spirit, as expressed in the countenance and the eye, has waited for the influence of the Christian principle to fulfil its perfect mission, and in the Christs of Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Beato Angelico, Correggio, and Albrecht Dürer, and the Madonnas of Raphael, has furnished the noblest works which thus far adorn the history of the art.
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