In the sixth century St. Apollinare Nuovo Church, at the edge of the old city (Ravenna, Italy), we found the earliest surviving life story of Jesus depicted in images. Near the ceiling on both sides of the basilica nave, thirteen rectangular mosaics marched from the chancel toward the main door. We examined each of the twenty-six panels closely. On the right wall near the chancel, an image of the last supper began the thirteen scenes of his Passion. At panel ten we encountered Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross for Jesus to Golgotha. We expected to see the Crucifixion on panel eleven. Instead, we were confronted by an angel who sat before the tomb. The apparition spoke to two women swaying forward like Gospel singers. We too leaned forward in astonishment and remembered what the angel had said: "I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here" (Matt. 28:5-6). The remaining panels showed the risen Christ visiting his followers in the stories of doubting Thomas and the road to Emmaus.It seems that nowhere in early Christian art is there a focus on the death of Jesus. Not until the 10th century. This is one of these pieces of information that I find astonishing - that it is so and that I am just learning it now. Early church art focused on recreating paradise. When Christians walked into worship spaces they were reminded that with their baptisms they had re-entered paradise here and now and that their ethical living helped to make paradise a reality for themselves and others. Paradise was not lost. Their sin and the sin of the world did not so mar earthly life that they longed for the afterlife or even some kind of future eschatological moment. They were already living in a realized eschatology.
We found no crucifixion in any of Ravenna's early churches. The death of Jesus, it seemed, was not a key to meaning, not an image of devotion, not a ritual symbol of faith for the Christians who worshipped among the churches' glittering mosaics. The Christ they saw was the incarnate, risen Christ, the child of baptism, the healer of the sick, the teacher of his friends, and the one who defeated death and transfigured the world with the Spirit of life.
The afterlife was real of course, and full of saints. But even the saints were present in this life through icons and images. They were a part of this world's paradise made possible by the resurrection of Jesus and by those who lived resurrected lives.
One important insight to keep in mind here is that we are talking about a period in history where virtually everyone is illiterate. When we think of Christian history we tend to focus on the writings of early Christian leaders. As important as these writings are to get a sense of the emerging doctrinal decisions and the battles over who and what is orthodoxy, the vast majority of early Christians had their faith shaped by the art and liturgy of their worship spaces, which is why so much money was put into building beautiful spaces. And the predominant images found in those spaces were about living in paradise. Bread, wine, water, art, and the sharing of resources made paradise a reality.
I am also reminded of one helpful critique of liberal Christianity coming from the direction of the emergent folks. Too much of liberal Christianity is emotionally dry with its focus on word and intellect. There is more to life than being smart and right on the issues. We need to be engaged emotionally through music, poetry, and art and be reminded constantly that there is beauty in the world and that experiencing it is transformative in a way far deeper than any intellectual conversion experience. Which is not to say that engaging the mind cannot also be a thing of beauty - it is - but we want and need more. It seems the early Christians knew this.