- The World's Oldest Church: Bible, Art, and Ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria by Michael Peppard
Dura-Europos—arguably the most important archaeological discovery in the twentieth century for the history of art in early Judaism and Christianity—forever changed scholarly views on how these two communities formulated their identities in the third century. The spectacular preservation of the site on the outskirts of the Roman empire presented scholars with exciting "firsts." The synagogue displays the first known Biblical narrative cycle within a sophisticated visual [End Page 340] system, forcing scholars to rewrite the history of Jewish art, its influences, and its relationship to aniconic traditions. The baptistery, the oldest securely datable church, offers a tantalizing glimpse into the ritual space of pre-Constantinian Christianity and some of the first New Testament artistic representations. Now, nearly a century after its unearthing, Michael Peppard boldly compels us to reexamine long-established interpretations of texts and images and view the baptistery with fresh eyes.
Peppard draws methodologically on a number of scholars, including Jas; Elsner, Robert Nelson, Robin Jensen, and Dominic Serra, stating his goal is "to provide new possibilities for visual exegesis by opening up the treasury of textual resources from early Christianity and attending to ritual contexts" (34). The book—well written, like a thriller in pursuit of decoding visual symbols—sets out to 1) examine non-canonical texts, recently attributed patristic texts, and neglected artistic comparanda in relation to the site, 2) shift the focus of Syrian baptism from water to oil—both real and represented—as a ritual substance of anointing, sealing, stamping, marking, and messianic light, and 3) privilege ritual action as the primary context for interpreting the baptistery's artistic program, thereby reconstructing the experiential perspective of the participant in the space. For example, we follow in the footsteps of the neophyte Isseos—attested to in an inscription—as he makes his way through actual thresholds, processions, and spaces accompanied by represented thresholds, processions, and spaces.
Peppard's insistence on the embeddedness of the baptistery's paintings in their ritual setting leads him to employ the dual categories of optic and haptic, proposed by Annabel Wharton, as ways of experiencing images. Peppard argues that the upper register of images—healing of the paralytic, walking on water—function optically, as a single visual sign of a text or historical moment. But the lower portion functions haptically, the meaning derived in the inherent physicality of the images. Indeed, the lower figures in procession are noticeably near life size, placed directly at the viewer's level, and move toward the baptismal font in the same direction as the participant. The figures mirror, echo, and reinforce the actions of the initiates. Peppard points out that a woman named Hera even carved her name in the wall beside the head of one of the processing women, perhaps identifying haptically with the figure.
While helpful, the optic/haptic approach raises questions, such as the role of gender in the relationship of painted figures to participants. Peppard argues that the soldiers and military population of this town would have resonated with the armed David and Goliath scene as they entered the baptistery. How then does the same military population or our neophyte Isseos relate to the painted procession of women? Likewise, how does Hera relate to the military scene of David? Peppard addresses gender questions by turning to the important work of Elizabeth Clark and others for analyses of early Christian texts that describe initiates, both male and female, in non sex-specific terms, both as married to Christ (139). Such literary figurations are key to what Peppard calls the "heart of the book"—unlocking the meaning of the enigmatic procession of veiled women.
Usually interpreted as women at Jesus's empty tomb, Peppard identifies the wall painting as an altogether different subject: the Parable of the Wise and Foolish [End Page 341] Virgins/Brides of Christ. Although there are no other contemporary images of this parable, Peppard writes that it was "a...