Early Christian Iconography Analysis

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As a fledging religion, Christianity had to face the challenge of legitimizing itself in the face of well-established pagan religions. This was especially true in regards to its imagery, which had to contend with the enormous body of pagan images that were already in existence. Instead of attempting the impossible task of creating entirely new iconography, early Christians drew on the pagan images that had come before, images that the people of their time would have been familiar with, and changed them to suit their new religion. From their icons and depictions of Christ to the architecture they used, the early Christians were able to use the preexisting symbolism found in pagan iconography to convey the nuances of their own religion. The…show more content…
The Fayum funerary portraits were predecessors to icons in their medium. Both use either tempera or the encaustic painting technique (Cite). Likewise their functions were quite similar. Funerary portraiture was used as a way to memorialize the deceased, the viewer was supposed to recall the life of who was being depicted, while a Christian icon’s purpose was for the viewer to remember the saint and more importantly the deeds which made them a saint (Cite). It is clear to see why early Christians would have turned to this type of funerary portraiture as they began making icons. Of course, the differences between the two firmly seat icons as a new and inherently Christian style. In general Fayum portraits tend toward realism while those represented in icons have more exaggerated features which give them a similarity lacking in the funerary images. This is partially explained by the fact that as funerary images meant to be placed on mummies, the Fayum portraits were intended to look like the deceased. On the other hand icons were meant to evoke a particular saint or other religious figure so that the image could impart the best qualities of its subject onto the viewer. In this case there is less concern for a realistic depiction than an image that can be recognized as a particular throughout a wide area and over the…show more content…
As a new deity, it was imperative that images of Christ adequately conveyed the extent of his abilities to both newly converted Christians and to persuade the pagans who had yet to believe in his supremacy (Cite?). To accomplish this, early Christians would have used preexisting symbols like emperors and pagan gods to achieve this. The sheer bulk of pagan iconography allowed the Christians to depict Christ in the many guises that express different facets of his divinity. If the artist wanted to highlight Christ’s role as a healer, they would draw from representations of Asclepius, however if they wanted to emphasize his authority, images of emperors would have been more appropriate inspiration (Cite). It is important to note, however, that these images of Christ weren’t viewed to the exclusion of pagan iconography. In fact, early Christians used the typical viewer’s familiarity with depictions of pagan deities to create a discourse between the two religions, which was intended to portray Christ as the superior deity. They achieved this by making by making subtle changes to the iconography. For example this fresco of Asclepios and the depiction of Christ on a sarcophagus both show scenes of deities healing the faithful but that does not mean that the two images are identical. While Asclepios holds his staff, which is his typical attribute, Christ is
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