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The history of a religion is not the history of a theology. The subtleties without value with which they have ornamented this name are the parasite which devours the religions.

Jesus had no theology, he had the most lively feeling that could be of Divine things, and of the filial communion of man with God. Thus he did 300not institute a worship, properly speaking, outside of what he already found established by Judaism. The “breaking of bread,” accompanied by the action of grace or the eucharist, was the only rite a little symbolic which he adopted; and yet Jesus does nothing but give it importance and appropriate it, for the beraka (benediction) before breaking the bread had always been a Jewish usage. However this may be, this mystery of bread and wine is considered as being the body and blood of Jesus, so much so, that those who eat and drink of them partake of Jesus, become the generating element of a whole religion. The ecclesia or assembly was the foundation. Christianity has never gone from that. The ecclesia, having for central object the communion or eucharist, became the mass: now the mass has always reduced the remainder of the Christian cult to the rank of accessory and secondary practice.

They were far, about the time of Marcus-Aurelius, from the primitive Christian assembly, during which two or three prophets, often women, fell into ecstasy, speaking at the same time, and demanding from each other after the attack what wonderful things they had said. That was no longer seen among the Montanists. In the immense majority of the churches the elders and the bishops presided over the assembly, ruling the readings, they only speaking. Women are seated apart silent and veiled. Order reigns throughout, thanks to a considerable number of secondary employés having distinct functions. Little by little the seat of the episcopos and the seats of the presbyteri constitute a central half circle choir. The eucharist demands a table before which the celebrant pronounces the prayers and the mysterious words. Soon they established a rood-loft for the readings and the sermons, then a chancel of separation 301between the presbyterium and the remainder of the hall. Two reminiscences ruled all this infancy of Christian architecture; first a vague remembrance of the Temple at Jerusalem, of which a part was accessible to the priests alone in a preoccupation of the grand heavenly liturgy found in the Apocalypse. The influence of this book upon the liturgy was of the first order. The desire was to do on earth what the twenty-four old men and the beast-shaped singers did before the throne of God. The service of the Church was thus modelled upon that of heaven. The use of incense doubtless came from the same inspiration. The lamps and the candles were specially employed at funerals.

The grand liturgical act of the Sunday was a chef d’œuvre of mystery and of understanding of the popular sentiments. It was already the mass, but the complete mass, not the flattened mass, if I dare to say so, crushed down as in our days; it was the mass living in all its parts, each part preserving the primitive signification which it later on so strangely lost. This mixture, skilfully composed of psalms, canticles, prayers, readings, professions of faith—this sacred dialogue between the bishop and the people—prepared their souls to think and feel in common. The homily of the bishop, the reading of the correspondence from foreign bishops and from persecuted churches, gave life and actuality to the peaceful assembly. Then came the solemn preface to the mystery, announced full of gravity, the recall of souls to contemplation, then the mystery itself, a secret canon, some prayers more holy even than those which had preceded; then the act of supreme brotherhood, the partaking of the same bread and the same cup. A sort of solemn silence fell upon the Church at that moment. Then when the mystery was finished life was renewed, the chants recommenced, the 302actions of grace even multiplied; a long prayer embraced all the orders of the Church, all the conditions of humanity, all the established powers. Then the president, after having exchanged with the faithful some pious desires, dismissed the assembly by the ordinary formula in judicial audiences, and the brethren separated full of edification for many days.

This assembly of the Sunday was in a manner the knot of all the Christian life. This sacred bread was the universal bond of the Church of Jesus. They sent it to the absent at their homes, to the confessors in prison, and from one church to the other, especially about the time of Easter; they gave it to the children, it was the grand sign of communion and brotherhood. The agape, an evening repast in common, not distinguished at first from the supper, became separated more and more and degenerated into abuse. The supper, on the contrary, became essentially a morning office, the distribution of the bread and wine was made by the elders and deacons. The faithful received it standing. In certain countries, especially in Africa, they believed because of the prayer, “Give us each day our daily bread,” it was a duty to communicate every day. They carried away for that purpose a morsel of blessed bread, which they ate by themselves in the family after the morning prayer.

