Put a Ring On It
by Mark Calderwood
Art speaks in symbols. So do religions. Hence, the formidable tradition of medieval religious art, its potency matched only by its complexity. But this powerful presence emerged in some unexpected places, centuries earlier than commonly thought.
Fortunately, a document survives that is regarded by scholars as the turning point of early Christian art. Written sometime between 185 and 215 AD, Clement of Alexandria’s Paedogogos (Teacher) offers a glimpse into how attitudes toward images changed…and some important clues about the social and personal context of Christians in late Antique society
At the dawn of the third century, Christianity was still underground, neither socially acceptable nor tolerated by the state. Christians themselves carefully avoided the practices and rites they saw around them in pagan society, which, together with a lack of dedicated spaces, left them without a visual tradition to draw on. But Clement offers a subtle solution, suggesting Christians co-opt the existing pagan visual language to fit their own spiritual needs, carefully selecting and reinterpreting the images commonly used on signet rings.
Christianity was a religion of the written word: its theology, philosophy and nascent doctrine were spread not through images but letters, read aloud in gatherings of believers that often took place in the homes of prominent citizens and landowners. As its name implies, the Paedogogos is instructive literature for the converted, prescribing to them examples of Christian ethics and proprieties.
Laden with allusions to Greek philosophy, the Paedogogos’ content indicates it was intended for an audience of some sophistication, means and social standing, and the carved signet rings it discusses were used by prominent individuals engaged in civic affairs or landowners to attest documents and mark property. While Clement’s overall attitude towards adornment is disapproving, his discussion of what images he deems acceptable as well as inappropriate for Christians to bear on their signets is revealing.
Clement recommends images such a dove, fish, lyre, anchor, a man fishing, among others- common motifs of the day. He then stipulates unsuitable images, in each instance giving the rationale behind his prohibition: “We who are forbidden to attach ourselves to idols must not engrave the face of idols, or the sword or the bow since we follow the path of peace, or drinking cups or images of lovers since we are temperate.” In contrast to his suggested images, Clement clearly defines the relationship between these images and their symbolic pagan associations with wrath and licence.
What sets Clement’s selection apart is the mode of religious thought behind it. It is significant that with the myriad gospel references he might have drawn on to explain his choices, he uses none at all. The image of a fisherman, for example, does not suggests Jesus as the fisher of men, or the miracle of loaves or fishes, or Jesus calming the storm, or similar scenes from the gospel. Instead, Clement asserts the fisherman may call to the wearer’s mind “the apostle and the children drawn up out of the water”. The meaning Clement invests in the image refers to a sacred text and the message in that text- it does not simply illustrate that text.
This startling insight into early Christian thought is known as ‘mystic viewing’, a shift in the way images were held to convey meaning that endured throughout the middle ages. When viewed through this mystic lens, Clement held that images are not literal or fixed to a single interpretation not transmit determined messages, but multifaceted and associative: looking at the image, the viewer constructs his own meaning out of his religious sensibilities and knowledge.
But while the eye of the beholder is essential here, it’s by no means autonomous- his Christian paradigm was tightly shaped by prescriptive literature like Clement’s. For his part, Clement does not attempt to impose specific meanings on signet designs: his concern is to draw the bounds of Christian propriety around the process, teaching his co-religionists to re-read and adapt the existing language of Antique art.