Tuesday, February 28, 2017


Roald Dijkstra, The Apostles in Early Christian Art and Poetry. Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 134. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2016. Pp. xv, 552. ISBN 9789004298040. $218.00 (hc).

Reviewed by Robin M. Jensen, University of Notre Dame (rjensen3@nd.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The back cover of this work describes it as "the first in-depth analysis of the origins of the representations of the apostles (the twelve disciples and Paul) in verse and image in the late antique Greco-Roman world." Without question the text—a revision of the author's doctoral dissertation—is thorough and useful, and in most regards an unprecedented summary of the various ways early Christian poets represented the apostles. To a more modest degree, it also contains a summary of the ways these figures also appeared in early Christian art even though, as the author acknowledges, there have been earlier studies of the apostles in visual art, although perhaps not as intentionally of all twelve as a group (p.12).

Although the word "art" takes first place in the book's title and elsewhere in the body of the text, the initial—and most developed—section of the study analyzes the ways the apostles are represented in Christian poetry of the third and fourth centuries. Actually, the work has only two chapters, framed by an introduction and a conclusion. The first chapter is significantly longer than the second; its roughly 225 pages are divided into 13 sections that primarily consider one ancient Christian poet at a time. The second chapter is less than half its length (about 95 pages) and has only 3 subsections. It also opens with a fairly detailed discussion of the formation of the New Testament canon and the places where the apostles appear in the texts of the gospels and Acts. The author acknowledges the different ways these chapters are structured (chapter 1 according to poet and chapter 2 according to apostle), which seems a sensible way to organize the material.

In his introduction, Dijkstra explains that he uses the both words "disciples" and "apostles" to refer to the "group of twelve who stayed with Christ when he was on earth" (p. 3). Some New Testament scholars might take issue with this blurring of categories, and Dijkstra acknowledges this, although he allows that common usage tends to do the same. Similarly, as ancient and modern tradition both regularly include Paul among the twelve, Dijkstra does as well. Of course, this number thus adds up to more than twelve, which, he grants, is mainly a "terminus technicus."

Dijkstra then turns to an introductory survey of the secondary literature and accurately notes that few modern studies have treated Christian poetry independently of ancient poetry in general, or investigated the ways that ancient Christian poets treated the apostles as a group (rather than primarily concentrating on the representations of Rome's founding saints, Peter and Paul). Similarly, he argues that, besides Peter, Paul, and to some extent Andrew, individual apostles are seldom studied in early Christian art, largely because their features are mostly indistinguishable. However, just after he raises this point, he returns to studies of the apostles' representation in literature. He quickly returns to the subject of early Christian art, and turns his attention to broad, theoretical questions of interpretation, classification, and context. Interestingly, while Dijkstra regretfully comments that Christian poetry "has not become a discipline of its own but remains part of studies on late antique poetry in general" (p. 9), he takes a positive view of the current scholarly trend to perceive Christian visual art as a subcategory of Roman art rather than as a distinct corpus (p. 12). His introduction also includes a brief analysis of the value of including non-canonical (apocryphal) sources and an outline of what Dijkstra has defined as his functioning corpus of textual and material evidence, and a condensed commentary on their mode of production (with a lengthy excursus on the 1981 work of Klaus Eichner on the manufacture of Roman sarcophagi compared to a mere paragraph each on the craft of painters and mosaicists). While these relatively brief treatments are interesting, this reader was left wishing they seemed less randomly selected, underdeveloped, and oddly organized.

Dijkstra raises some significant questions, but his treatment of them can often seem garbled. For example he begins his discussion of possible ecclesial regulation of Christian poetry and visual art by asserting that church officials would have had motivation to regulate the ways the apostles were represented and that such regulation would have been possible. However, he then notes the lack of evidence for any such official regulation, at least in regard to the production of sarcophagi or any literary reference to such censorship. Sarcophagus manufacture and catacomb painting, he reasonably asserts, were highly private activities, yet he also argues for a restricted (controlled) number of workshops. Moreover, he asserts that art-making activities "driven by economical motives that turned out to oppose orthodoxy" or to deviate "from official ecclesiastical doctrine" would have been inhibited (pp. 32-33). It seems Dijkstra means to differentiate funerary art from objects made for liturgical use (e.g., reliquaries), but his argument is unclear and his apparent conclusions confusingly presented. Earlier, he makes the odd and contentious judgments that fossores painted the catacombs and that there were no innovations in catacomb painting during the fourth century. He also asserts an unverifiable claim that objects' craftsmen were illiterate and did not fully understand the imagery they worked out (p. 29).