They were pleased, in imitation of the mysteries, to surround this supreme act with profound secrecy. Some precautions were taken that the initiated alone should be present in the church at the moment when it was celebrated. This was nearly the only fault which the budding Church committed. They believed because it sought the shade that it had need of it, and this, joined indeed to other indications, furnished appearances for the accusation of magic. The holy kiss was also a great source of 303edification and danger. The sage doctors recommended that it should not be repeated if any pleasure was felt in it, nor be taken twice, nor should the lips be open. They were not slow besides to suppress the danger by introducing the danger into the Church of the separation of the sexes. The Church had no temple, for they maintained as a fixed principle that God has no need of a temple, that his true temple is the heart of the righteous man. It had certainly no architecture which could make it recognised; it was at that time only a house apart. They called it “the House of the Lord,” and the most tender sentiments of Christian piety commenced to cling to it. The assemblies at night, no doubt, because they were forbidden by law, had a great charm for the imagination. At bottom, although the true Christian held temples in aversion, the Church aspired secretly to become a temple; it became so completely in the middle ages. The chapel and the church of our days resemble much nearer the ancient temples than the churches of the second century.

An idea soon spread abroad contributed much to this transformation; it was represented that the eucharist was a sacrifice, since it was the memorial of the supreme sacrifice accomplished by Jesus. This imagination filled up a lacuna which the new religion appeared to present to the eyes of superficial people—I mean the want of sacrifices. Accordingly the eucharistic table became an altar, and it was a matter of offerings and oblations. These oblations were the very same bread and wine which the wealthy believers brought, that it should not be at the Church’s expense, the remainder belonging to the poor and the servants of the cult. One can see how such a doctrine might become fertile in misunderstandings. The Middle 304Ages, which abused the mass so much by exaggerating the idea of sacrifice, arrived at this through a strange course. From transformations to transformations, they had come to the low mass, where a man, in a little recess, with an infant which took the place of the people, presided over an assembly consisting of himself alone, speaking in dialogue without ceasing with people who were not there, apostrophising absent auditors, taking the offering himself, giving the kiss of peace to it alone.

The Sabbath, at the end of the second century, was very nearly suppressed by the Christians. They appeared to find in it a mark of Judaism—a bad mark. The first Christian generations celebrated both Saturday and Sunday, the one in memory of the creation, the other as the souvenir of the resurrection; then everything concentrated itself on the Sunday. It was not that they looked exactly upon the second as a day of rest; the Sabbath was abrogated—not transferred; but the solemnities of Sunday, and especially the idea that this day ought to be one entirely for joy (it was forbidden to fast or to pray on one’s knees), brought back the abstention from servile labour. It was much later that they came to believe that the precept of the Sabbath was applied to the Sunday. The first rules in this matter only concerned slaves, to whom from a feeling of pity they wished to secure some holidays. Thursday and Friday, dies stationum, were consecrated to fasting, to genuflexions and the souvenir of the Passion. The annual feasts were the two Jewish festivals, the Passover and Pentecost, with the transpositions known to them. As to the feast of Palms, it was half suppressed. The custom of shaking branches and crying Hosanna! associated as much good as evil with the Sunday before the Passover, in 305memory of a circumstance in the last week of Jesus. The anniversary day of the Passion was dedicated to fasting; on that day they abstained from the holy kiss.

The worship of the martyrs took already a place so considerable that the Pagans and the Jews made objections to it, maintaining that the Christians revered the martyrs more than Christ himself. They buried them in view of the resurrection, and they placed around them refinements of luxury which contrasted with the simplicity of Christian manners; they almost worshipped their bones. On the anniversary of their death they went to their graves; they read the story of their martyrdom; they celebrated the eucharistic mystery in remembrance of them. It was the extension of the commemoration of the departed, a pious custom which held a large place in the Christian life. They were nearly saying mass for the dead now. On the day of their anniversary they made the offering for them, as if they lived still; they brought their names into the prayers which preceded the consecration; they ate the bread in communion with them. The worship of the saints, by which Paganism resumed its place in the Church—prayers for the dead, a source of the greatest abuse in the Middle Ages—was thus drawn from what, in primitive Christianity, was most elevated and pure.

The ecclesiastical chant existed from an early time, and was one of the expressions of the Christian conscience. It was applied to hymns whose composition was free, and of which we have a specimen in Clement of Alexandria’s hymn to Christ. The rhythm was short and light; it was that of the songs of the time, of those for example to which Anacreon was set. There was nothing in common, in any case, between them and the recitative 306of the Psalms. We can find some echo in the Paschal liturgy of our churches, which has specially preserved its archaic air in the Judeo-Christian Victimæ paschali; in the O filii et filiæ and the Alleluia. The carmen antelucanum of which Pliny speaks, or the office in galli cantu is found probably in the Hymnum dicat turba fratrum, especially in the following strophe, of which the silvery sound nearly brings back to us the air to which it was sung:—

Galli cantos, gall plausus

Proximum sentit diem,

Et ante lucem muntiemus

Christum regem seculo.

