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An Unsettling Transition
April 9, 2012
Last Tuesday, Paul Turgeon and I toured the exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Center on Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd – 7th Century AD. This thought-provoking display creates the impression of a four-century dissolve from the Greco-Roman world into the Byzantine. Busts of ancient philosophers morph into statues of Christian saints. Michael the Archangel replaces Nike on the backs of coins and recognizable symbols of ancient pastoral life — a shepherd carrying a ram, vines growing up a column — are appropriated into the Christian lexicon. The curators explain that many of the physical, as well as the aesthetic, components of Christian art were appropriated from the ruins of ancient temples.

The exhibition features a great deal of treasure. Hoards of newly minted gold coins, rings, bracelets and jeweled pendants give testimony that Christian poverty, so prevalent in the early Christian communities, gave way to Christian ostentation as the church became the favorite of the power elite. Some of the coins were buried by owners afraid of marauding gangs. Apparently their fears were justified because they never returned to dig them up.

The appearance of reliquaries in the 4th century marked the rise of a particularly quirky era of fascination with the remains of martyrs. Workshops near local shrines sold little flasks of oil into which relics had been dipped, giving them mystical powers. One ampulla in the exhibition bears an image of St. Thekla, an early follower of St. Paul, who survived repeated exposures to wild beasts. She is shown with lions licking her feet. Another portrays St. Simeon, who spent 37 years atop a pillar performing prodigious feats of self-denial.

A marble bust of Aphrodite with a Christian cross chiseled into her forehead and her eyes, nose and mouth defaced (see above) set me to wondering why Christians felt the need to destroy ancient Greek artifacts rather than preserve them. I was heartened to learn that a few Christians had a care for ancient culture. The brochure says: "Saint Augustine of Hippo tells us that his friend Marcellina, the sister of Bishop Ambrose of Milan, burned incense and kneeled in front of the images of Christ and the apostle Paul, along with those of Homer and Pythagoras."

St. Marcellina
Thinking that Augustine's comments might give a clue about Marcellina's devotion to the Greeks, I searched for a reference to her in his writings. That innocent inquiry transported me down a rabbit hole of 2nd century Gnosticism. It turns out that the Marcellina who burned incense in front of the icons was not the saintly sister of Ambrose, as the brochure (crafted by scholars who should have known better) says, but a Gnostic from Alexandria who lived 200 years earlier. Here's the scoop.

Marcellina belonged to a Gnostic sect headed by a man named Carpocrates who taught that the key to getting into heaven was to engage in every form of life, even (or especially) those which are most forbidden. St. Irenaeus, writing about 180 AD, says that the activities of the Carpocratians were so scandalous that Christians should not even think about them, much less speak of them. 1

Icon of St. Epiphanius
About 200 years later, a Christian zealot named Epiphanius of Salamis, who fought heretics through most of the 4th century, not only thought about the Gnostics, but described what they did. I will spare you the details, but if they are true, they are certainly worthy of every ounce of vituperation an anti-heresiarch could muster. They begin with a secret handshake and the sharing of wives, move through several forms of sexual debauchery and perversion of the Eucharistic rites, and end in cannibalism.2 You can read about it yourself in The Panarion of Epiphanius if you can find a copy in your local university library.

De haeresibus
Like Irenaeus before him and Augustine after, Epiphanius was offended not only by the Gnostics' sexual activities, but also by the fact that they made and worshipped images. Irenaeus says that Carpocrates and Marcellina had an image of Jesus that they said was made by Pontius Pilate while Jesus was still alive, and that they exhibited it "along with the images of the philosophers of the world, namely, with the image of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and the rest."3 Epiphanius repeats this story and adds that Carpocrates "secretly made images of Jesus, Paul, Homer and Pythagoras and offered them incense and worship." 4 Augustine conflates the two stories in his De haeseribus and has Marcellina — the Gnostic heretic, not the sister of Ambrose — worshiping and offering incense to images of Jesus, Paul, Homer and Pythagoras.5

All this mucking through anti-heretical tracts left me feeling slightly slimed but a bit closer to figuring out why someone took a hammer to the beautiful statue of Aphrodite. If Sts. Irenaeus, Epiphanius and Augustine could make such a fuss about burning incense before images of Jesus and the philosophers, what chance did an image of the pagan goddess have, especially one so capable of rousing erotic stirrings in young men who were supposed to be aspiring to 37 years on a pillar.

Feeling somewhat righteous myself, I sent a note to the Onassis Foundation, pointing out the error in their brochure and offering to provide them with references to the original sources. I got a very polite note back from Amalia Cosmetatou thanking me for visiting the exhibition and taking the time to bring the mistake to their attention. I only wish it had not been a mistake.

1 Irenaeus, Against the Heresies (Adversus haereses), Book I, chapter 25.

2 Epiphanius of Salamis, The Panarion, Book I, section 26. Translated by Frank Williams. Published as part of the Nag Hammadi Studies, 1987.

3 Irenaeus, ibid.

4 Epiphanius, Panarion, Anacephalaeosis II , 27, 2, p. 56.

5 Augustine, De haeresibus, Liber Unus, vii, in Migne, Patrologiae Latinae, 42.27.