Iconodules Rejoice! (Or, Further Adventures in Critical Pretension)

June 30, 2009

Paul as Plato

Via the Western Confucian, some very thought-provoking archaeology news: newly unearthed third century depictions of the Apostle Paul show him portrayed in the mold of the Hellenic philosopher… This is interesting for a lot of (admittedly obvious) reasons, since the ferment of that period more or less set the tone for medieval Christianity and the political institutions that came out of it…  Definitely worth the read:

“The problem was posed between the third and fourth centuries, when a Church that had become widespread and well structured made the great and brilliant wager that is at the basis of our entire artistic history. It accepted and made its own the world of images, and accepted it in the forms in which the Greco-Roman stylistic and iconographic traditions had developed it. It was in this way is that Christ the Good Shepherd took on the appearance of Pheobus Apollo or Orpheus, and that Daniel in the lion’s den had the appearance of Hercules, the victorious nude athlete.

“But how could one represent Peter and Paul, the princes of the apostles, the pillars of the Church, the foundations of the hierarchy and doctrine? Someone got a good idea. He gave the first apostles the appearance of the first philosophers. So Paul, bald, bearded, with the serious and focused air of the intellectual, had the appearance of Plato or perhaps of Plotinus, while that of Aristotle was given to the pragmatic and worldly Peter, who has the task of guiding the professing and militant Church through the snares of the world.”

If this is what happened, then the Church in the early centuries had no reservations about attributing to the apostles, and to Paul in particular, the title of philosopher, nor of handing down, studying, and proclaiming in its entirety his thought, which is certainly not easy to understand and accept.

To my mind, what’s most interesting about this equation of philosopher and apostle is that it’s being articulated at the same time that the Messiah is first being equated with the Emperor; the crystallization of the disruptive power of the Messiah coincides with the end of the apostolic ideal of martyrdom and its institutionalization as an epistemic and political hierarchy. But the end outcome of these shifts is not the creation of a philosopher-elite, as revelation is final and apostleship is universally open,  nor the creation of a new empire, since the Messiah has not arrived, but a whole new configuration (the medieval church) which can lay claim to the Messiah’s body and which was amplified by the decline of the Roman body politic.  So an image where Paul is portrayed as a philosopher isn’t just indicative of a shift of in Paul’s meaning, but for the meaning of the images entire social field:  reconciling Paul’s image to Plato’s establishes a world where neither is entirely at home.

Or something.

Mmm, textual instability. How I love thee.

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2 Responses to “Iconodules Rejoice! (Or, Further Adventures in Critical Pretension)”

  1. Will said

    To be fair, the political context of this find is quite a bit more ambiguous than you make it out to be. Constantine’s immediate predecessor, Diocletian, initiated one of the most vicious anti-Christian pogroms in Roman history. Absent a more accurate form of carbon dating, it’s possible that this depiction was created in the midst of near-unprecedented reprisals against Christians.

  2. H.C. Johns said

    True, the dating does make it tricky. But if we can broadly say that it comes from the 300s, then I think my argument sticks, since the worst of the persecutions ended with Galerius’s death around 310, and the edict of Milan 3 years later, which leaves the bulk of the century for the kind of context I’m pointing at here to get moving.

    All that said, I’m willing to grant the dating issue makes my interpretation a good deal less sound.

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