From Rome to Mount Sinai in Egypt, early Christian iconography is surprisingly diverse
None of the four Gospels describes Jesus in detail. However, the Christian tradition has nevertheless represented him using different iconographic models. From the beardless and youthful “Alexandrine Christ,” based on classic Greek proportions and canons normally applied to sculpture, to the long-haired and bearded “Syrian Christ” following the Byzantine Empire’s custom, Christendom has always recognized in the image not only a liturgical, cultural related element but also an effective evangelization tool in a world where reading and writing are not widespread skills.
Here, we wanted to share with you just three of the earliest images in the Christian tradition, which bear witness to different latitudes and traditions.
1. Alexamenos graffiti, or the “blaspheme graffiti”: This might be the oldest image in the world related to Jesus and Christianity. However, this is not a liturgical or devotional image at all, but an engraving on a plaster wall in Rome, mocking both Christ and Christians. In it, a donkey-headed, crucified human figure is depicted being worshiped by a person, next to the inscription “Alexamenos worshiping his god.” Since crucifixion was the punishment reserved for the worst criminals (up until the fourth century, when Constantine abolished it), the donkey head aims to make the image even more offensive. The value of this image lies in the fact that it proves the presence of Christians in Rome as far back as in the first century: that’s how old this graffiti is!
2. The Good Shepherd
The image of Christ as the Good Shepherd is rooted in the Gospels. But even before the Christian era, a classic motif of Greek sculpture was the moskophoros, or “the bearer of the calf. The original sculpture of the moskophoros, considered a masterpiece of Archaic Greek sculpture, has been dated back to the year 570 BC, and was sculpted by an anonymous artist in Attica. The Romans adopted this familiar figure from the ancient world’s iconographic repertoire, decorating their villas with pastoral scenes of shepherds and their flocks. These images were easily adapted to represent Christ, the Good Shepherd who gives his life for his sheep. The image shown here can be seen in the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, on the Appian Way outside Rome.
3. The Pantocrator
Literally, the Greek word Pantocrator translates to “he who has authority over everything.” It is understood as the Greek translation of two Hebrew expressions used to address God in the Old Testament, the “God of Hosts” (Sabaot) and, more commonly, the “Almighty” (El Shaddai), as found in the Septuagint Bible, the first translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. The image we include is that of the oldest Pantocrator icon in the world, painted on a wooden board around the sixth or seventh century. Christ makes the traditional teacher’s gesture with his right hand and holds the Book of the Gospels in his left. This icon is still preserved in the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai in Egypt, one the oldest active monasteries on Earth.