The Eye in the Catacombs
Marty Marty


The Function of the Symbol in the Catacombs

The question of knowing whether our modern sanctities, plunged in the modern world, in this vastatio, in this abyss of incredulity, of disbelief, and unfaith­fulness of the modern world, iso­lated like beacons, vainly assailed during well-nigh three centuries of raging, furious sea, are not and will not be the most pleasing in the eyes of God is an everlasting question… Assailed on all sides, tried on all sides, and by no means shaken, our modern beliefs, chron­ologically modern, isolated in this modern world, knocked about by a whole world, untiringly as­sailed, indefatigably beaten, inexhaustibly beaten by waves and tempests, these beliefs end by making, by constituting, by erect­ing a splendid monument to the presence of God. Forever standing, alone in a whole world, standing in a whole sea, stormy, alone in the entire sea, intact, whole, never in any way shaken, never in any way breached, never in any way broached, our modern loyalties, faiths, and beliefs end by making, constituting and erecting a splendid monument to the presence of God. A la gloire de Dieu."

Thus in broad, repetitious strokes Charles Pegúy gives a hope for our faith in this day when Christianity must be conscious of itself as a minority influence, as one voice among many, yet bearing in it the seeds of the world’s last  great Hope. To send out feelers, to put forth its front, to "erect the monument to the presence of God," it seeks a symbol for communication, and it is our contention that this can be found in the visual symbol, which includes all the plastic and visual arts, all that communicate originally to the eye. What the eye in the catacombs saw can be seen by the eye in a new Dark Age because of the nature of the ages; both as to what they seek and to what they can find are they strikingly similar.


Our concern with the function of the symbol in the Catacombs will not necessarily lead us to an appraisal of Catacomb Art. That is not essential here. Rather than dissect it archeologically and historically, we shall seek the reason for the existence of visual media in the early Church, and the ends to which they worked.

As the manger was the humble home for Christ, so were the Catacombs a humble cradle for the great tradition of Christian art that showed forth His praise in later centuries. In the hundreds of miles of underground (we must remember that catacombs were for burial, and not for assembly) there thrived the germs of that Christian fellowship, and on the walls were appeals to the eyes of that community of struggling saints. That Christian Art was born in a cemetery is a thought that should appeal to those of Dylan Thomas' outlook as likely poetic subject matter! But that is how it came to be, and we begin with that. Beyond that, archeologists, artists, and historians agree only slightly. Paul Styger and Josef Wilpert in grand studies, Hans Lietzmann, Bernard Berensen, all are disagreed on almost every­thing else about Catacomb Art beyond this, its genesis. The lat­est work by Walter Lowrie is charged with misconceptions. Hesitant to enter the controversy as to the national and other ex­ternal influences on it, or to pass value judgments on Catacomb Art, we can more constructively recreate the "attitude" of its era to find what elements concur with our needs and aims; and thus we can speak in the present tense, making the "catacomb attitude" contemporary.


The chief function of the "re­sponsible" symbol (in contrast to the purely "decorative") was to witness to the faith. As the Gospel-compilers were concerned with witnessing and propagating “all that they had seen and heard,” so the symbol-makers proceeded. Like the earlier verbal witnesses, these served a practical need in the life of the Church, and had— or have!—no other real excuse for existence.

The visual symbol is especially equipped for this. It relates his­toric faith to living eyes (Brunner: Tradition and Renewal), something so necessary then and now. It is significant that a large percentage of the earliest pictures in the Church were of Old Testa­ment events. For the picture records history, but is also able in a moment, in one instant, to re­create it for a new day. It suggests history, but is not necessarily his­tory. A creed, too, tells what the apostles and fathers believed, but it also says, "I believe."

As a background for the con­ception of a subject or an incident, the picture communicates to someone. (Suzanne Langer points out that human symbols repre­sent, while animal communication only indicates.) In the "attitude of the catacombs" something can be expressed to the community, to initiates to that community, and to the world beyond. The community of Christians uses the visual symbol in worship, pri­marily, for "what is seen" is able to unify the worshippers. It iden­tifies those who have adopted the creed portrayed. While minister­ing to the senses, it fortifies the soul, and when it becomes, in its highest moments, art, it can en­courage worship, lending tone, dignity, nobility, consecrating the faithful for the various acts of worship. (Liturgical art.)

The initiates or converts use the image in more amplified con­text. To them it plays the part of "midwife" in their reception of knowledge. As the abstractions in doctrine are being born in minds, visualizations ease the birth, helping fix the ideas. The instructive value of the curiosity-evoking picture cannot be over-estimated. That in the "attitude” of the catacombs the picture appealed primarily to the illiterate and that Luther directed holy pictures to the poor, should not intimidate us in our use of them in a sophisticated age; for religious literacy is certainly low. "Understandest thou what thou readest?” is important to him who can actually read. (Visual education.)

