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Dena L. Moore

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The Erosion of the Self in the Early Christian World
By Dena L. Moore
Thursday, May 30, 2002



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The perfected, athletic ideal of the human form and the use of reason so abundant in Greek Hellenic philosophy and art gradually evolved into the widespread Christian symbolism and iconography of the ninth century; the change in philosophy and art was a reflection of the Christian mind that separated man from his God and relegated earthly existence to the most undesirable way of being. The first through the ninth centuries were increasingly marked by spiritual concerns of God and the hereafter while the outlook upon humankind and the material world declined. Although pockets of naturalistic art, thought, and writings based on reason co-existed right alongside the burgeoning shift toward the symbolic and abstract mysticism of Christianity, the rise of spirituality, particularly Christianity and the Christian Trinity, greatly impacted the Western world and generally influenced most people during the period to turn away from this world in hopes of a promising hereafter.

The Greek idealization of the human form and the human mind of the Hellenic period slipped into a more hardened manner of realism in the Hellenistic period. Naturalism is a form with real proportions and natural freedom of movement; in art during the Hellenistic period, naturalism was a direct expression of the secular, rational view the Greeks held on life. It was this natural outlook on the world that was adopted by Roman scholars and artists alike; the upper classes imposed their views upon the lower classes, who were generally more comfortable with the symbolism that would come to dominate art through later Christian teaching and thought.

There was not a great divergence in the art of the Pagans and the art of the Christians during the second and early third centuries. Fear of survival on the part of the Christians may have played a factor, as they were subjected to persecutions during the first and second centuries, particularly during the reign of Valerian and again in 303 AD, when Diocletian posted an edict of persecution. The Christians may have couched their beliefs in pagan figures and images. Although fear of persecution and the need to blend in with the greater Empire may have played a part in the formation of early Christian art, the causes are irrelevant, as the early Christians in the Roman Empire did embrace naturalism in their work; they enjoyed nature and humans were presented in painting relaxed, sometimes in the nude. Nudity and the human form was not rejected in art until the fourth century, during the harsher years of the Empireˇ¦s decline, when the body is covered at all times in art. In art in the third century, Jesus was represented as a teacher or shepherd. He was portrayed as a human; in one work Jesus is shown feeding at Mary's breast, and in another work he is carrying a manuscript.

The use of naturalism and realism in art during the second and third centuries demonstrates that the Pagans and Christians alike were concerned with individualism. We see this individualistic nature of art being used dramatically, even egotistically, by the Romans. The Romans used art and writing to demonstrate their confidence and power, to show they were in control, rather than merely embracing the material world. The Emperors used art for self-promotion, the propagation of political and civic ideas, and to demonstrate their achievements.

With the reign of Septimius Severus in 193 AD and the centralizing of the Roman bureaucracy that helped strip the Provinces of power, the Empire began a decisive decline that would culminate in the fall of Rome during the fifth century. With Severus's rule, there was a change in art that reflected the new pattern of society; the basis of this new pattern was the rejection of naturalism that had been the prominent form since Hellenistic times. By the third century, the loss of confidence and hardened realism of the Hellenistic period had become, in sculpture, dramatic expressions of agony. Modification of the facial expression of typical Hellenistic forms to reflect the pain and uncertainty of the times were even shown in statuary of the Emperor; for example, Claudius II Gothicus is portrayed in such a manner. Prior to 192 AD, the emperors were idealized to portray their assertion of power or their divine majesty; indeed, from the third century on, there was a deliberate move away from the daily realities of the world and this was reflected in the anti-naturalistic art that relaxed the structure of the human form and twisted the facial features into expressions of bitter agony and disillusionment. Christian art of the period was also moving away from the natural portrayal of reality. Christ is no longer the human baby being nourished by a human mother; he is now represented as a 'little man,' his eyes wide and knowing, sitting on an enthroned Mary's lap. Christ and Mary are shown larger than any other figures sharing space in a work, and this portrayal draws attention to who and what the artist felt was more important; it is the a definite change in art, a move toward symbolism and message where the idea takes precedence over an accurate rendering of a subject. By the year 500 AD, Jesus is wearing the royal color purple, elevated above all others, and capped with a halo. This view of Christ placed emphasis on victory over death and Jesusˇ¦ role as an enabler. The message was that humans were nothing without Jesus; it was his death that enabled people to reach heaven. Christ had evolved from the friendly mentor into a deity to be worshipped. Once this shift in art and the image of Jesus occurred, art from the fifth century to the ninth century became increasingly symbolic and iconographic. With the change in art and the rising of Christ's status, the human image fell even lower. In one Mosaic, Christ is shown on the orb of the world giving law to Peter, but Peter has to cover his hands to receive it. Even Peter is not worthy of Christ. If a Saint is not worthy, where did that leave the everyday mortal?

