If you're ever in Italy, visit a suburb of Rome and see the wonderful paintings of the early church. Stone steps lead deep underground into a maze of interconnected burial chambers. These are the Callistus catacombs, dug around A.D. 200, where the early Christians met together to hide from Roman persecution. On the walls and ceilings are painted biblical scenes of deliverance: Daniel in the lion's den, Jonah and the whale, the raising of Lazarus, Christ carrying a lamb on his shoulders.
But these early expressions of Christian art are limited to the underground seclusion of the catacombs. Scholars have always been puzzled as to why the early church produced lots of writing but seemingly little art or any other material artifacts--and those they did were underground.
In a new book author Paul Corby Finney, a University of Missouri historian and archaeologist, sheds new light on the art of the early church and how Christians used artistic expression to transform their culture.
In the book, entitled The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians and Art, Professor Finney takes issue with a common theory: that the early church was so spiritual--worshipping an invisible God and rejecting material wealth--that it was not interested in the earthly realm.
Finney shows that this was not the case. The reason Christians seemed to be culturally invisible was because they were a persecuted minority and literally had to stay out of sight. Their art was hidden in the catacombs.
Nonetheless, according to Finney, the early Christians found ways to creatively impact their surrounding culture.
For example, signet rings were widely used in Roman times as official signatures for documents. The rings were pressed into the hot wax which sealed a paper scroll. The problem was that the rings commonly sold in marketplaces typically had artistic representations of idols, homosexual lovers, and prostitutes--all of which are contrary to Christian belief and practice.
The early church father Clement of Alexandria instructed believers to purchase rings that reflected Christian virtues. That meant erotica was out. And since Christians are sober and peace-loving, said Clement, they should stay away from wine cups and weapons. Rather, they should choose seals depicting the ancient Christian symbol of the fish--or doves, ships, and other representations that could be given a Christian meaning.
Finney notes that as the church expanded, signet ring makers discovered less demand for erotica and a growing market for fish emblems. The cultural interaction on the part of Christians was reflected in the gradual transformation of pagan culture.
They were not seeking to create a separate culture. They were Christianizing the culture they had.
We too are living in an increasingly pagan culture much like ancient Rome. We can interact with our culture by being rigorously selective and applying Christian standards to our cultural consumption.
Like the early Christians we can use the power of the marketplace to influence our culture and function as salt and light.
Eventually the empire that persecuted them would decisively reject paganism and embrace Christianity.
The cultural transformation of art was something in which even the diminutive signet ring played a part.