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The New Images of Women
in Early Christian Art
Nurith Kenaan-Kedar
Although the emergence of the pictorial language of early Christian art and
its signs and symbols has been studied by dominant scholars such as Andre
Grabar, Ernst Kitzinger and Kurt Weitzmann,1 the development of the female
image within that visual tradition has been very much neglected. I would like
to argue that one of the most significant aspectsof the development of Christian
art was the formulation of new pictorial schemes for the representation of the
female image, and the abrupt elimination of classical images from its vocabulary.
Hellenistic and Roman art had created and employed a variety of female images.
In addition to individual portraits, there were countless images of goddesses,
mythological, and dramatic characters as well as women practicing their
professions; Barbarian women were represented as the "other women"
expressing extreme emotions as well as sensual women in the eastern parts of
the Empire. Allegories in the female image were abundant.2 Such images were
repeatedly described in contemporary written sources.3 From the third century
onward Early Christian art, in contrast, confined itself to a very narrow range
of female images, which may be grouped into the following categories. The
first, and most prominent was of an expressionless figure clad in mantle and
tunic.4 The image represented at the same the time Virgin Mary, virtuous and
saintly women, matrons and allegories of virtues. However, sometimes the same
types were also depicted as Byzantine princesses in courtly attire.5 The second,
less frequently employed, category comprised a variety of nameless women
expressing extreme emotions such as pain and grief, and depicted with
dishevelled hair, staring eyes and violent or vehement gestures of despair.6
The exegesis of the Church Fathers of Biblical women was allegorical, and
far removed from the actual biblical texts. Thus diverse Old Testament righteous
women such as Sarah, Zippora and Deborah were all interpreted as prefiguring
the Virgin or as allegories of the virtues, while unrighteous females were
depicted as allegories of the vices. Consequently, all women lost their
distinctiveness,7 a perception that was reflected in the pictorial arts.8 Early
Christian writings were also severely critical of extreme emotions, which were
viewed as pagan and detrimental to salvation, and were often identified with
the female character. Thus, in one of his sermons, Peter Chrysologus explains
why women, who are inferior to men in general and to the disciples in particular,
should have been the first to approach the tomb. Chrysologus justifies this by
making clear that at that time they were not merely women but, rather, the
personification of the Church.9
In Boethius' Consolation, Philosophy - personified in the visual form of a
saintly woman - condemns the Muses: "At the sight of the Muse of Poetry at
my bedside dictating words to accompany my tears, she [Philosophy] became
angry. 'Who,' she demanded, her piercing eyes alight with fire, 'has allowed
these hysterical sluts to approach this sick man's bedside? They have no
medicine to ease his pains, only sweetened poisons to make them worse. These
are the very women who kill the rich and fruitful harvest of Reason with the
barren thorns of Passion. They habituate men to their sickness of mind instead
of curing them. If as usual it was only some ordinary man you were carrying
off a victim of your blandishments, it would matter little to me - there would
be no harm done to my work. But this man has been nourished on the
philosophies of Zeno and Plato. Sirens is a better name for you and your deadly
enticements: be gone, and leave him for my own Muses to heal and cure."10
Emotions, are thus identified by Boethius with the sensous and worldly, while
Philosophy leads to salvation.
This attitude finds a counterpart in a letter by Asterius of Amaseia describing
a painted cycle rendering the martyrdom of Saint Euphemia, which he had
seen in Antioch: "The Virgin's appearance shows a mixture of modesty and
firmness; for, on the one hand, she bows her head down as if ashamed of being
gazed at by men, while on the other, she stands undaunted and fearless in her
trial. Up to that time I used to appreciate other painters - for instance when I
saw the incident of that woman of Cholchis [i.e., Medea] who, being about to
slay her children with the sword, divides her expression between pity and
anger; and whereas one of her eyes manifests her wrath, the other denotes the
solicitous and frightened mother. Now, however, I have transferred my
admiration from that [artistic] concept to this painting; and I greatly prize the
artist for his having blended so well the bloom of his colors, combining modesty
with courage, two affections that are contradictory by nature."11 Both these
female images, Medea and Saint Euphemia, express more than just one
characteristic. Asterius, however, prefers the harmonizing of courage with
Fig. 1: Munich, Bayerisches National Museum,
Leaf of the Ascension Diptych.
modesty, two major Christian virtues, rather than the reconciliation of pity
and wrath, one a virtue, the other a vice. Thus, Asterius' words should be taken
as an expression of his new aesthetic norms and not only as an expression of
his moral attitudes.
The pictorial formulation of the image of Saint Mary Magdalene may
demonstrate this process of the Christian new depiction of the female image.
The Biblical texts referring to the Magdalene suggest that she could have lent
herself to representations of women in despair, ecstasy or love.12 The Church
Fathers, however, in conformance with their exegetical methods, presented
the Magdalene and the events in her life mainly allegorically. Her role at the
Meal of Simon the Pharisee was interpreted as symbolizing the new church,
while in the Bethany scene sitting to Christ feet she was seen as representing
the vita contemplativa, as opposed to her sister Martha, who stood to serve Christ
the vita activa. To SaintAugustine the Magdalene exemplified the spiritual life
and the new church; in her depiction at the sepulchre of Christ he calls her
Ecclesia ex gentilibus.13
Throughout the early Christian period the pictorial image of the Magdalene
continued to reflect these attitudes, so that only the "saintly women formula"
was used in her depiction (fig. 1). Certain gestures of the Magdalene and of the
other Marys who accompany her, however, betray older pictorial traditions
and written sources, which had been subjugated to this predominant image.
