The Invisible God

The Invisible God : The Earliest Christians on Art

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This is a study of early Christian (first three centuries C. E.) attitudes toward art. The traditional view is that the early Christians produced no art because they were opposed in principle to visual images. When Christian art finally does appear, it has been considered a popular development and a decline from earlier, more austere spiritual values. Corby Finney here refutes these traditional understandings, through a close examination of the archaeological and literary evidence in its cultural and social context. He finds that it was primarily the Christian belief in the invisibility of God that inhibited the production of images, rather than opposition to images as such. A contributory factor, he believes was the relative invisibility of the Christians themselves within Roman society. Christina art "came out" chiefly when the Christian acquired a legal status and the capacity to own property and to build (and hence to decorate) places of worship. Before this, says Finney, very little differentiated the Christians from society at large, and certainly not outward signs. When they did use decorated material objects (seals and lamps) they drew on symbols already in use.
Offering an important corrective to prevailing views about early Christianity, this study will be of great importance not only to scholars and students of Christian theology and history, but to art historians as well.
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Product details

  • Hardback | 348 pages
  • 162.1 x 237.7 x 27.2mm | 734.83g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • New
  • numerous halftones and line figures
  • 0195082524
  • 9780195082524

Review quote

Some of the author's best discussions are those to be found within the general framework. He is an authority on early Christian lamps ... Likewise on the vexed question of the San Sebastiano site and its development there is a clear and helpful discussion. The learning displayed throughout is immense, and the organization of such a vast amount of material is achieved without sacrificing the clarity of structure which makes the book easy to read. It integrates the
results of recent work in an impressive manner, mostly in the form of notes ... an interesting and informative book. * Mary Charles Murray, Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 48, No. 1 Apr '97 * a monograph which is scholarly to an extreme, not only mastering all the primary texts but also surveying with exemplary elegance the conclusions and discussions of more than a hundred years of scholarship in German, French, English and Italian. Indeed, Finney is at his best when unpicking the unwarranted assumptions made by the historiography of the field. * John Elsner, University of London, Ecclesiastical History, Volume 46, No. 4 - Oct 1995 * Well-documented scholarly monograph. * Religious Studies Review *
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Back cover copy

This study challenges a popular shibboleth, namely that Christianity came into the world as an essentially iconophobic form of religiosity, one that was opposed on principle to the use of visual images in religious contexts. It is argued here that this view misrepresents the evidence as we have it (consisting of both literary and archaeological fragments) - furthermore this misrepresentation is conscious and deliberate, designed to serve the interests of modern (and not so modern) confessional points of view. The picture presented here is of a religious minority, pre-Constantinian Christians, wrestling at the moment of their birth with questions of self-identity and seeking to submit themselves and their beliefs to open and public scrutiny. Only gradually over the course of the second century did Christians manage to formulate a definition of themselves as a distinct and separate religious culture. They began to draw visible boundaries and commenced the complicated process of endowing their communities with the marks of ethnic and cultural distinction. One of the key elements in this long and rather drawn-out process was the community control and acquisition of real property. This gave the new religionists a mechanism for separating themselves from their non-Christian friends and enemies. It also provided Christians an opportunity to experiment with their own self-definition as a materially defined religious culture. The earliest of their forays into material self-definition seem to have come around A.D. 200 in the form of painting and perhaps pottery - relief sculpture came later at the mid-third century, and Christian buildings first began to take shape under the Tetrarchy. As arguedhere, the well-known and much-discussed absence of Christian art before A.D. 200 is not to be explained as the consequence of anti-image ideology, but instead should be viewed as the necessary correlate of a religious minority which had not yet attained the status of a materially defined religious culture. This study will interest scholars and students in all the historical fields that relate to the study of early Christianity. These include biblical exegesis, archeology, and art history, along with the study of the literary and documentary sources that support the discipline of early church history. Classicists and ancient historians will also find much of interest here.
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11 ratings
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