Early Christianity - Its concepts and their survival in the cult and art of the Byzantine Church

Birgitte Tessau, Copenhagen

The primitive Christianity that quickly spread in the Near East and in Greece and Rome during the first three centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was a mystery religion. In many ways it was deeply influenced by the rites not only of Judaism but to a great extent by concepts and rites of the different mystery cults of the Hellenistic age, the spiritual trends and culture that flourished in the Near East and Italy from approximately 300BC to 300AD.

Who was Christ?

In relation to the different mystery religions of the Middle East, Christ was just another saviour. He died and was resurrected for the salvation of man, who had lost his divinity and his power to restore himself to his original state of immortality.

The figure of Christ had much in common with age old vegetation gods of the Middle East. His life and death, his resurrection and the subsequent revival of creation is parallel, for instance, to that of Attis, Adonis or even Tammuz. Also, the Christian rites continued to some extent those of the pagan cults of that time. The concepts of the virgin birth and of the mother Virgin Mary derive from the oldest cult of the world, the worship of Mother Earth or the Great Mother. Her names are different. In Greece she is Gea or Rhea; in the Middle East she is Ishtar, Atargastis, Aphrodite or Cybele to name a few. But she remains the same, the Mother of God, and it is by that name she is called and worshipped in her age old aspect as the Great Mother and benefactor of man exclusively by the Byzantines and by the Orthodox Church of today.

Another aspect of Christ is similar to that of Mithra, the god of light in the Indian pantheon. The cult of Mithra spread very early in ancient Persia, and after the time of Zoroaster the cult penetrated, though in a greatly changed form, into the Middle East. Along with the cult of Cybele and her son and lover Attis, Mithraism was one of the most important mystery cults in the Roman empire. Like Mithra, Christ was born on the 24th December, in a cave, by the sign of a radiant star on the firmament. By the power of light he conquered Satan and the powers of darkness, and restored immortality to man. Christ said, "I am the light of the world, he that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life." Furthermore the austere moral codes of Mithraism, the teaching of equality between rich and poor, master and slave; loyalty and heroism, are codes that could readily be adopted by the Christians. However, whereas the initiation into the Mithraic mysteries was limited to men only, Christianity embraced women on equal footing with men, and it seems that in the early days there were more female followers than male.

Like all mysteries of the Hellenistic period, Christianity also required initiation into the mystery after a certain time of trial and teaching. In Christianity, however, it was a rite of exorcism of evil spirits followed by the baptism and transmission of the Holy Spirit in water, symbolic of the waters of the sacred river Jordan. In Mithraism and the cults of the Great Mother, the baptism was by the purifying blood of a bull.

Primitive Christianity lived on the direct succession of the spirit by the disciples of Christ. According to the promise of Jesus the Christians were expecting his second coming and the subsequent restoration of the world to its divine state very soon. It was an ecstatic religion relying on the direct transmission of the spirit to the small groups of followers that would become 'inspired or possessed' by the spirit. The congregation was elevated to a state of ecstasy and preparedness for the second coming of Christ, the judge and saviour of the world. The day of judgement was very near indeed.

But time passed and the expected day of the second coming of Christ never arrived. As the number of initiates rapidly increased, a quest began for more and different spiritual manifestations or symbols which could convey or transmit the spiritual power upon which salvation relied. This is the time of the persecution of the Christians by the Roman emperors, and of the emergence of the first liturgies and the symbolic art of the catacombs in Rome, the huge underground cemeteries of the Christians. It is also the time when the sacred art of the icons was being established in Egypt and the Middle East. Also here it is a funeral art depicting the deceased person in his state of restored divinity, in his state of Christhood.

The worship of idols and portraits of the dead cut in relief or painted on facades or inside the tombs had been common all over the Near East since ancient times. The Christians continued this practice in their worship of the saints and martyrs. But from the 4th century onwards they developed a specific art form and iconography of their own, jointly based on the philosophy of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato and on the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus the Christ. In the first chapter of the gospel of St. John it says : "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Later it continues: "The Word was "made flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth."

The influence of the Platonic and neo-Platonic philosophies is conspicuous in the scriptures of the church fathers of the Byzantine church. According to the teachings of Plato the manifested world is an illusion; the reality is energy, the idea. The idea is one, perfect and beautiful; its manifestation is diverse and manifold. The manifestation is imperfect and therefore it lacks being, it is not. But the link between the prototype, the idea and its manifestation lies in the likeness, in the reflection. Plato calls it the shadows; what we see with our senses are the shadows of the real world. Reality is pure, absolute and perfect.

