Baptised Imagination: A Review Essay
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Baptised Imagination: A Review Essay

Baptised Imagination: A Review Essay

John Gavin SJ FAITH MAGAZINE March-April 2014

John Gavin SJ is the assistant professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts. He previously taught theology and Greek at the Gregorian University in Rome and at the Pontifical Biblical Institute and the Pontifical Oriental Institute.

"Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning" (CS Lewis)
How can an artist depict ritual? On the one hand, any rite possesses perceptible signs and symbols that the artist may pluck from the temporal flow and convert into permanent images: light, water, incense, bodily gestures, garments and sacred spaces may inhabit the canvas or fill the fresco. On the other hand, the full spiritual import of a religious ceremony, informed by text and tradition, eludes even the most devoted artist. How can one convey the experience, the emotional impact, of passing through the material and into the transformative spiritual realm?

In early Christianity, mystery, a quality that modern technocracies have laboured hard to erase, still surrounded the rite of baptism. Initiates, after a lengthy period of preparation, would enter into communion with the Church during an evening ritual replete with natural and biblical symbols. Stripped of their old garments they would plunge naked into the pool of rebirth and emerge with the prelapsarian image restored: baptism realised the platonic ideal of becoming "like God". The fourth-century poet Ephraem the Syrian could sing of the newly baptised: "They go down sordid with sin; they go up pure like children, for baptism is a second womb for them. Rebirth in the font rejuvenates the old, as the river rejuvenated Naaman."1

''Jonah and Daniel, escaping their respective perils, pass through death and return to the paradisiacal state. The shame of nakedness has left them and they, like Christ, abandon their garments in the tombs of a former life.''

Robin M Jensen explores the intersection of art, ritual, text and tradition in her new book Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity: Ritual, Visual, and Theological Dimensions. For some years Jensen has made important contributions to our understanding of the creative vision of nascent Christianity. Her Understanding Early Christian Art has served as a fine introductory text to the field, while other works, such as Face to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity, tackle the complex theological problems surrounding the Christian desire to portray the divine. This latest volume demonstrates the importance of early images not only for the study of Christian origins, but also for contemporary theological reflection.

The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar said that the theologian must practise his discipline "on his knees", and perhaps one may apply this principle to the art historian as well. At the very least, the interpreter of early Christian art must have a spiritual, or even empathic, relationship with the artist who sought to convey his or her transformative experience. Being biblically or culturally informed is not enough. Jensen succeeds in her efforts because she understands that, in baptism, "visible images and actions, along with verbal recitation of ancient stories, prayers, hymns, all contributed to making an invisible presence more palpably sensed" (Jensen, Baptismal Image 3). She strives to see the artistic works with a baptised imagination.

As Ambrose, the fourth-century bishop of Milan, told the recently initiated: "You must not trust, then, wholly to your bodily eyes; that which is not seen is more really seen, for the object of sight is temporal, but that other eternal, which is not apprehended by the eye, but is discerned by the mind and spirit" (Ambrose of Milan, De mysteriis, III, 15).

Jensen identifies five themes inherent to the sacrament of initiation: the cleansing from sin and sickness; incorporation into the community; sanctification and illumination; death and resurrection; and new creation. These represent the various facets of the baptismal experience that liberate one from despair and thrust one into a new mode of existence. Any successful artistic representation of such an event, therefore, must encompass varied levels of personal transformation.

The surviving examples of baptismal imagery from the first five centuries can certainly confuse the average viewer, since they reflect this often obscure synthesis of faith and experience. For instance, two easily recognisable scenes from the Jewish scriptures, Jonah emerging from the belly of the whale and Daniel standing unharmed in the lion's den, grace the walls of catacombs, churches and sarcophagi. If the interpreter remains at the level of text for the hermeneutical key, these depictions easily convey God's beneficence and protection - themes that suggest baptism, though not necessarily.

Other details, however, invoke the imagination and lead towards a fuller sacramental interpretation. Why, one may ask, are Jonah and Daniel often shown in the nude? Such a detail does not appear in the biblical narrative. The artist may have simply followed classical conventions for depicting heroes: naked, muscular and triumphant. Yet, the ritual-experiential dimension points towards a sign of rebirth and resurrection. Jonah and Daniel, escaping their respective perils, pass through death and return to the paradisiacal state. The shame of nakedness has left them and they, like Christ, abandon their garments in the tombs of a former life. The fact that these images are often found on sarcophagi or in catacombs indicate that Jonah and Daniel anticipate the victorious rising of the baptised Christian: death cannot hold one who is an adopted child of God.

New Testament scenes also contain elements that puzzle the modern observer. Take, for instance, the shrinking of biblical protagonists. The dramatic raising of Lazarus provided rich details for the narrative artist - "Lazarus, come out!" - and proved a popular subject for catacombs, glasses and other objects. But who is the small child often standing at Jesus's feet? Not just another member of the crowd, but Lazarus himself! Not only has the reeking corpse returned to life, but the man has recovered his lost youth. Jensen links this rejuvenation of Lazarus to other images, such as the depiction of Jesus as a child in the baptism by John in the Jordan, or Adam and Eve portrayed as infants at the moment of creation. The Christian who views Lazarus restored recalls his or her own rebirth andliberation from the tomb through the power of the sacred waters. Introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui laetificat iuventutem meum!

