Incarnation pervades Christian art

The Christian understanding of the Incarnation pervades Christian art, far more in the early centuries than in the modern era. In the representation of God-made-Man in narratives or icons, the real, historical event of Jesus Christ is called to mind. Jesus Christ is God the Father’s artistic masterpiece, the perfect icon or image of Himself, and the model or exemplar for the creation of man, as Aquinas reminds us. Henceforth, when the Christian makes art, he imitates God himself.

This translates into architecture as well. Although the early Christian church can initially appear as no more than a derivative of the Greco-Roman basilica, Christians deliberately infused the building with elements that contrast pagan worship spaces, accentuating specific facets of the design to proclaim the unique nature of the Christian message. At first glance, the Roman cathedral of St. John Lateran, the first legally-built Christian church in the world, looks much like the Basilica Giulia in the Forum with its double row of columns and high clerestory windows, but several modifications decisively altered its character and made it a distinctively Christian building.

The exterior of the original church was coated in simple brick, anathema to Roman architects who adorned the exteriors of their religious structures with costly imported marbles. The Christians, however, saved the precious veneer of imported yellow marbles for the interior, situating them alongside golden candelabras and silver altars. The contrast would underscore the teaching of God-made-man, sturdy and humble on the exterior but glorious within. Size also distinguished the early Christian churches. While pagan temples were designed for worship sub divos in the open air, and other cults made small, dark and exclusive spaces, the Christians built for size and luminosity. “Obscurity and invisibility are not goals for Christians,” points out historian Paul Corby Finney. A basilica design could be expanded as far as capacity required, and the high windows flooded the space with light. Add to this the axiality demanded by the Christians with the apse in the west and the façade toward the east, and the resulting edifice evoked Christ’s own words: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Architecture holds a privileged position in the Christian world, as worship spaces bring the people of God together on a common journey. In spite of the aforementioned implications of the Incarnation, painting and sculpture, however, would have to struggle to grow in a climate suspicious of imagery. In the “eyes of Christians,” writes Marcel Laurent, “art had become an accomplice to idolatry,” and, as a result, “warrens of errors and habitations of demons.” Art in the Christian tradition would be challenged over the centuries, from its inception to the iconoclast movement to the Reformation, and arguably even in the modern age. Yet the first and last line of defense in the Christian tradition, from St. John Damascene to the 25th session of the Council of Trent, was the proclamation of the Incarnation as the fount from which all Christian art springs. – from “In Defense of Christian Art”