The Christians believed that God created man in his image. But with the fall of Adam, man lost his likeness with God and became like Satan, the fallen angel. In the form of a serpent, Satan had beguiled Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of life with the promise of becoming the knower of the world of diversity, of good and, evil. So man sank to a state of imperfection and ugliness.

By the incarnation of God, the image of man is restored to its original godliness. In other words, God became man so that man could become God. By following in the likeness of Christ in the cultic life and liturgy of the church, man could gradually acquire his lost beauty and move up the ladder of perfection, finally reaching the state of absolute eternal being. That is God, and on the holy icons of Christ is written: "He is."

So the numerous martyrs, saints and hermits only followed the likeness of Christ, who died on the cross. Thereby the martyrs became like Christ, and like the Son of God they were resurrected in heaven and are now worshipping Christ on his heavenly throne face to face. Christ has said: "I am the resurrection and life; he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet he shall live."

The Byzantine church being more mystically inclined than the other Christian faiths never bothered to formalise any dogmas or theology of their own. Yet they have a rich, mystic literature written by church fathers and theologians over many centuries. In some of these scriptures the treatises or doctrines about the holy icons actually contain and express the entire dogma and theology of the Byzantine church.

The holy icons are images of Christ, the Mother of God, saints, and the holy events mentioned in the Old and New Testaments. They only depict the divine heavenly world; details of profane time or space, like houses, are generally distorted, imperfect and unreal. Likewise, profane persons are depicted in profile indicating their non-presence in the heavenly world. The icons are always painted on a piece of specially prepared wood with a mixture of natural colours and egg yolk. Every child receives an icon that protects him throughout his life. When a visitor enters a house, he first bows to the icon placed in the right corner of the room before he proceeds to greet his hosts.

The image is always flat or two dimensional and the third dimension is usually inverted, that means the point of focus lies in the eyes of the beholder. This is because the physical eye is not able to look into the divine world behind the screen of the icon; divinity is only beheld by the spiritual eye. The icon is a window to the heavenly and real world through which Christ, the Mother of God, and the saints are looking out into the profane and imperfect world. The holy icons radiate the beauty of the divine state of absolute perfection and eternal being.

During the iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries, the church had to formalise an apology for the worship of the holy icons. The Byzantine emperors, who forbade production and worship of the icons, were influenced by the faith of Islam, God is unmanifest spirit and can only be worshipped in spirit. Subsequently human representations of God were banned from the churches.

The apology of the holy icons is based on the mystery of incarnation. God became man so that man could see him and depict him. The icon is the representation of Christ, the Mother of God, or the saints now dwelling in heaven, and linked to the prototype by the name and likeness. The spiritual and miraculous powers that the holy persons once manifested during their lifetime on earth are now present in their icons. That is the reason why through the many centuries the style of numerous reproductions of icons of Christ, the Mother of God, or a particular saint have never changed. The first icon of Christ is said to have been painted by St. Luke, and the likeness of that prototype has never changed. The icons were painted by anonymous monks in the monasteries after old iconographic rules. The monk would prepare himself for the sacred task by fasting and prayers so that he would become a perfect instrument in the hand of God. The painting of an icon was considered a meditation, and the image is inspired by God, who is leading the hand of the monk.

In the Byzantine churches the walls are adorned with mosaics or frescoes from the bottom to the top of the dome, where Christ the ruler of heaven and earth resides. They represent saints, prophets, the Mother of God, and the holy events from the Bible or the lives of saints. The church building itself is a symbol of heaven having descended on earth. During the liturgy the congregation participate together with the heavenly inhabitants in the divine liturgy. Through the transmission of the spiritual powers of the divine persons present and by the liturgy, which in itself symbolises the life cycle of Christ, the congregation participate in the redeeming powers of Christ.

In the apology it was also stated that reverence has to be rendered to the holy icons, but worship belongs to God only. In practice it never made any difference since the prototype by the established link of the likeness is forever present in spirit in his icon. The person is in heaven, but the energy he once manifested in a holy deed or miracle remains on earth; it can't be withdrawn as long as his icon is here. Thus in the tradition of the orthodox church there are many stories about icons that have performed miracles.

So we may say that to this day the orthodox church is in possession of the uninterrupted succession of the Holy Spirit since Christ lives on earth in the sacred art of the icons.