Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art

Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art

November 18, 2007 to March 30, 2008

The Kimbell Art Museum presented Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, a landmark exhibition of the earliest works of art illustrating the Old and New Testaments, from November 18, 2007, to March 30, 2008. Developed and organized by the Kimbell (its exclusive venue), and guest-curated by Dr. Jeffrey Spier of the University of Arizona, this highly important exhibition drew upon recent research and new discoveries to tell the story of how the earliest Christians first gave visual expression to their religious beliefs.

A spectacular display of many of the greatest treasures of early Christianity from around the world, Picturing the Bible included major loans from the Vatican, the Bargello and the Laurentian Library in Florence, the British Museum, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and a number of other international institutions. A landmark event both for scholarship on the Early Christian era and for the broader appreciation of this crucial period in world history, this exhibition was the first major review of third- to sixth-century Christian art since The Age of Spirituality at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1977. There have been many important advances in scholarship since then, as well as a considerable number of new archaeological discoveries, all of which this exhibition fully reassessed.

Commented Timothy Potts, director of the Kimbell Art Museum: “The origins of Christianity have been a very active area of research in recent years from a variety of perspectives—historical, theological, and artistic. But there has never been an exhibition that brings this new evidence together, allowing visitors to see in the works of art themselves how and why a distinctively Christian visual artistic culture emerged. In Picturing the Bible we see how the early Christians drew upon pagan and Old Testament motifs to express their new faith; we witness the interplay between the earliest artistic representations of biblical themes and the doctrinal debates among early Church Fathers over the correct interpretation of scripture; and in the process come face to face with many of the finest and most treasured images that have survived from the tumultuous centuries when Christianity emerged from persecution to become the state religion of the Roman Empire. Assembling so many of the most important masterpieces of early Christian art has been a major challenge—especially the fragile early Bibles, ivories, and gold glass—and presents a spectacle of early Christian life that is unlikely to be repeated in our lifetime.”

No Christian images are known to date before the beginning of the third century A.D., and it seems unlikely that the small Christian community created distinctive works of art illustrating or expressing their beliefs before that date. By the early third century, however, Christians had begun to borrow Old Testament motifs that were regarded as having special Christian significance, such as images of Abraham and Isaac, Jonah, and Daniel, as well as symbolic images, including the Good Shepherd and the fish, the latter an allusion to Jesus (ichthys, “fish” in Greek, being an acrostic for “Jesus Christ, son of God, savior”). Although very rare in the third century, pictorial scenes from the life of Jesus were evidently being developed, and by the fourth century, extensive illustrations of the New Testament were being created in a variety of media, including catacomb paintings, mosaics, sarcophagi, ivories, and no doubt Bibles, although none survives till the following century. By the sixth century, many of these early, innovative images had been replaced by conventional depictions of the life and miracles of Jesus.

Picturing the Bible brought together a wide range of material in an attempt to help clarify the questions of how Christians in the Greco-Roman period illustrated their religious beliefs, including frescoes, marble sculpture and sarcophagi, silver vessels and reliquaries, carved ivories, engraved gold glass, bronze sculpture, seals in semiprecious stones, illustrated Bibles, and decorated crosses.

Among the highly important treasures in the exhibition were several that have never or rarely been lent before, such as the spectacular, gem-encrusted gold cross presented by the emperor Justin II to Pope John III in the late sixth century, on loan from the Treasury of Saint Peter’s in Vatican City. This cross functioned as a reliquary, containing a piece of the True Cross. Another important reliquary came from the Museo Diocesano of Milan. An extremely rare silver reliquary, the “Capsella” of San Nazaro was discovered in 1578, when Saint Carlo Borromeo, the archbishop of Milan, ordered the exploration of the area beneath the high altar of the church of San Nazaro (the fourth-century Basilica Apostolorum). One of the largest silver reliquaries of the Early Christian period, this box from San Nazaro combines sacred Christian imagery from the Old and New Testaments with imperial iconography. The Roman chiton and short, fringed hair worn by Christ while teaching, and the scene of the enthroned Virgin holding the Christ Child, recall the classicizing tradition of the imperial court.

Also crafted in silver are two plates depicting scenes from the life of David, which were on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Part of a series of nine plates, these fine silver objects were discovered in a hoard in Cyprus in 1902. Decorated in relief, the Byzantine fashion of the figures and the five official stamps on the underside of each plate, applied to only the highest quality Byzantine silver, reveal the plates’ origins and date them securely to the reign of Emperor Heraclius (r. 610–41). Most likely they were intended as imperial gifts.

Carved sculpture, both in stone and in ivory, also formed an integral part of the exhibition. From the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence was the ivory diptych of Adam Naming the Animals and the Miracles of St. Paul, one of the masterpieces of their collection. Imposing sarcophagi with scenes of the life and ministry of Christ as well as depictions of Daniel, Jonah, and other figures of both the Old and New Testaments on loan from the Vatican Museums, Trier, Arles, and Algeria were also part of the exhibition.

Illustrated manuscripts were among the rarest and most treasured objects in the exhibition. Only a handful of illustrated Bibles from the sixth century have survived, and an unprecedented three of these were included in the exhibition. The Rabbula Gospels, on loan from the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, were inscribed by a monk named Rabbula in a Syrian monastery, who in 586 A.D. recorded the moment when he had finished the manuscript. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France lent an illustrated folio—only five of which are extant—from the fragmentary Greek Sinope Gospels, the entire text of which is written in gold on purple-dyed vellum. On loan from the British Library were several fragments of the Cotton Genesis, a Greek manuscript probably produced in Egypt. Although the manuscript was tragically reduced to fragments in 1731 during a fire in the Cotton Library, several fragments survived.

Picturing the Bible was organized by the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. It was supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Promotional support was provided by American Airlines, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and WFAA-TV (Channel 8).                                                  

An honorary international scientific community, made up of scholars, clergy, and museum officials, was assembled to consult on Picturing the Bible, including: Sir John Boardman, Emeritus Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology, Oxford University; Professor Francesco Buranelli, Director General of the Vatican Museums, Vatican City; Professor Johannes G. Deckers, Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich; Professor Robin Margaret Jensen, Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Nashville; Professor Herbert L. Kessler, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore; Mr. Neil MacGregor, Director, The British Museum, London; Dr. Timothy Potts, Director, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth; Professor Gemma Sena Chiesa, Università degli Studi, Milan; and the Most Reverend Kevin W. Vann, Roman Catholic Bishop of Fort Worth.

The exhibition catalogue, published in association with Yale University Press, New Haven and London, was written by guest curator Jeffrey Spier and features essays by Herbert Kessler, Robin Jensen, Steven Fine, Johannes Deckers, and Sister Mary Charles-Murray.

A special two-day symposium featuring distinguished scholars from Europe and America discussed various aspects of the function of Christian art, including its use in the format of Christian self-identity. This symposium was made possible by a generous grant from the Leon Levy Foundation.

Caption: Ivory Plaque with the Passion of Christ ("Maskell Ivory"), detail, Rome, c. 420–30. The Trustees of the British Museum, Department of Prehistory and Europe, London. From the collection of the liturgical scholar William Maskell (1814–1890). © The Trustees of the British Museum, London