The dissemination of Celtic and Germanic art also impacted the art of Christianity at this time. The Celts and Germans were restless and unsettled peoples and their art demonstrates this. Their work is full of twisted coils and animal figures biting and clawing at each other. Humans in Celtic and Germanic art were portrayed in a very linear, flat manner. The patterning in this type of art leads to figures and ideas that cannot be separated one from another--this reflects the Germanic and Celtic non-rational approach to life, quite similar to the non-rational approach of Christianity. The lack of individuality and non-rationality inherent in Celtic and Germanic culture became a Christian mindset in art. As the focus in art shifted from the creation of an actual subject to the ability to get a message across, art became more linear, similar to the flat, angular figures in Celtic and Germanic art. The interest was in portraying meaning, a conception of the mind rather than visual reality. People were portrayed as identical copies of each other and their forms were rigid and frozen. In one Mosaic from the sixth century, all the people are identical except for a change of the heads. The idea is that the viewer should focus on the mind and soul because the body is a dead, seeking thing. By the eighth century, art represents Christ as very distant and detached. He is no longer part of our world; his isolation sets him apart. With Christ being portrayed as 'up there' and humans being shown as 'down here,' striving to obtain the goal of heaven was certainly a very daunting task for the small man trapped inside a yearning body.

It can be propounded that Christianity was not the reason art shifted from naturalism to the abstract and linear. The reasoning behind this view is that along with the collapse of the Roman Empire was a collapse in the ability of artists, but this theory does not hold up well because naturalism still existed in small pockets of artists, particularly in Italy. In addition, many abstract, linear works were surrounded by delicate, very detailed borders representing nature and earthly reality. This fact shows that the ability to engage in realistic representation artistically was still very much possible.

Philosophy and Theology from the first through the ninth century also shows a decisive turn away from self and the material world. The irrational philosophies and religions of the mystery cults had been introduced with the influx of Easterners after the implementation of the Constitutio Antoniniana in 212 AD. The Constitutio Antoniniana extended citizenship to all freeborn men and heralded the end of privileged status amongst the Romans, which particularly affected the status of the Provinces and attracted people from the East. All the mystery cults focused on irrational mysticism that was to be revealed by a God, or Gods, and could not be found through the senses or reason. The mystery cults did not address human life; instead they gave a way out of the doubt and lack of faith in the world through escapism. The use of ritual and belief in salvation were primary features of the mystery cults and also their great attraction in distressed times.

Christianity was a mystery cult that was flexible and drew on the well of Greek philosophy, particularly the Neo-Platonic tradition. Christianity not only offered an answer during hard times, it was also readily learned and accepted because elements of the religion were already well known in Roman culture. The religion was predominantly made up of the lower classes prior to the third century and the task of securing the support of the upper classes was not an easy one. The Romans didn't like the superstition and magic inherent in the religion and it was a step beyond their ingrained beliefs associated with the use of logic and reason. However, the economic, political, religious, and social crisis of the Roman Empire in the early third century resulted in a growing, widespread uncertainty, an uncanny feeling that the world was coming to an end. This deep insecurity began to draw more prominent, upper class individuals, especially women, who saw other women gaining respectability within the new religion, away from the imposed state religion and toward the mystery cult despite the widespread persecutions of Christians in the past.

Christianity gained prominence by winning state support that led to the outlawing of all the other cults. Through the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity, the religion gained important ground. It was a significant victory that would change not only the role of Christianity and the Emperor, but also the face of Europe. By 335 AD, the Bishop Eusebius described the imperial office as a mimesis in which the Emperor's rule on Earth reflected God's rule in heaven. The Emperor was God's chosen one and was guided by the Holy Spirit. Christianity's teachings spread through the emergence of a new social class, that of the clergy. With the reign of Theodosius I, Christianity was established as the official state religion. The impact on the view of humankind and earthly life was remarkable. Religion became more and more negative as the theological ideas of leading religious figures spread throughout Empire.

