- The Dawn of Christian Art in Panel Paintings and Icons by Thomas F. Mathews
Thomas Mathews is a well-known name in the field of art history and early Christian studies. Mathews is most notable for his book, The Clash of Gods (Princeton, 1993), in which he upends certain orthodox views in art historical circles concerning the emergence of Christian art. Mathews maintained that the prior arguments of scholars such as Ernst Kitzinger and André Grabar were mistaken, going so far as calling their positions on the influence of imperial precedents upon Christian art the "Emperor Mystique." As influential as Mathews's rebuttal was for patristic scholars, he created a more rebellious status within the field of art history for his book, with some scholars diminishing his claims. However, Peter Brown, who reviewed Mathews's book for Art Bulletin (September 1995), argued that despite the criticism, "this is a book that needed to be written," as it rejected the view that early Christians needed a "head start" in creating a visual language based upon imperial art, and that it was a beginning to a long delayed conversation amongst historians, religionists, and art historians.
Mathews included some updates and revisions in the second printing of The Clash of Gods in 1999, notably an additional chapter based upon his research of panel painting and icons, titled, "The Intimate Icon." In it Mathews argues that pagan practices of icon devotion and veneration undoubtedly influenced Christian visual practice. Mathews supported his syncretistic argument by suggesting that even facial types of images of Jesus were similar to icons of gods such as Serapis, and that images of Mary recall earlier images of Isis. The chapter seemed slightly disconnected from his prior entries in The Clash of Gods, but it indicated his current research interests. Since that publication, Mathews has continued to study early panel paintings, particularly findings from late antique Egypt. This volume published by the Getty Museum, which holds some of these panel paintings, is a culmination of Mathews's research in this area. Essentially, it is an expansion of the "Intimate Icon" chapter with some new findings. As it is published by a museum press, it is a large cloth volume filled with full-size color plates, probably relegated to "coffee table" book areas of bookstores. While this book will look lovely on any coffee table, the chapters therein are worthy of serious consideration, as Mathews continues his argument of the Christian adoption of pagan practices regarding images and their use.
The focus of this book is an assembled corpus of fifty-nine panel paintings from Roman Egypt that both scholars (Norman Muller is a credited co-author) claim have gone unstudied by Egyptologists and early Christian scholars. The fifty-nine panel paintings, all wonderfully displayed in the book, are from various museums and collections, and all bear gods and/or goddesses as their subject matter. The paintings feature deities such as Serapis, Isis, and Harpocrates as well as several imperial figures, such as Septimius Severus in the guise of a god. Mathews and Muller have several goals in mind with this volume. One is to firm up the argument that Christian icons use the same visual language and practice [End Page 338] as their pagan predecessors, epitomized by these fifty-nine panel paintings. Other goals appear broader: to exhibit the connection between early Christian icon and panel painting use to medieval and Renaissance painting, and to illustrate pagan influence upon Marian icons. The first goal is the most successfully achieved in the book, while the latter two deserve more evidentiary support.
The introduction presents the landscape of Mathews's argument and the Greek antecedents to Roman Egypt. Mathews also counters Paul Corby Finney's claim of a mid-third century advent of Christian art (from Finney's landmark text The Invisible God), because Finney selectively studied mural paintings and not icons or panel paintings (15). Mathews argues that given the evidence of panel paintings, the "dawn" of Christian...