Her new image - may be demonstrated by reference to an early group of related
ivory panels (fourth and fifth centuries).14 On the Milan ivory panel a women
- probably the Magdalene - clad in the saintly habit, is kneeling at Christ's feet
and touching them with reverence;15 on the Munich panel the three Marys,
depicted as three saintly women, are facing the sepulchre; and on the British
Museum panel the two Marys, in similar habits, sit on either side of the
sepulchre. In all three ivories the gestures of the women are stylized and
meditative16 and make use of earlier Hellenistic pictorial traditions.17 In these
depictions of the women, the harmony of gesture and habit enables them to
function both as symbols and as New Testament figures.
The new image of the Magdalene as a saintly woman contrasted by
Fig. 2: Ravenna, St.' Apollinare Nuovo. Nave Mosaic. Holy woment at the tomb.
vehement gestures can be demonstrated by three later works dated to the sixth
century: a full-page illustration from the Rabula Codex,18 a mosaic panel in
Sant' Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (fig. 2), and an icon in the Vatican's Museo
Sacro.19 The works in this group represent an additional pictorial tradition.
The illustration from the Rabula codex combines two episodes. The two Marys
appear in the lower register, under the scene of the Crucifixion. The leading
figure, probably the Magdalene, is addressing the angel, with anemphatic
gesture. In the next scene the two Marys are kneeling at the feet of the
resurrected Christ in vehement frozen gestures.20 In the mosaic panel in Sant'
Apollinare Nuovo,21 the two Marys stretch out their arms in a vigorous
interrogative manner, pointing toward the sepulchre. Here, as in the Rabula
codex, the forceful gestures have become symbolic and lost their spontaneity.
Similar iconographical concepts appear on an icon in the Vatican's Museo
Sacro,22 in which the two Marys are urgently approaching the sepulchre from
the left. Here too, the Magdalene is the leading figure, and her gestures are the
more vehement.
No depictions of the Meal at Simon's House appear to have survived.
However, a description by Choricius of Gaza of the mosaic cycle in the Church
of Saint Sergius of Gaza conveys the scene: "These [miracles] chasten a woman
Fig. 3: Codex Virgilius Vaticanus. The death of Dido. Vatican Library.
Fig. 4: Vienna genesis, The death and burial of Jacob (detail).
Fig. 5: Vienna genesis, The death of Deborah (detail).
Fig. 6: Rome, Sta. Maria Maggiore, Triumphal arch mosaic,
The massacre of the innocents.
Fig. 7: The Casket of Brescia. Jairus' daughter.
of loose life. She renounces the great wickedness of her ways and comes to
scorn her soft raiment, her wonted golden ornaments, the fashioning of her
hair, since beauty is no longer of importance to her. Instead, she venerates and
honors Him with the riches she has, by pouring ointment over His feet."23
Although Choricius does not identify the sinful woman as the Magdalene, his
detailed description of the riches of the world which she has left behind was to
reappear in future depictions of the repentant sinner.
The differences between the gestures depicted on the ivories and those
rendered in the later group of works suggest divergent pictorial traditions
reflecting various literary texts. The meditative formula of the ivories seems
dependent on Hellenistic models while at the same time confirming the virtuous
women's allegorical interpretation in patristic exegesis. In contrast, the gestures
in the Rabula codex, the Ravenna mosaic and the icon in the Vatican's Museo
Sacro were probably directly derived from the dramatic biblical narrative and
from Syro-Palestinian pictorial sources. These gestures, though vehement, are
"frozen", reveal their pagan sources turning them into frozen abstraction. As
the two pictorial traditions move closer to one another, the ancient dramatic
gestures become symbolic, and thus can also be interpreted as meditative. The
new saintly image, however, is the predominant factor in the composition while
the gestures are subjugated to the image and play a secondary role.
The works mentioned so far differ completely from the representations of
anonymous women in distress in contemporaneous Christian and non-
Christian art, such as the women mourning the death of Dido in the miniature
from the Virgilius Vaticanus24 (figs. 3, 4, 5); or the women in the scene of "Jairus'
Daughter" on the ivory Brescia Casket25 - with loose hair, wide-open mouths
and forceful gestures. These images of women represent emotionalism and its
theatrical expression, which were regarded as belonging to mankind's lower
faculties, and were associated with women.26
While each of the two major pictorial categories of female images thus
included several variations, both depicted women either as a meditative and
abstract image, or as an emotive character. Whatever the category - woman, as
an individual image, ceased to exist.
1 A. Grabar, Byzantium (London, 1966); K. Weitzmann, ed., Age of Spirituality;
Catalogue of the exhibition at theMetropolitan Museum of Art, Nov. 1977-Feb. 1978
(NewYork, 1979), 202-203, figs. 26, 217; and E. Kitzinger, Byzantine Art in the Making
(London, 1977).
2 Medea was a popular subject in Hellenistic and Roman art. Depictions of her are
to be found in J. Charbonneaux and F. Villard, Das hellenistische Griechenland
(Munich, 1971), figs. 206-207, and on a sarcophagus cover in the Mus


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