St. Augustine was a prolific Christian writer living at the time of the fall of Rome and his writings were disseminated and reproduced throughout the centuries by monastic writers. The system of Neo-Platonic thought as developed by Plotinus was taken up, developed, and transformed by St. Augustine. One of Augustine's teachings, which drew on Plotinus, was the concept of the Three in One; the Plotinian Three Hypostases was to become the Christian Trinity. St. Augustine's vision of God was that of the transcendent Father, the omnipotent, everlasting being, and his view of 'true reality' was spiritual, not material. In St. Augustine's "On the City of God, against the Pagans," he contrasted the world of the Christians, which was focused on living a spiritual, purposeful existence, with the world of the Pagans, which focused on the self and the material world. Like Rome, the City of Man was doomed to fail as it was, according to St. Augustine, dominated by greed for power and wealth. While the City of Man was destined to self-destruct, the City of God would endure. The very nature of these writings was to prove that humanly wants were false, and that placing trust in earthly desires would result in failure. The only path to 'Truth,' to God, was the path that sought the good and the light--the spiritual path. This path was of the ascension, the uplifting of the mind, heart, and soul toward oneness with God. However, only a few select people were capable of ascending to Heaven, and God was arbitrary in his selections. Humans could not understand God because he is beyond comprehension. In Augustine's view, people are dependent upon God's whims; they could not trust themselves to avoid the temptations of the world because of original sin. Women's place in Christianity sharply declined after the preaching of St. Paul in the third century, which perpetuated anti-materialism and the domination of women. St. Paul believed women to be the cause of original sin because Eve gave Adam the apple, and Augustine carried this view himself. Augustine's writings conveyed that humans should rely on revelations, divine illumination and God's grace and not on their own ability. He purported that humans are to obey God's word, even in the face of government authority if it goes against the scripture. The apparent negativity in Augustineˇ¦s teaching downplayed human ability and further eroded human self-confidence in earthly existence.

In direct contrast to the teaching of St. Augustine were the beliefs of Boethius. Boethius' outlook on life and humanity led him to be called the 'last of the Romans,' although he lived after Augustine. Boethius' very existence in such an atmosphere was nothing short of miraculous. He grew up surrounded by negativity about earthly life, yet held the Greek and Roman beliefs that the world was rational, and that reason and the material world was good. He held that God loved humans as thinking entities and that the world was logical and orderly. Boethius had great plans to combine the logic and science of Aristotle with the metaphysics of Plato but was unable to complete the work due to his imprisonment, and subsequent death, by Theodoric, who believed that Boethius plotted to murder him. While imprisoned, Boethius wrote the "Consolation of Philosophy," which would become one of the most influential works of the later Middle Ages. Boethius was the first person to apply the methods of Aristotle to theology. Boethius' important works, although written in the sixth century, were given little credence until the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when the image of humanity was once again rising in status. Boethius' theological teachings, neglected for nearly five hundred years, were shunted aside in favor of Augustine and other negative theologians and writers. The ease in which Boethius' work was discarded shows the general negativity of humanity as a whole during the sixth and subsequent centuries up until the High Middle Ages.

In the writings of Martin of Braga, a Spanish bishop and Saint, it is apparent that he sees humanity as horrible. His work, "On the Correction of Peasants," shows that even as late as the sixth century people were still not quite Christian. He chastises the people for worshipping false gods, idols, and even the devil and gives in great detail the punishments that God will bestow upon them if they did not embrace Christianity. Martin of Braga's view of the peasants is one in which he believes that people are simpletons and naturally distracted. It is readily seen from his words that there is a hierarchy already in place with the pagans at the bottom and the Christian God at the top. With such blatant discrimination and chastising, is it any wonder that so many people saw themselves as worthless and God as the 'Truth?'

In St. Benedict's writings, God is not only the 'Truth' but also an unreliable and fearsome God. God would do what he wanted, when he wanted. The Saint saw himself as a sinner and preached that humans should reject their own will, thoughts, and even their consciousness. Although St. Benedict's writings show just how low men were to consider themselves during the sixth century, his admirer, Pope Gregory the Great, painted an even more dismal picture of humanity. Gregory believed that God was a deceiving God; that God couldn't be trusted much more than the Devil. God was omniscient and all-powerful. Gregory the Great also wrote that humans could not trust their senses because they, too, would deceive. Nothing could be trusted in Gregory's opinion, not this world, not the senses, not even God. From this perspective, what could a human do other than fear life, attempt to please God, and long for the hereafter?

The first through the ninth century saw a dramatic change in the image man held of himself. The focus on the human body and ability still readily apparent in the art, literature, theology, and philosophy of the first century had turned to a focus on God and the next world by the ninth century. The rise of Christianity, while not the only factor in the erosion of the image of man, played a decisive role. The higher Christ rose, the lower man sank. When Christ ascended the world orb, the humans were berating themselves for being imperfect. As Christianity became a prominent, organized religion, the Church assumed a level of self-importance and domination. There was little room for other religions or ways of life; there was one way, the Christian way, and the authoritarian Christian leaders made sure that their words were spread far and wide. It was just such an atmosphere that led to man's hatred of himself, his body, his world, and made him reach for the mysticism Christianity offered.

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Reviewed by Nickolaus Pacione 6/5/2002
this one is actually pretty good. I am going to take a look around at your website as well. There are a few blasphemous type stories on my website -- one of them blasting Blue Springs, MO, for doing the goth ban.




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