From Philosophers to Apostles

One of the traditions of pagan antiquity that was incorporated by Christians was the esteem in which philosophers were held. Over the course of the 3rd and 4th centuries, the apostles of Christ acquired a status similar to that accorded to pagan philosophers as venerable teachers and spiritual leaders. The portrayal of the apostles in art adopted the characteristics that best suited their function as Christianity’s first teachers. Philosophers were usually depicted bearded, sometimes balding, wearing undecorated togas and holding scrolls. These attributes signified to the viewer that the subject was a contemplative man.

It was not unusual to find the portraits of philosophers elevated to the exalted company of deities and emperors. In Aphrodisias in Caria, for example, honorary portraits of the emperors, gods and goddesses, heroes, and esteemed philosophers were erected in public spaces; as late as the 6th century, groups of philosophers could be found decorating civic monuments. Portraits of prominent figures were not merely set up for commemoration, but they were sometimes actually venerated. Pliny (1st century AD) writes that disciples of the philosopher Epicurus carried his portraits in procession at collective celebrations and privately kept his image in their households. The emperor Alexander Severus (d. 235) is said to have honored portraits of gods, deified emperors, philosophers, and even Christ. Nor were Christians immune to this tradition. Saint Augustine of Hippo tells us that his friend Marcellina, a Carpocratian Gnostic, burned incense and kneeled in front of the images of Christ and the apostle Paul, along with those of Homer and Pythagoras.

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Bust from a Herm
Late 2nd−mid 3rd century. Parian marble
Delphi, Archaeological Museum, 5667
Photo © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism

(Photo: Christos Galazios)

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The exhibition is jointly organized by the Onassis Foundation (USA) and the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens. With the scholarly support of an advisory committee from the Program in Hellenic Studies at Princeton University.