Though it be a minority influence, a bold voice from a tiny flock, the Faith is never content only to speak to the faithful. It approaches and encroaches on those on the outside, the world beyond, forcing decisions. To the non-Christian the symbol is also a witness to the Word, but now it comes in translation, and is meaningful to him in his own terms, and not necessarily in those of the Christian community. To him it illustrates the elements of keerygama.

The implications of the creed are formalized into a minimum of terms. Looking at a "responsible" image of a Cross may compel decision as much as a verbal image does.  Of course, there are vast limitations. Suzanne Langer calls visual symbols "non-discursive" as contrasted to the "verbal" symbols, which elucidate, explain, bring about progression. The elements in the visual symbol are simultaneous in appeal; one act of vision exhausts their discursive possibilities. That is why no one dares contend that the eye in the catacomb replaces the mouth, that visual witness is as effectively com­plete as the verbal (or that Christian art could replace the preached word in the Gospels), but that its due value for Gospel-support in the Twentieth Century is inestimable, is undeniable.


The Appeal of the Symbol in Our Day


A distinguished Doctor of Theology in our Church recently complained to me that "we are spoiling our people through over-use of visual aids," contending that movies, television, and the picture magazine have killed the art of abstract thinking. His observation undoubtedly true, and the death abstract mental conceptions constitutes a serious blow to doctrinal theology, and thus, in its highest sense, to Christian living and expression. There is a certain amount of conceptualization that must take place when we speak of two realms, of a deus absconditus, in evolving a Christian cosmology, and in speaking of the Atonement.

But the Christian had little part in this transition in modes of thought to our visual age, for all this has occurred in centuries after Christian art had died; we may be excused on that score. Nor dare we regret the transition— rather than regret it, we must hurry to appropriate all the visual methods and techniques into our language of communication, to speak to an age that "thinks through its eyes." It may be that this is only a transition period, and that the next development in the history of communication may see a return in some measure to immediately abstract conceptuali­zations; but until then we must use the terms understood today; we must change with the times. This study is appropriate only to this period in Christian history: it is by no means our hope that Christianity remain in the newly-dug "catacombs," speaking from a cemetery as it were, to an obliv­ious age—we only begin with things as they are.

It is almost unbelievable that the Church has not more whole­heartedly seized upon the symbol in this age, an age which caters to the eye. People see the movie rather than read the book. They watch television rather than listen to the comedian. The picture magazine has almost dealt a death blow to black print. The poster has rendered obsolete the letter of appeal, and the spectacle thrives. Totalitarian powers, where the artist ranks high, have recognized this, both in speaking to the home nation and in propagandizing the world beyond. Have we accepted responsibility to such a world?

"In faith we have the freedom to be publicly responsible in the lan­guage of the Church for our trust and our knowledge. But it must be made clear that the Church exists for the sake of the world, that the light is shining in the darkness—confession must be fundamentally translatable into the speech of Mr. Everyman… If our faith is real, it must encroach upon our life… there must be translation, for example, into the language of the newspaper."—Barth.


There are those who contend that "art has no appeal today," that the symbol is and must be dead, that people today are not sufficiently aesthetic-minded to look. I believe they underestimate the situation. Though we still say: "act in a play" and "play" a musi­cal instrument, the arts are not thought of as "playing." They are still instinctively taken seriously and with some awe, even where they are somewhat neglected. Sec­ondly, these critics do not realize that art may stand in a double relationship to history. Though with much awe regarded, art does not seem to them to influence our times. We must remember that all creative art sets a pace ahead of its contemporaries while it, at the same time, reflects and speaks to creative minorities in its own day. A glance at history makes this seem almost axiomatic: Michelangelo, Giotto and Rembrandt were only partly understood in their times. Yet they had influence even before the subsequent centuries understood and appreciated their work more thoroughly.

In our day, people who never read Proust or Joyce or Eliot live, in some way or other, in a world influenced by them. The avant garde and the men of genius influence the lesser lights, who, in turn, bring the genius-world, or at least facets of it, into contact with the man on the streets.

Through commercial art we are influenced by the work of such extremist modern artists as Mondrian and Moholy-Nagey, though we may never have seen their names or work. To add one more example, we are told that even bebop and the modern jazz artists benefit from the innovations of Ravel, Hindemith, Bartok and Delius. The "popular" world and the commercial field are aware of the usable elements, even in complex modern art. Others complain that this complexity destroys its possibilities of use to us. The complaint is made that we do not “understand what modern art means.” Yet the question proves that such art has evoked curiosity of thought or action, which the visual symbol, like the Christianity that sponsors it, must evoke.

“Remove from the Christian religion, as Christendom has done, its ability to shock, and Christianity, by becoming a direct communication, is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor healing them; by discovering an unreal and merely human compassion, it forgets the qualitative distinction between man and God”— Kierkegaard.

On the other hand, many sincere people at the opposite extreme see the visual symbol as being too popular in appeal. They fear that the reality will be forgotten for the image, that the symbol itself will be reverenced. They bring us squarely to the heart of the age-old iconoclastic controversy. Here may we hasten to apply the assurance that at this particular moment in world history, idolatry of this nature is the least of our worries in the Protestant world or the Reformation tradition. Idolatry takes far subtler, more glamorous forms today. Image-worship would destroy the whole cozy game of what cate­chisms call fine idolatry (as contrasted to gross image-worship).

