Although Christian art is now seen as a major part of the Christian religion, during the first three centuries of the church there was no Christian art and the church generally resisted it. Clement of Alexandria criticized religious art by calling it pagan. In his view, it encouraged people to worship that which had been created rather than the Creator (3, 79). But by mid-3rd century pictorial art began to be used and accepted in the Christian church but not without fervent opposition in some congregations. Warnings against this development were voiced by such leading theologians as Eusebius, who being the most diligent glorifier of Constantine, characterized the use of images of the Apostles Paul and Peter as well as of Christ himself as a pagan custom (1,1). One reason that some Christians balked at the idea of icons was because of the emperor’s cult.
It was through anti-Christian legislation that Christians were compelled to venerate the imperial images by offering sacrifices to them. The refusal to make the sacrifice was the chief cause of martyrdom at the time. Thus, after the church was recognized as the Roman imperial church, its reaction was expressed in the riotous destruction of the pagan divine images. Although it is some Protestants belief that the development of ecclesiastical art was a part of the entire process of the church’s inner decay and corruption, the church developed a form of art particular to its needs. But Christian art developed at a slower rate.
This was due partially to its origins in Judaism. In addition to a faith in God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and faith in the uniqueness and holiness of God, Christianity also received from its Jewish origins a prohibition against the use of images to depict the sacred or holy, including humans, who were created in “the image of God” (1, 2). The early church was also deeply involved in a struggle against paganism, which was viewed as idolatry in that its many gods were represented in various pictorial and statuary forms. In early Christian missionary preaching, the Old Testament attacks upon pagan veneration of images were transferred directly to pagan image veneration of the first three centuries AD. The struggle against images was conducted as a battle against “idols” with all the intensity of faith in the oneness and exclusiveness of the imageless biblical God.
The starting point for the development of Christian pictorial art lies in the basic teaching of the Christian revelation itself–namely, the incarnation, the point at which the Christian proclamation is differentiated from Judaism. The incarnation of the Son of man, the Messiah, in the form of a human being–who was created in the “image of God”–granted theological approval of a sort the use of images that symbolized Christian truths. Clement of Alexandria, at one point, called God “the Great Artist,” who formed humans according to the image of the Logos, the archetypal light of light (5, 92). The great theological struggles over the use of images within the church during the period of the so-called Iconoclastic Controversy in the 8th and 9th centuries indicate how a new understanding of images emerged on the basis of Christian doctrine. This new understanding was developed into theology of icons that still prevails in the Eastern Orthodox Church in the 20th century.
The foes of images explicitly deny that the New Testament, in relation to the Old Testament, contains any new attitude toward images. Their basic theological outlook is that the divine is beyond all earthly form in its transcendence and spirituality; representation in earthly substances and forms of the divine already indicate its profanation. The relationship to God, who is Spirit, can only be a purely spiritual one; the worship of the individual as well as the community can happen only “in spirit and in truth”(4, John 4:24). Similarly, the divine archetype can also be realized only spiritually and morally in life. The religious path of the action of God upon humans is not the path of external influence upon the senses but rather that of spiritual action upon the mind and the will. Such an effect does not come about through the art of painting.