And then there is the menagerie that populates the sacred spaces: fish, lambs, deer, doves, and sea monsters. The fish - ichthus - had become a Greek acronym summarising the fundamental Christian truths: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. Yet, it also represented the baptised newly caught in the net of faith and rescued from the turbulent waters of the world. Jensen quotes a marvellous fourth-century inscription from southern France, the Epitaph of Pectorius:

Divine race of the heavenly fish, keep your heart holy, having received the immortal spring of divine waters. Comfort your soul, friend, with the ever-flowing water of wealth-giving wisdom. (Jensen Baptismal Imagery 73)

One also finds deer that, having long yearned for running waters, at last quench their thirst from the four rivers of paradise; lambs washed in flowing fountains, joyful members of a new flock; and the pure-white dove, the Spirit, who descended upon Jesus during his baptism and now hovers over the Christian faithful. Baptism transforms the believer's understanding of the natural world, which now preaches the Gospel in the language of paradise. One need only consult the fantastic bestiary in the Formulae spiritalis intellegentiae of Eucherius, the fifth century bishop of Lyon, to discover the riches of creation's peculiar idiom: the birds are saints, the pelican is Christ, the turtle is the Holy Spirit, the hen is the Church ... (Ciccarese, Animal! 42-55). Eucherius gives more thanallegories; he immerses the reader in the wonder of a new heaven and a new earth.

Architecture also speaks to the imagination that is open to other worlds. Everett Ferguson offers ample material for consideration in his monumental Baptism in the Early Church. For example, he takes one on a tour of the baptistery in the early-third century house church of Dura Europos (Ferguson, Baptism 440-443). In the baptistery, protology and eschatology intersect in images that demonstrate the restorative and transformative power of sacramental immersion. In one fresco, Adam and Eve confront the serpent, reminding the viewer of humanity's pristine origins and the necessity for freedom from sin; in another, Christ the shepherd stands in paradise, symbolising the liberation from death through divine union. As the initiate stood in the central pool, he or she could also look up at thestarry sky depicted on the ceiling, recalling the cosmic significance of the sacred rite. Through art a remodelled home became the site of reformed persons.

The fourth-century baptistery of San Giovanni alle Fonti in Milan stands out for its most important bishop, St Ambrose, and his most famous initiate, St Augustine. Its octagonal shape, typical for such dedicated sanctuaries, makes reference to the "eighth day", the day of the resurrection. St Ambrose's verses, once inscribed on the baptistery's walls, proclaimed the meaning of the sacred space:

With eight chapels [niches] the temple rises high for holy use; the font is eight-cornered, which is appropriate for its gift. With this number [eight] it was fitting the hall of holy baptism to erect, by which true salvation returned to the peoples in the light of the rising Christ, who releases from the prison of death and raises up the dead from their graves; and, freeing from the stain of sin the guilty who make confession, he washes them with the clear flowing water of the font. (Ferguson, Baptism 638)

The images that surround the sites of early Christian baptism, therefore, not only conveyed interpretations of the rite, but also contributed to the believer's very experience. While the water and trinitarian formula remained the essential instruments of grace, the art and architecture shaped the participants' disposition. The principle of ex opere operato - the effectiveness of the sacrament does not depend upon the spiritual state of the celebrant, but upon the proper performance of the rite in the Church - does not preclude the importance of a spiritual openness on the part of initiate and celebrant. Thus, on the night of the Easter Vigil, flickering candles illuminated the artistic signposts that guided the imagination on the road from the confines of temporal existence to the eternalfreedom of the eighth day.

Our age, now sadly bereft of biblical literacy, is left to ponder these once startling images. Historical reconstruction and critical tools will help us to interpret them. But will we be able to see them? Such a vision calls for an imagination baptised in the font of spiritual wonder.

Works Cited and Reviewed:

Ephraem The Syrian. The Harp of the Spirit. Trans Sebastian Brock, London: The Fellowship of St Alban and St Servius, 1975.
Ciaccarese, Maria Pia, ed. Animal! Simbolici: Alle origini del bestiario cristianio I. Florence: Centra di Studi Patristici, 2002.
Ferguson, Everett. Baptism in the Early Church: History, theology, and liturgy in the first five centuries. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.
Jensen, Robin M. Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity: Ritual, Visual and Theological Dimensions. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012.
Jensen, Robin M. Face to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.
Jensen, Robin M. Understanding Early Christian Art. London: Routledge, 2000.


1Ephraem the Syrian, Hymns on Virginity 1^1, in The Harp of the Spirit, trans Sebastian Brock, London: The Fellowship of St Alban and St Servius, 1975, p. 49

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