What is more, the association of image or ikon-worship with the Roman Catholic tradition arouses the instinctive prejudices and mis­trust of the Protestant mind. Yet this is perhaps the foremost obsta­cle to releasing the visual symbol for use today. So it must be faced squarely.

"C. G. Jung has called the history of Protestantism a history of contin­uous 'iconoclasm' ('the destruction of pictures,' that is, of religious sym­bols) and, consequently, the separa­tion of our consciousness from the universally human 'archetypes' that are present in the subconscious of everybody. He is right. Protestants often confuse essential symbols with accidental signs. They often are un­aware of the numinous power in­herent in genuine symbols, words, acts, persons, things. They have re­placed the great wealth of symbols appearing in the Christian tradition by rational concepts, moral laws, and subjective emotions. This also was a consequence of the Protestant pro­test against the superstitious use of the traditional symbols in Roman Catholicism and in all paganism. But here also the protest has endangered its own basis."—Tillich in "The Protestant Era."

There must be some warrant for this feeling. It takes its origin in an honest recognition of the demonic character in this expres­sion, something less easily noticed in other media. Yet we are all acquainted with Bibliolotry as contrasted to either Biblicism or Bible-orientated faith, and the preached Word carries the same serpent in its bosom. Is it irrever­ent to assume that much of the awe for the proclamation does not carry with it awe for the proclaimer, that there is such a thing as Preacherolatry—that many a spinstered mind in the pews may be reverencing the preacher (especially if he is particularly hand­some and particularly deep-voiced) rather than the preachment? It is hard to deny the danger in all ex­pressions when the lowly human (Cocteau: "I am an ass and I carry the Lord") carries the Divine Word in any way.

If there should arise a special danger again in what Toynbee calls "transference from verbal to visual conveyance," the issue could be met squarely without loss, for when the image is mistaken for the reality, the essential character of the symbol is forgotten and it becomes worthless. Once more, there is no reasonable fear of all this at present.

I believe the demon that now exists in the visual aspect of Chris­tian communication today came through the codification of art into outworn and tired expression (often vulgarly sentimental, "pretty," and trite) current in the Church, and much upheld by many. Codification of any symbol destroys its primary functions to all. In short, we must re-think the art now current, develop a philosophy of visual education to compare with recent technological developments in that field, and resurrect a creative symbol.


Our remarks raise one large problem: how are we to deal with the assertion, made in an earlier chapter, that the visual symbol could provide a common ground on which all Christian expression and communication could congregate?

There is the historical testimony; the symbol witnessed well during the Early Centuries when the Church was on the defensive and during the Middle Centuries when it was a majority voice. It fell into oblivion through Protestant distrust of images. That distrust is no longer founded on fact, but on fear. The only obstacle, then, is imaginary and negligible. Can not the resurrected symbol bring new life to the creative voice of the Church, as forebears did in earlier centuries? Often a housecleaning reveals many thrilling discoveries and forgotten possibilities.

Another reason for this is that man thinks in visual terms today and in appealing first of all to his eye we can secondly approach the whole man through verbal communications like preachment, literature, and finally, audially, through music, etc. The symbol will be content to serve as "midwife” in this Gospel-support. Finally, the universality of symbolization in other ages and races indicates its fundamental appeal in all expression and communication. May we not discover one day the Fundamental Symbol to be man's aspiration for a better life? And the answer to that aspiration, of course, is to be found in the Cross, our symbol.

From where, then, is the new visual symbol to come in the new catacombs? From the creative efforts of the Christian community:

“The community of Christ alone is building the church. God sends His workmen. If only there is a community that lives in prayer and in the Holy Sacraments, there will be an end to all need and distress." Rudolf Koch.

From the creative efforts of existing artists and of those yet undiscovered, unnoticed and undeveloped, who will concentrate their efforts in the service of the Word.

“A painter should never put on canvass what he has not first spiritually created and thought out in every detail. The artist thus has the inward vision, he sees and hears with his soul. The Lord Creator has blessed him as one who first con­ceives the beautiful as his very own, spiritually creating it before giving it to the world at large."—Domenichino.

What if it is "hired art"—in a sense, so was Michelangelo's and Giotto's. When the "hired" one is a genius he creates masterpieces, or when there is sufficient encour­agement, out of the profusion of symbols may there not one day again grow a great tradition of art for the service of our heavenly King? Out of the plainly func­tional, may there not grow the noble, the sublime? The arts can, in the words of Arthur Symonds, "make a potent and effective ap­peal in the advance of the race in its relation to redemption."

The eye in the Catacombs was directed to the life beyond, the Resurrection. The visual symbol today will nourish the same hope, but it dares not neglect those whose toils are not yet ended, who are urgently busy, but still have time to look.


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