Face to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity

Robin Margaret Jensen Augsburg Fortress Publishers, Minneapolis November 1, 2004
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History leaves its clearest trail with words. Its sentences, however, gather to form a conclusion, often with little evidence of what drives the players. Thus the iconoclastic controversy, the single period in Western civilization when the world was consumed with the discussion of the aesthetic, will be misunderstood without the broader matrix of portraiture in the first half of the first millennium of Christianity. Jensen, of Vanderbilt University Divinity School, fills in the gaps with a broad discussion across the spectrum of cultural and religious development of portraiture from the original Roman world of aniconism and subsequent iconism, culminating in their treatments within early Christianity. Her discussion proceeds chronologically by topic: general issues of portraiture and idolatry, Greco-Roman portraiture, problems with visible portrayals of the invisible God, developments in the fourth and fifth centuries, and the portrayal of the saints. Over one hundred photographs give the reader visual reference points.

Jensen provides an excellent introduction to the worldview of images in which the debate was framed and the social forces driving the arguments on both sides. While a full study of the use of Christian images requires a closer study of New Testament theological statements and appreciation for the early charges of atheism leveled against Christians because of their lack of images (in addition to the absence of monumental structures, cultic feasts, and limitations on participation in its corporate rites), Face to Face picks up where the Scriptures are silent. As modern American evangelicals encounter older, resurgent Christian traditions for whom theologically oriented images have had greater significance, this work offers a primer to greater understanding and constructive dialogue.

—Timothy J. Ralston

October 1, 2006
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2006 vol. 163 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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