An art historian’s perspective on Christ in triumph

04.12.2020 | Catherine Gines Taylor

Humans have been making meaning with symbols from the very beginning. The Greek word symbolon (σύμβολον) meant the physical objects used as identifiers or proffered up as gestures of hospitality, xenia, a kind of generosity extended to one’s guest or someone far from home. Gestures, signs, objects, images, and even words act as symbols, communicating abstract meaning in an efficient way. Symbols are tokens of meaning, but how symbols make meaning depends on their context and the ability of viewers to recognize their nuances. And a viewer’s relationship with a symbol highly depends on their ideas, beliefs, and experiences.

Good Shepherd in catacomb of Priscilla (Second half of the 3rd century)

For example, the symbol of the good shepherd was quickly adopted into early Christian art. Centuries before Christianity, the kriophoros or “ram-bearer” was common in ancient Greek art. It represented Zeus’s messenger Hermes, the protector and patron of the flock.1 Early Christians saw the image reflected Jesus’s words in John 10:

11 I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.
16 And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd. . . .
17 Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again.
18 No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father.

Good Shepherd imagery was used to adorn the walls of Christian catacombs and mausolea as it identified the deceased with this new, unified flock and resonated hope in the power of God unto resurrection. We share in these hopes and beliefs with our early Christian forebears and find unity in joining our faith with theirs in Jesus.

The new symbolic emblem introduced to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Saturday, April 4, 2020 emphasizes the name of Jesus Christ and his central role in all the Church does. According to Church president Russell M. Nelson, “The symbol will now be used as a visual identifier for official literature, news, and events of the Church.”

The name of the church is set within a symbolic rectangular cornerstone, identifying Christ as the chief cornerstone. An image of Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Christus (1838), which is used widely in replica by the worldwide church, is the center point of the symbol. President Nelson described the image by saying, “Symbolically, Jesus Christ is standing under an arch. The arch reminds us of the resurrected savior emerging from the tomb on the third day following his crucifixion.”2

While I was watching this announcement take place, I was immediately drawn to the symbol of the arch. As an art historian, that component was very familiar and resonant to me. In the late ancient Church, the arch and the arched tomb were familiar sights. Arches can act as gates, doorways, and thresholds. They are often used in art to designate honorific spaces. Burial places (mausolea) had arched niches into which sarcophagi or stone coffins could be placed. Subterranean burial places like catacombs had kilometers of corridors that extended several levels below ground. These cities of the dead (necropoleis) were strategically located outside the walls that enclosed cities of the living. They housed tombs of varying types. A simple compartment (loculus) could be carved into the walls of a catacomb corridor, while a more elaborate room (cubiculum) might have multiple compartments and be decorated with an arched niche with salvific scenes. Scenes featured Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Noah in the ark, Susanna and the Elders, Jesus and his apostles, and figures of women and men praying. These were popular because they provided Christians with familiar ways to think about their lives and deaths in the context of salvation.

The earliest Christians had many architectural precedents to draw on as they utilized the arch in burial settings. The use of the arch was perfected by the Romans. The arch in all of its forms, along with the development of concrete, allowed for the scaling up of architectural infrastructure and expanded the empire at an exponential rate. One of the most symbolic ways the Romans used the arch was in commemorative victory monuments, some of which still stand in Rome today.

The Arch of Titus, for example, with its famous panels depicting the spoils from the Jerusalem temple, was completed in c. 81 by the Emperor Domitian. It commemorated his brother’s defeat of the Jewish rebellion in Judaea. It is easy to see how a triumphal arch could be adapted for use in memorial settings in order to illuminate a new kind of victory. Early Christians anticipated victory over death, hope in resurrection, and an expectation for new life.

Early Christian Catacomb painting

Early Christians used a specific kind of arch called an arcosolium to designate the burial of their kindred dead. The arcosolium was an integral part of early Christian art and iconography. Although this functional decorative type was also used in Jewish and pagan burials, the word arcosolium was likely coined by the early Christians. It is derived from two latin words: arcus (arch, bow) and solium (seat, throne, sarcophagus).3 As a symbol, this decoration appeared above tombs within the catacombs. It implied honor and acted as a dignified marker for the deceased. Images found within the arcosolium were also meant to impart meaning to the living. The arch designated a contemplative memorial for the faithful dead as well as an emulative space where the dead were ritually visited at regular intervals in much the same way as many people in the United States commemorate our beloved dead on days like Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

As much as the arch in the new LDS symbol accentuates the risen Christ, it also underscores the fact that Christ was once in the tomb. He is risen precisely because he was once dead. Modern Apostles have testified: “His was a great vicarious gift in behalf of all who would ever live upon the earth.”4 His death was necessary for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which was the salvific enactment of setting free the captive dead.

