Sunday, August 3, 2014

Walking on Water: An Early Image

Dated around 240 AD, it is billed as one of the earliest images of Jesus in existence.* The house church at Dura-Europos (Syria) appears to be like those mentioned in Romans 15:5 - a private house used as a meeting place for Christians that over time was adapted for Christian worship. One of the rooms served as the baptistery. A basin, looking much like a modern bathtub, was set into the wall to hold water, and the walls were painted with a variety of scriptural stories to illuminate the baptismal theme.

http://ecatalogue.art.yale.edu/detail.htm?objectId=34499

One of the images is the story of Jesus walking on water and Peter sort-of walking on water (Matthew 14:22-33). The wall fragment now in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery shows a boat in the background carrying the disciples with Jesus and Peter in the foreground. The information on the Yale website identifies the whole figure remaining in the fragment as Jesus, with the upper half of Peter's figure and half of the boat lost. However, the feet of the whole figure are below the waves, which seems to be the sinking Peter, with the figure on the right standing securely on top of the waves. Additionally, in succeeding depictions, the figure of Peter is on the left with Jesus on the right. Perhaps it is the upper half of Jesus that is missing. See the Art&Faith Matters facebook page for additional images of this subject (https://www.facebook.com/artfaithmatters).

The drawings are more illustrative than evocative - simple outlines define the rather geometric shapes of the human figures, the waves, the boat and the rigging. There is not much included in the scene beyond these few elements.

What is perhaps most interesting about this fragment is what it tells us in its setting. Because it is a water image - and an image of Jesus saving one in the water at that - it isn't a surprising choice for the walls of a baptistery. The other images in the room might be cause for reflection on the meaning of this story, though. The series of paintings also offers insight into how early Christians understood this story.

In the wall above the arch above the font is an image of the Good Shepherd with sheep on a hillside. In the lower left hand corner of that same wall is an image of Adam, Eve and a serpent. On the wall at a right angle to the font wall are depictions of several episodes from the gospels: three women at the tomb (closest to the font), the healing of the paralytic, and Christ and Peter walking on the water. On the opposite wall are two doors, and in the space between them was an image of the woman at the well. Beneath that image is a picture of David and Goliath.

What might each of these stories tell us about the story of Christ and Peter's walk on the waves? Does the meaning become clearer with the knowledge that the boat in this fragment sails to the right, following the direction of the paralytic man from the adjoining scene? What might a third-century interpretation of this gospel story have to say to us today?


*For Dura-Europos as early image, see: http://observer.com/2011/09/earliest-known-images-of-christ-on-display-at-nyu/

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