Baptism had completely replaced circumcision, of which it was, in its origin among the Jews, only the preliminary. It was administered by a triple immersion in a separate place near the church: then the illuminated was introduced into the assembly of believers. Baptism was followed by the imposition of hands—the Jewish rite at the ordination of the rabbinate. It was what they called the baptism of the Spirit; without this baptism with water was incomplete. Baptism was nothing but a breaking with the past; it was by the imposition of hands that one became really a Christian. There were joined with this some anointings with oil, the origin of what is called confirmation, and a sort of profession of faith by questions and responses. All this constituted the definitive seal, the sphragis. The sacramental idea, the ex opere operato, the sacrament conceived of as a sort of magical operation, became thus one of the bases of the Christian theology. In the third century a species of novitiate in baptism, the catechumenate, was established; the faithful arrived at the threshold of the church only after 307having passed through the gradual orders of initiation. The baptism of infants began to appear about the end of the second century. It shall find up to the fourth century decided adversaries.

Penance was already regulated at Rome about the time of the pseudo-Hermas. That institution which supposed a society so strongly organised made some surprising developments. It is a wonder that it did not rend the budding Church. If anything proves how much the Church was beloved, and the intensity of the joy which was found in it, it is to see to what rude trials men submitted to re-enter and regain among the saints the place which they had lost. Confession or avowal of the fault, already practised by the Jews, was the first condition of Christian penance.

Never, we can see, was the material of a worship more simple. The vessels of the Supper became sacred only slowly. The saucers of glass, which were used there, were the first to be an object of a certain attention.

The adoration of the cross was a respect rather than a worship; the symbolism remained of extreme simplicity. The palm, the dome with the fish, the ΙΧΘΥΣ, the anchor, the phœnix, the ΑΩ, the T forming the cross, and probably already the chrisimon to mean Christ; such were nearly all the received allegorical figures. The cross itself was never represented, neither in the churches nor in the houses; on the contrary, the sign of the cross, made by bringing the hand to the forehead, was often repeated, but it cannot be that this usage was particularly dear.

The worship of the heart, on the other hand, was the most developed that had ever been. Although the liberty of the charismas had already been well reduced by the episcopate, spiritual gifts, miracles, direct inspiration, continued in the Church and 308made the life of it. Irenæus saw in these supernatural faculties which marked it as the Church of Jesus. The martyrs of Lyons still shared in them. Tertullian believed himself surrounded by perpetual miracles. It is not only among the Montanists that a superhuman character is given to the most simple acts. Theopneustism and thaumaturgy in the whole Church were the permanent state. They only spoke by female spirits, who made certain replies, and were like harps resounding under the touch of the divine bow. The soror, whose souvenir Tertullian has preserved to us, astonished the Church by her visions. Like the illuminati of Corinth of the time of St. Paul, she mingled her revelations with the solemnities of the Church; she read their hearts; she pointed out remedies; she saw the souls corporeally like some little beings of human form, aërial, brilliant, tender, and transparent. Some ecstatic children passed also for the interpreters whom the Divine Word had chosen.

Supernatural medicine was the first of these gifts, which they considered as the heritages of Jesus. The holy oil was the instrument of it. The Pagans were frequently healed by the oil of the Christians. As to the art of chasing away demons, everybody knows that the exorcist Christians had a great superiority; from all sides they brought the possessed, that they might be delivered absolutely, as the thing takes place to-day in the East. It even happened among those people who were not exorcised in the name of Jesus. Some Christians were indignant; but the majority rejoiced at it, seeing there a homage to truth. They did not stop in such a good path. As the false gods were nothing but demons, the power of chasing away demons implied the power of unmasking the false gods. The exorcist thus incurred 309the accusation of magic, which was reflected upon the entire Church.

The orthodox Church saw the danger of these spiritual gifts, remnants of a powerful primitive ebullition, that the Church must be disciplined, under pain of being extinguished. The sensible doctors and bishops were opposed to it: for these marvels, which charmed the irrational Tertullian, and to which St. Cyprian attached so much importance, gave place to evil reports, and there mingled with them some individual oddities which orthodoxy opposed. Far from encouraging them, the Church marked the charismas with suspicion, and in the third century, without disappearing, they became more and more rare. Ecstasy was doomed. The bishop became the depository of the charismas, or rather the charismas were succeeded by the sacrament, administered by the clergy, while the charisma is an individual matter, an affair between man and God. The synods inherited permanent revelation. The first synods were held in Asia Minor against the Phrygian prophets; brought into the Church, the principle of inspiration by the Spirit became a principle of order and authority.

