Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, edited by Jeffrey Spier, Yale University Press £40 It used to be supposed that the distinct lack of Christian art during the Church's first two centuries could be put down to the iconophobia inherited from the Jewish tradition. Cowering under the strictures of the Second Commandment — "you shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" — Christians were reluctant to indulge in any variety of pictorial representation. During the early part of the 20th century, however, the discovery of richly decorated Jewish synagogues (the building at Dura Europos in Syria pre-eminently) shattered this theory. Other reasons had to be found to explain why, as Jeffrey Spier puts it, "no churches, decorated tombs, nor indeed Christian works of art of any kind datable before the third century are known". The consensus that emerges from these pages — and it seems like a credible one — is that Christians did not produce art becauce they lacked the economic wherewithal and, since they were suffering from repeated blasts of persecution, it made good sense to avoid flamboyant artistic displays of devotion.
Then, of course, everything changed: from the third century Christians began to accrue more wealth and property and, at the dawn of the fourth century, Constantine granted Christians toleration and imperial approval. At this point, Christian art quite literally came out into the light, and crude paintings on the walls of catacombs gave way to bustling workshops in Rome, Milan, Ravenna and Constantinople. The book does a fine job of charting this extraordinary artistic flowering. We see how wide the range of Christian artistic endeavour could be — from reliquaries to silver ewers, from coins to mosaics — and there are valiant efforts to trace how certain symbols and images moved in and out of fashion. Perhaps surprisingly, Jonah was a phenomenally popular motif: with the exception of the image of the Good Shepherd, he appears 10 times more frequently than any other single figure.
The contributors also stress that early Christian art was chiefly valued for its functionality — as a devotional tool, as a means of asserting identity and, post-Constan tine, as a statement of political authority — rather than for any inherent aesthetic value it possessed. Perhaps its most important purpose, however, was theological, and several chapters trace the ways in which shifting doctrinal debates and assumptions were reflected in artistic production. As controversy raged about the nature of Christ during the fourth and fifth centuries, for instance, carefully chosen imagery could be deployed to hammer home the orthodox case for Christ's dual nature, both fully human and fully divine.
Perhaps as a result of its collaborative nature, the book does suffer from much too much repetition — the same scholarly ground is covered and recovered by different authors and some of this could have been eliminated by a sharper editorial pencil. That aside, the book represents an informative, handsomely illustrated and cogently argued exploration of the earliest Christian art.