The Dawn of Christian Art in Panel Paintings and Icons

by Thomas F Mathews with Norman E Muller, Getty, £32.50

Thomas Mathews, assisted here by Norman Muller, is not bashful when it comes to challenging scholarly assumptions. We’re often told that religious icons came to dominate Christian art only during the 6th and 7th centuries. Mathews points to textual evidence (in the works of Irenaeus and the non-canonical Acts of John) that seems to push the story back by a good 400 or 500 years.

We’re also usually informed that innovation was key when Christian art began to flourish. Mathews readily concedes that “Christians wanted to think that their art departed radically from the mores they had rejected,” but when pondering the specifics of artistic practice he frowns upon any “doctrinaire segregation of pagan from Christian”. Rather, Mathews discerns a “smooth continuity” between the forms and techniques of classical panel painting and the Christian icon tradition. Moreover, the traces of this syncretic inheritance lasted, on Mathews’s account, all the way through to the Renaissance.

Compelling suggestions, to be sure, though the tough part, as Mathews admits, is establishing demonstrable links. Fragility meant that wooden panel paintings from ancient Greece had little chance of survival, but the tradition moved on to Roman Egypt and Mathews deploys 59 images, most of which have received scant academic attention, as a rich source of comparison with the Christian icons that emerged over the following millennium.

On the face of things, the trajectories of influence are striking. Common methods and strategies included the size of images, pigments used and methods of application and framing. Crucially, Mathews argues for a shared visual language: stances, gestures and even “the subtleties of gaze”.

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