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Borrowing from the Neighbors
Posted By Sarah Yeomans On September 14, 2014 @ 1:31 pm In The Ancient Near Eastern World | 14 Comments
This article was originally published in August 2012. It has been updated.—Ed.
The earliest known Christian art can be found in the catacombs of Rome. This nascent and largely populist religion was viewed with varying degrees of hostility by the Roman authorities in the first few centuries after Jesus’ death, ranging from disdainful tolerance to outright persecution. Not surprisingly, early Christians were discreet in their worship , and their art was executed quite literally underground. With the issuance of Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan, which effectively legalized Christianity, Christian art became much more overt and widespread.And yet, although the dogma and belief systems were in many ways markedly different from pagan religion, many of the images early Christians generated were quite similar to those that adorned the walls and floors of buildings belonging to their pagan neighbors. Thus the pagan image of Endymion sleeping under the watchful eye of the goddess Selene became the prototype of Jonah asleep beneath the vine (Jonah 4). Likewise, the scenes of jovial dinners (symposia) that were often depicted in Greek funerary contexts (and later in Roman ones, with a slightly less exuberant tone) became models for the Christian funerary images of the rewards of heaven.* 
This is not so strange; as emerging underdogs in a nation with a long and well-established artistic tradition, those same artisans and craftsman who were now creating art in a Christian context naturally turned to images and styles that were familiar to them. Thus the early images of Christ portray a young, beardless man who bears a strong resemblance to the god Apollo of the Greco-Roman world. This is not to say that Christians necessarily confused the two, but rather that they chose an image of a pre-established deity with noble associations to portray their own idea of the sacred.
The mythological figure of Orpheus, who enchanted all of nature with his poetry and music, is another example of a pagan artistic type that was used in both early Christian as well as Jewish iconography. For the early Jews, the association of music and poetry with Orpheus likely led to the same image being used to represent King David, who famously sang his praises to God. Indeed, instances of David depicted with Orpheus imagery are well and firmly documented.† 
Equally well documented are images of Christ as Orpheus, particularly in the catacombs of Rome. One of the most famous aspects of the Orpheus myth from antiquity is the story of Orpheus’s determined descent into Hades to rescue his love Eurydice, who had been snatched from him by an untimely death. While he was ultimately not successful in recovering Eurydice, he himself emerged from the underworld alive. This particular aspect of the myth resonated with early Christians, who saw this as an allegorical reference to Christ’s descent into and return from the fiery depths of hell. Orpheus thus became a symbol of victory over death, and a symbol of eternal life.
The custom of borrowing images from the pagan world to represent the sacred ideal did not die out in antiquity. Renaissance art by very definition looked back toward the watershed achievements of ancient artists and recreated them in a Christian context. Pagan figures such as Orpheus, Apollo and Hercules were often firmly placed within a Christian context by the Renaissance period. One of the most notable examples is Michelangelo’s use of the noble face of the Apollo Belvedere as the face of Christ in the Last Judgment. Already in the Vatican collection at the time Michelangelo was painting his masterpiece, the artist likely had constant access to the statue that was one of the sources of his inspiration.
‡ See Jas Elner, “Double Identity: Orpheus as David. Orpheus as Christ? ” BAR, March/April 2009.
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URL to article: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-near-eastern-world/borrowing-from-the-neighbors/
URLs in this post:
 early Christians were discreet in their worship: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/archaeology-today/biblical-archaeology-topics/the-archaeological-quest-for-the-earliest-christians/
 The First Christmas: The Story of Jesus’ Birth in History and Tradition: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/free-ebooks/the-first-christmas-the-story-of-jesus-birth-in-history-and-tradition/
In a Christian funerary context, the image of Christ as Helios is commonly interpreted as being representative of the resurrection. In early Jewish depictions, it has been hypothesized that the image of Helios, or simply the sun as in the case of the mosaic at Sepphoris, represents God’s omnipotence.**: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/wp-content/uploads/the-sun-god-in-the-synagogue-2.jpg
 ***: #foot03
 †: #foot04
 ‡: #foot05
 “Double Identity: Orpheus as David. Orpheus as Christ?”: http://members.bib-arch.org/publication.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=35&Issue=2&ArticleID=8
 *: #foot01r
 Dining in Heaven,: http://members.bib-arch.org/publication.asp?PubID=BSBR&Volume=14&Issue=5&ArticleID=17
 **: #foot02r
 The Sepphoris Synagogue Mosaic,: http://members.bib-arch.org/publication.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=26&Issue=5&ArticleID=8
 ***: #foot03r
 Helios in the Synagogue,: http://members.bib-arch.org/publication.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=27&Issue=2&ArticleID=7
 †: #foot04r
 King David’s Head from Gaza Synagogue Restored,: http://members.bib-arch.org/publication.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=20&Issue=2&ArticleID=5
 ‡: #foot05r
 Part 2: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/archaeology-today/biblical-archaeology-topics/the-archaeological-quest-for-the-earliest-christians-2/
 Jewish Worship, Pagan Symbols: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-israel/jewish-worship-pagan-symbols/
 A Feast for the Senses … and the Soul: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-israel/a-feast-for-the-senses-and-the-soul/
 First Person: Art as Bible Interpretation: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/first-person-art-as-bible-interpretation/
 Lovers’ Tale: A Closer Look at Daphnis and Chloe in the Garden of Eden: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/bible-interpretation/lovers-tale/
 The Split of Early Christianity and Judaism: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/post-biblical-period/the-split-of-early-christianity-and-judaism/
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