This Friday, the earliest known images of Christ, from the year 240, go on view in New York for the first time, and they aren’t where you might expect them to be. They are part of a remarkable exhibition at the relatively obscure N.Y.U. Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, a jewel-box of a museum on East 84th Street whose mission, according to exhibitions director Dr. Jennifer Chi, is “to break down preconceived notions of antiquity.”
“Edge of Empires: Pagans, Jews, and Christians at Roman Dura-Europos” does so with a vengeance, in presenting 77 objects from an excavation in Syria that fundamentally altered the understanding of art, culture and religion in the ancient world.
The rediscovery in the 1920s of the abandoned city of Dura-Europos, which had been buried in the desert for 18 long centuries, rewrote history. Some of the excavations were co-sponsored by Yale University, which by agreement with Syria retained some of the finds; the objects in “Edge of Empires” are on loan from Yale.
Art and artifacts of stunning historical importance were uncovered. The paintings of Christ are part of a series of New Testament scenes that exhibition co-curator Dr. Peter De Staebler said are “the earliest dated Christian art in existence.” Narratives painted on the walls of Dura’s large synagogue, considered the best-preserved in the world, revealed a Jewish figural tradition that had been totally unknown—that had, in fact, been thought to be nonexistent. The rediscovery of these painted Bible stories—among them, Moses and the Burning Bush, the Sacrifice of Isaac and the Exodus from Egypt with the astounding representation of the hands of God (on display by photo and slideshow; the originals are in Damascus)—sparked a revolution in thinking about art and Jewish religious practice.
The finds at Dura also unexpectedly demonstrated that, far from being modern developments, religious coexistence and multiculturalism were thriving a couple of millennia ago on the outskirts of the Roman Empire.
The New Testament scenes were found in what is believed to be the oldest-known baptistery, which was part of a Christian “house-church” (a house that was used as a church). Dura’s house-church is considered the oldest such structure ever revealed. The Institute is showing three of the baptistery’s original wall paintings. From the city’s synagogue come 10 ceiling tiles, each elaborately painted with astrological signs, pine cones, fruit and faces; they’re being shown together for the first time. Then there are the various beliefs lumped together under the rubric “pagan,” and numerous structures were found in Dura dedicated to Greek, Roman and local gods. Some of the pagan imagery seen at the Institute is itself a blend of different pagan strains.
Not only did Christians, Jews and pagans worship side by side—the Temple of Aphrodite was located across the street from the synagogue—but the city was also inhabited by distinct populations of Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Persians. And they all apparently coexisted in harmony.
“That’s what’s so extraordinary,” said Dr. Chi. The discoveries to be made at this show are legion, but perhaps the most compelling is the fact that it presents objects of major religions and diverse populations that date from the same century and were excavated from the same site, indicating that all those groups apparently lived together peacefully.
Excavators even found a ring in the ruins, also now on display, engraved with the Greek word “omonoia,” meaning “harmony” or “concord.” The concept referred to agreements between individuals or political entities, and, according to Dr. Chi, it also referred to a melding of cultures. (Some scholars think it’s an engagement ring.) The art, artifacts and writings found at Dura spat in the eye of those establishment scholars who over the centuries assumed inherent hostility among religions and cultures.
And there was plenty else that caused people to sit up. The Christian narratives were created before the religion was state-authorized by the Roman Emperor Constantine—i.e., before the persecution of Christians was lifted—and before any institutional Church had even decided what the narrative components of the religion were. The Jewish narratives were created before rabbis reinterpreted, about a thousand years later, what “graven images” meant.
Founded by the Greeks, Dura prospered under the Romans until 256, when it was sacked by what more recently might be called Persian armies. Everything in the exhibit is from the Roman period. According to Dr. De Staebler, Dura had a population of around 10,000. But after it was sacked, the city was virtually abandoned. It remained unknown and unexplored for 18 centuries until accidentally rediscovered in 1920 by British troops. Because the area is so dry, Dr. Chi said, the objects are in what she calls “a remarkable state of preservation.”
Situated above the Euphrates River and at the intersection of international trade routes in the region, Dura thrived as both a military garrison and an important way-station for merchant caravans traveling to and from the Mediterranean and Arabian seas. The excavations, begun in the 1920s, uncovered “a multilayered society,” said Dr. Chi. Some of that complex layering can be seen in the concurrent use of the many languages that attest to Dura’s international character—Greek, Aramaic, Latin, Parthian, Persian, Hebrew and numerous dialects from as far away as North Arabia were found, sometimes in an unexpected hodgepodge. Inscriptions on the city gates were bilingual. A donor’s name on one synagogue tile is in Aramaic, and on another tile the same name is in Greek.
This cosmopolitan city’s cultural and social fabric is briefly explored with a portrait of a Roman actuary, objects of daily life like a child’s leather shoe, locally produced green-glazed pottery, plates and bowls imported from Tunisia and the Aegean coast and military artifacts like bronze horse armor. A painted wood and rawhide shield decorated with a Roman imperial eagle at the top and a lion at the bottom is considered the best preserved of its kind.
The exhibition also features an interactive display that shows the buildings found at Dura and some of their floor plans and photographs from the initial excavations in the 1920s and 1930s.
The display is clarifying, but museum-goers may be both flummoxed and delighted by what they find at the five-year- old Institute, which puts on two exhibitions a year. At most museums, curators almost invariably display ancient art as either Egyptian, or Greek, or Roman. Each culture’s objects are arranged separately and chronologically to demonstrate a supposed stylistic development. Go across the street to the Metropolitan Museum and you’ll see a superb example of how the ancient world is conventionally organized
N.Y.U.’s Institute presents what Dr. Chi calls “alternative viewpoints of ancient culture.” Its faculty, composed of historians, archaeologists, epigraphers, art historians and others, is, she said, “not restricted by departmental disciplines,” just as the exhibitions are not forced into a conventional intellectual straightjacket. In contrast to usual museum practice, here aesthetic value is only one consideration in deciding what to show and, she said, “it’s not what you look at first.”
The Christian wall paintings may seem crude, for example, especially when compared with some of the pagan imagery whose forms had been developed by artists over centuries. But consider the mere fact that miracles are being represented—one shows Jesus and Peter walking on water, another the Healing of the Paralytic—at a time when Christian iconography was scarcely in existence and gospel had not yet been separated from apocrypha. These paintings, part of a programmatic series of scenes about salvation, may be the earliest manifestation of the visual church.
“We are not about the greatest hits,” said Dr. Chi, “but about finding a balance between art and context.”