For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” (1 Peter 4:6 KJV)

The anastasis (or “harrowing of hell”) carried out in those three days is an integral part of Christ’s salvific reality. The truths we know about the Savior’s ministry in the spirit world are germane to Latter-day Saint theology. The arch, this architectural portal, demands that we spend time, not only with Christ emerging from the tomb, but with the essential implications of the tomb, his victory over death and hell. Section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants details Church president Joseph F. Smith’s 1918 revelation and witness concerning Christ’s visit to the spirit world and his preaching to the dead. Latter-day Saint scholar George S. Tate, contextualizing the revelation in the wake of the devastating Influenza pandemic in 1918, wrote, “the vision affirms the foundations of faith in a world where the faith of so many was shattered by the great calamities they witnessed and experienced, declaring to all the world through the mouth of the Lord’s anointed that the Father and Son live and are still earnestly engaged in the ongoing work of salvation for all God’s children.”5

11 As I pondered over these things which are written, the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great.
12 And there were gathered together in one place an innumerable company of the spirits of the just, who had been faithful in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality;
13 And who had offered sacrifice in the similitude of the great sacrifice of the Son of God, and had suffered tribulation in their Redeemer’s name.
14 All these had departed the mortal life, firm in the hope of a glorious resurrection, through the grace of God the Father and his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
15 I beheld that they were filled with joy and gladness, and were rejoicing together because the day of their deliverance was at hand.
16 They were assembled awaiting the advent of the Son of God into the spirit world, to declare their redemption from the bands of death.
17 Their sleeping dust was to be restored unto its perfect frame, bone to his bone, and the sinews and the flesh upon them, the spirit and the body to be united never again to be divided, that they might receive a fulness of joy.
18 While this vast multitude waited and conversed, rejoicing in the hour of their deliverance from the chains of death, the Son of God appeared, declaring liberty to the captives who had been faithful;. . .
19 And there he preached to them the everlasting gospel, the doctrine of the resurrection and the redemption of mankind from the fall, and from individual sins on conditions of repentance.38 Among the great and mighty ones who were assembled in this vast congregation of the righteous were Father Adam, the Ancient of Days and father of all,
39 And our glorious Mother Eve, with many of her faithful daughters who had lived through the ages and worshiped the true and living God. (Doctrine and Covenants 138)

Section 138 goes on to elaborate the preaching of the gospel to all, even those who “had died in their sins.” Christ’s three-year earthly ministry is succinctly, yet completely, truncated into his three-day ministry among the dead. Latter-day Saint scholar Steven C. Harper calls this scripture “a Christ-centered text from beginning to end.”6 Early latter-day saints were not the only ones to hold these beliefs.

The Byzantine tradition of the anastasis scene or “harrowing of hell” has several iconic elements which are vividly captured in a fresco from the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora (1077-1081), Istanbul.

Jesus is depicted in glory, standing on the broken doors of death and hell. You can see an almond-shaped body halo around him (“mandorla”), signifying his eternal and cosmic glory. These Anastasis scenes feature a gap or break in the architectural barrier between the dark abyss below Christ’s feet and the rising souls of mankind. Jesus will even sometimes trample the bound figure of Satan as he dwells in the darkness, surrounded by broken keys and locks.

My favorite part is where Jesus literally and eagerly lifts the figures of Adam and Eve from their stone sarcophagi. Adam is shown as a type of Ancient of Days, with a full silvery beard. Eve wears red, the vibrant color of extremes. While I am sure you could find ancient sources associating Eve’s scarlet robes with the “sin” of her mortal choice, or with danger and even death, my eye tends to see her carmine robe as a symbol of her love, her passion, her “fire in the belly” role necessary to bringing about mankind in the flesh. Her actions result in God-made-flesh in the body and the condescension of Jesus. That beautiful color is true to her rarified nature.

Christ, as the Lamb of God, is here victorious. He has broken down the barriers of death and hell for Adam, for Eve, for their descendants. He is the door, he is the way, he is the good shepherd calling to us from John 10:

2 But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.
3 To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out.
4 And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice.

Images and symbols matter! We should challenge ourselves to spend time looking at and thinking about them. The beauty of symbols is that they demand more than a single interpretation or application. It is important to understand their multivalent meanings and contemplate how they change or enhance our perception of the world around us.

Latter-day Saints have been presented with this new symbol for the church, and with it the opportunity to improve our visual literacy, our kinship with our ancient faithful heritage, and our abiding ties to Jesus Christ, Savior of all mankind, as he declares, “Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.” (Revelation 1:17-18 KJV).

 

NOTES

1. “Hermes Kriophoros” in The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art and Architecture ed. Tom Devonshire Jones, Linda Murray, and Peter Murray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 258.

2. See https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/new-symbol-church-of-jesus-christ and https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2020/04/05/nelson-unveils-new-symbol/.

3. “Arcosolium,” in The Eerdmans Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art and Architecture ed. Paul Corby Finney (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 111.

4. “The Living Christ: The Testimony of the Apostles,” Ensign or Liahona, Apr. 2000, 2.

5. George S. Tate, “‘The Great World of the Spirits of the Dead’: Death, the Great War, and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic As Context for Doctrine and Covenants 138,BYU Studies 46, no.1 (2007): 39-40.

6. Steven C. Harper, Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants: A Guided Tour through Modern Revelations (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2008), 509.

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Catherine Gines Taylor is the Maxwell Institute’s Hugh W. Nibley Postdoctoral Fellow. She specializes in late antique Christian art history and iconography. Dr. Taylor holds graduate degrees from the University of Manchester and Brigham Young University.