When examining the origins of early Christian art — and the later appearance of icons as venerated images — we must be careful to make precisely that distinction: between the image used as symbol and/or narrative illustration, and the image used as venerated icon. As I have pointed out in previous postings, Christian icons developed on the fringes where Christianity met non-Christian polytheism, and the former, over time, increasingly borrowed the venerated image from the latter and adopted it into Christian usage. The use of venerated icons in Christianity was never without controversy, and it took many centuries before icons were officially accepted in the church, and before a theology was created to excuse them.
But what of Christian art before the venerated icon? It consisted largely of symbols and of narrative images. That is what we find in the earlier Christian catacombs.
We find symbolic Christian art clearly presented in the Paedagogus (Teacher/Instructor) of Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215), Book III. He is speaking of seal rings, those bearing an engraved seal. These were an essential part of daily life in the Greco-Roman world, and Christians needed them as well. “Pagans” could use all kinds of images, from real people to figures from mythology, etc. But Clement of Alexandria cautioned Christians that they must be careful in selecting their seal images:
“And let our seals be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship scudding before the wind, or a musical lyre, which Polycrates [tyrant of Samos mentioned in Herodotus] used, or a ship’s anchor, which Seleucus got engraved as a device [Seleucus Nicator, founder of the Seleucid Dynasty; the anchor symbol was said to have been given by the god Apollo to Seleucus’ mother in a dream]; and if there be one fishing, he will remember the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water. For we are not to delineate the faces of idols, we who are prohibited to cleave to them; nor a sword, nor a bow, following as we do, peace; nor drinking-cups, being temperate. Many of the licentious have their lovers engraved, or their mistresses, as if they wished to make it impossible ever to forget their amatory indulgences, by being perpetually put in mind of their licentiousness.”
The subjects mentioned by Clement were extremely common on the everyday seal market as used by polytheists, but can generally (as he suggests) be given a Christian interpretation. Note that he forbids images of “idols,” which to him meant any of the deities of the polytheists. Note also that he does not suggest any images of Jesus or of saints that would have had to be specially made — though he permits generic images that may call such to mind — for example a fisherman, which could remind a Christian both of Peter the Apostle and fisherman, and of baptism. But the fisherman here is a symbol, not an iconic representation of Peter.
We find many symbolic and narrative images in the early Roman catacombs, and in fact that is what the first Christian art was — symbolic or narrative, or a combination of both — not the venerated icons that came later. That is not surprising, given that narrative images were already to be found here and there in Jewish art of the 3rd century — itself subject to, and the result of, Hellenistic Greek influence. In fact the representational use of art as found on the 3rd century Dura Europos synagogue walls is characteristic of other religions (polytheistic) of the time, and borrowed by Jews for their own purposes.
We see that syncretism, for example, in the western wall of the Synagogue at Dura Europos, which has a surprising depiction — Orpheus taming the animals with his music, borrowed directly from Greco-Roman mythology. That shows us the extent to which Jews — and also, we shall see, Christians — borrowed motifs from “pagan” Hellenistic mythology and used them as symbols to refer to figures in their own religious traditions. In the Dura synagogue, for example, the Orpheus figure is used to remind one of King David — a symbol, in other words, borrowed from the Hellenistic and polytheistic culture, and used much as Clement used a fisherman to call to mind both the apostle Peter and Christian baptism.
Hellenistic influence extended not merely to art, but also to Jewish and Christian theology. Think, for example, of the allegorical biblical interpretations of the Hellenistic Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria (c. 30 b.c.e- 50 c.e.), and his discussion of the Logos, the emanation of the hidden God, which is very much the Logos (“In the beginning was the Word…” John 1:1) doctrine found in the Gospel called “of John”. There are other examples from elsewhere of the Jewish use of the Orpheus image during this period. We find Orpheus images used also in a Christian context in the Roman catacombs, as well as the image of the sun god Helios/Apollo, again used in a symbolic sense to call Jesus, the “sun of righteousness” to mind — another “polytheistic” image borrowed and given a Christian significance. It is hardly necessary to mention yet another common image from polytheistic culture — the Kriophoros or ram-bearer, which was borrowed into the earliest Christian art to signify Jesus, the “Good Shepherd.” One could add more Christian borrowings from the art of the polytheistic culture surrounding them that are found in the art of the early catacombs — and in the first Christian art in general. In fact — because the same images may be found used both by polytheists and as Christian borrowings, context is important in distinguishing one from the other.
We also find narrative images (images that “tell a story”) in the Dura synagogue, for example this image of the anointing of the young David as king by the Old Testament prophet Samuel:
Again, this is a narrative image, but not a venerated icon such as was found among the polytheists and those later Christians who took the notion of a venerated image as icon from the polytheists and began making Christian venerated icons. We find narrative art in the Christian catacombs as well, for example this image of Moses striking the rock to bring forth water:
So the religious image as symbol or narrative is found in the art both of Judaism and of early Christianity — but the venerated icon as understood in later Eastern Orthodoxy is something else entirely, and should not be confused with the art of the early Christians as we find it in literature and in the archeological record.
It is convenient for our purposes that a Christian Church was also found at Dura, and it too had art, though not nearly as sophisticated as that in the Dura synagogue. It is here that we find what may be the earliest-known representation of Jesus, shown as a typical classical figure, healing the paralytic. We find also the “Good Shepherd” image, what is apparently a representation of Jesus and Peter “walking on the water,” and also an image generally interpreted as the women coming to the tomb after the resurrection. All narrative/symbolic images, representing biblical stories.
So early Christian symbolic/narrative art must be distinguished from the later venerated Christian icon as found in Eastern Orthodox art. Hellenistic, polytheistic culture influenced both early Christian (and Jewish) art of second and third centuries c.e., so it is an egregious error to imagine that Christian art developed free of influence from its polytheistic environment. Nonetheless, the venerated icon that later developed in Christianity was a significant step beyond the use of narrative and symbol in art; it was the adoption of the polytheistic practice of veneration of images of the gods into Christianity, transferring that veneration of the heavenly hierarchy to Jesus and the saints — a significant distinction that is often overlooked in “religious” discussions of the origins of Christian iconography and of Christian venerated icons. It is a serious historical error to confuse early Christian art with later Christian venerated icons. Though both consist of images, they are completely different in context and significance.