The Memorials of early Christian art The story of Jonah in early Christian art (Roman catacombs)

It may come as a surprise to modern Christians that the first use of the “Cross” as an important symbol of the faith didn’t really occur till 340 AD, nor was it the fish symbol that had become popular in the 1980’s. Instead one of the early images that Christians identified with was the rooster (?!).

Photo: Archaologisches Museum Frankfurt. Replica of an early 2nd century Roman cockerel terracotta.

For our early Christian brothers and sisters, the rooster meant “convictio” – the conviction of sin. This is based on the gospels reminding us that during the Last Supper, Jesus foretold of Peter’s denial: that he would deny Christ three times before the cock’s crow. Early Christians were aware of their own arousal to the conviction of sin, and to the need for forgiveness that comes through faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection. The rooster, however depicted on their casket, was to say, “I was a sinner, I needed forgiveness, I am going to the One who has forgiven me, and who now welcomes me into His presence” (Lent and the Rooster Crow: Convictio!).

Lee Eclov elaborates on the carvings found in the Roman catacombs:

Beginning about 100 AD, 150,000 poor and powerless Christians were interred in the “sleeping spaces” (dormir) of the Roman catacombs. Christian gravediggers (who were held in honor by the Roman Christians second only to pastors) carved well over one hundred miles of tunnels out of the rock beneath Rome. Over 10,000 of those tombs were inscribed with epitaphs and very simple drawings capturing the exultant faith of Christians who had lived under constant threats for their faith.

Professor Greg Athnos began a life-long study of Christ’s resurrection when, as a young scholar, he was given access to the catacombs where he saw the illustrations of how triumphantly these saints died thanks to Christ’s great victory. [Note one of his lectures, in which Professor Athnos shares his findings].

Interestingly, in all those 10,000 images there is not one cross. The first cross doesn’t appear until 340 AD, after Christianity had become the official religion of Rome. What completely dominated the thinking of our early brothers and sisters were other images of God’s deliverance drawn from Scripture…

“Perhaps the most loved and most often told story in catacomb art,” Athnos writes, “is the story of Jonah and the Sea Serpent, appearing nearly 500 times. As the clearest allegory of Jesus’ conquering of death it fostered the hope of resurrection more than any other work.”

Of course, there are many images of Jesus Christ along with the stories and symbols of his life. Athnos writes, “The Christians who painted in the catacombs knew the promise of abundant life. They surrounded themselves with reminders and memorials of God’s deliverance in the miracles of Jesus.”

To read full article see “10,000 Testimonies from the Catacombs

What we learn from early Christian etchings, carvings, and art is that our earliest brothers and sisters in Christ were not captivated by a temporary self-referenced prosperity that passes in so much of today’s media. Instead they were captivated artistically with the deliverance we can have in Jesus, and with the ultimate deliverance from this often tortured life into His eternal life and the joy of His presence (Psalm 16:11).

With what reminders and memorials of God’s deliverance do you surround yourself?

For more in the theme of art read Eric Smith’s article, “Rethinking Early Christian Art“.

About R.H. (Rusty) Foerger

As I enter the third third of life, I am becoming aware of the role of elders today “to enlarge spiritual vision, being devoted to prayer, living in the face of death, as a living curriculum of the Christian life” (Dr. James M. Houston). I am a life long and life wide learner who seeks to: *decipher the enigma of our worth *rescue from the agony of prayerlessness *integrate spiritual friendship.
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