Another instance where the reader may be confused comes in Dijkstra's investigation of the nature of representation itself, in both images and texts. He calls upon the work of Du Gay, Hall, et al., who identified representation as a key element in the their "circuit of culture."1 The method of cultural analysis could prove to be illuminating but Dijkstra's explication is not especially helpful. According to him "representation" refers to "the form in which a cultural artifact is molded and the way in which it is given meaning" (p. 21). This makes some sense, but he continues with the rather incoherent and arguably circular statement that, "meaning is of course dependent of various aspects given through language and images" (p. 22). He then attempts to clarify by saying that "both texts and images refer to an existing concept expressed in the Bible," which he calls the "mimetic part" but does not actually explain what that might be, unless it is simply that certain narrative details were taken as authoritative (e.g., the apostles were followers of Christ). The discussion winds down to a vague claim that "several factors are of influence in the process of representation and at the same time representation exerts influence on other processes" (p. 22). Unfortunately, Dijkstra does not return to the method at any other place in the volume to show how it actually shapes his analysis of any particular poem or object of art.

Overall, the bulk of the monograph focuses, catalogue-style, on the work of twelve poets (an appropriately apostolic number) from the third and fourth century in chronological order. Part one begins with the works of Commodianus Juvencus and continues through Prudentius and Paulinus of Nola (no. 11). Dijkstra introduces each author in turn, takes up relevant scholarly discussions about the biographies of the authors, their historical and literary contexts, and any debate about dating their work. He then laboriously works through each of their treatments of the apostles as a group, then of each individual apostle one after the other, followed some concluding remarks. He caps this section with a synthesis, once again considering each apostle in turn both to review and consolidate his previous work. These summaries will constitute a useful resource for future scholars of this genre of literature, especially as the section is enhanced by some tables, for example one in which the author traces the verses in Vergil's Aeneid that the poet Proba used to structure her Cento on the life of Christ (p. 107). An overview table in the volume's appendix 1 also also assists the reader to see the distinctions and patterns in the authors' references to various passages of scripture.

The volume's particular attention to (and the author's primary interest in) early Christian poetry is evident in the relatively little space given to visual art. In this considerably shorter section of the book, he considers the depiction of the apostles in early Christian iconography, although he still frequently refers to their appearance in poetry, which additionally reduces his exclusive attention to the material evidence. Here Dijkstra appropriately concentrates his study on the main categories of surviving data: sarcophagus reliefs, catacomb paintings, selected mosaics (including the apse at Rome's Santa Pudenziana), and assorted "minor arts" (ivories, gold glasses and reliquaries). Once again, Dijkstra notes that, apart from the easily recognizable portraits of Peter and Paul, identifying facial features of the other apostles are lacking. These may be the anonymous male witnesses often worked into the backgrounds of visual compositions, particularly in healing and miracle scenes. The relatively recent discovery of the Catacomb of Thecla in Rome with its busts of Andrew and John along with Peter and Paul is one notable exception, but as a rule, viewers rely on inscribed names to distinguish one from another. Dijkstra observes the differences between poetry and visual art in regard to the kinds of symbols or narratives each depicts (or is capable of depicting). He also attends to the inclusion of non-canonical and apocryphal narratives and themes (e.g., Christ giving the law to Peter and Paul) that frequently appear in the early Christian visual corpus.

Dijkstra's volume concludes with a summary review and conclusion. This opens with a succinct reference to Arnold Provoost's quantitative analysis and reproduces Provoost's chart diagramming the content of Christian iconography from the second through the early sixth century (p. 391). I am not sure that the author's use of this chart adds much to his argument, since (as he notes), the diagram does not consider much of the existing repertoire, nor does it distinguish among different categories of objects. The reader is left wondering what to make of it all. A striking comment occurs in the final two pages, where Dijkstra offers the cautious but perhaps disappointing argument that, in the final analysis, "It has turned out to be difficult to precise [sic] the relation between the creative activities of poets and craftsmen via the representation of the apostles" (p. 410).

In conclusion, this work has much to commend it. It is both ambitious and, as regards a study of early Christian poetry, admirably thorough. It is accompanied by an extensive bibliography, appendices, and 50 illustrations, most in color. It should be a useful resource for scholars interested in that poetry; it will be less valuable for those who study the content, context, and function of early Christian art. The work is primarily descriptive; a guiding or clearly outlined thesis is not obvious or easy to discern, although there are many points in which Dijkstra offers helpful conclusions and synthesizes his findings. Yet, the book is difficult to read in many sections and would have been much improved by vigorous editing.


1.   Du Gay P., S. Hall et al. (1997). Doing Cultural Studies, The Story of the Sony Walkman. London: Sage Publications, 1-4.

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