Idols and Empire: Preludes to Philosophy of Art in Early Christianity
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Prior to the eruption of the Iconoclastic Controversy in the eighth century, complex traditions of artistic practices and theories had begun to emerge in Christian communities throughout the Roman world. As a minority religious group, Christians initially appropriated and often subverted Roman artistic styles and motifs to negotiate their identity within a polytheistic cultural context. Simultaneously, Christian apologists attacked polytheistic artistic practices as a way of showing the propriety of Christian religious practices. Contemporary scholarship often takes it as a given that Christian artistic practices and theory were at odds with each other from the time that Christians first began producing artworks. However, a careful consideration of the material and documentary evidence from the second century through the fourth century shows a greater harmony between Christian artistic practice and theory than is often assumed. By giving undue epistemic privilege to neither the visible nor the verbal evidence from early Christianity, I attempt to allow Christian images to contribute to our understanding of Christian artistic theory much as texts have done. I do so by examining images of idols in early Christian art and comparing various ways of interpreting these images. I conclude that early Christian artists shared many of the same concerns about images that Christian theologians and philosophers expressed in their writings.