The clergy were already a body distinct from the people. A great complete Church, besides the bishop and elders, had a certain number of deacons and assistant-deacons attached to the bishops and the ministers of his orders. It possessed, besides, a series of less functionaries, anagnostes or readers, exorcists, porters, singers or chanters, acolytes, who served in the ministry of the altar, filled the cups with water and wine, and carried the eucharist to the sick. The poor and the widows cared for by the Church, and who remained there more or less, were considered as people of the Church, and were inscribed on her rolls (matricularii). They filled 310the humblest offices, such as that of sweeping, later that of ringing bells, and lived along with the clergy from the surplus of the offerings of bread and wine. For the higher orders of the clergy, celibacy became more and more established; at least, second marriages were forbidden. The Montanists began soon to claim that the sacraments administered by a married priest were null. Castration was never anything but an excess of zeal, and was soon condemned. The sister-companions of the apostles, whose existence was established by well-known texts, were found among these thus introduced, a sort of deaconess-servants, who formed the origin of the concubinage avowed by the clergy in the Middle Ages. Rigorists demanded that they should be veiled, to prevent the too tender sentiments which might arise in the brethren in the ministry of love.

The graves became from the end of the second century an annexe of the Church, and the object of an ecclesiastical service. The mode of Christian burial was always that of the Jews, inhumation, which consisted of placing the body enveloped in a shroud in a sarcophagus formed like a trough, often surmounted by an arcosolium. Cremation always inspired great repugnance in the faithful. The Mithraists and other Oriental sects shared the same ideas, and practised at Rome what was called the Syrian mode of burial. The Greek belief in the immortality of the soul led to burning, the Oriental belief in the resurrection led to interment. Many indications point to the most ancient Christian burials in Rome near St. Sebastian on the Appian Way. There the Jewish and Mithraist cemeteries are found. It is believed that the bodies of the apostles Peter and Paul rest in this place, and that is why they have called it Catatumbas, “to the tombs.”


About the time of Marcus-Aurelius a decided change took place. The question which preoccupied the great towns made an imperious demand. Just as the system of cremation was sparing in the matter of space consecrated to the dead, so inhumation in the Jewish, Christian, and Mithraist manner crowded the surface of the ground. One needed to be rich to purchase, while alive, a loculus in the dearest ground in the world, at the gate of Rome. When the great masses of population in comfortable circumstances wished to be interred in this way, it was necessary to go under ground. They dug to a certain depth to find black beds sufficiently firm; there they began to pierce horizontally, sometimes in many stages, those labyrinths in whose vertical walls were opened the loculi. The Jews, the Sabazians, the Christians simultaneously adopted this kind of burial, which agreed well with the congregational mind, and the taste for mystery which distinguished them. Now, the Christians having continued this kind of burial during the third, fourth, and a part of the fifth century, the collection of catacombs in the environs of Rome was nearly altogether a Christian work. From necessities analogous to those which caused these vast hypogea around Rome, they were produced likewise at Naples, Milan, Syracuse and Alexandria.

In the first years of the third century, we see Pope Zephyrin entrusting his deacon Callistus with the care of these great mortuary depôts. They were what is called cemeteries or “sleeping places;” for men believed that the dead slept there waiting for the day of resurrection. Many martyrs were interred there. From this time the respect which had been connected with the bodies of the martyrs was applied to the places where they were laid. The catacombs were soon holy places. The 312organisation of the burial service was complete under Alexander Severus. About the time of Fabian and Cornelius, this service is one of the principal preoccupations of Roman piety. To repose near the martyrs, ad sanctos ad martyres, was a privilege. Year by year, the mysteries were celebrated over these sacred tombs. Hence the cubicula or sepulchral chambers, which, grown larger, became subterranean chapels, where they assembled in times of persecutions. Besides, they added sometimes scholæ, serving as a triclinium for the agapes. Assemblies under such conditions had the advantage that they could be taken as funerals, which placed them under the protection of the law. The cemetery, which was subterranean or in the open air, became thus a place essentially ecclesiastical. The fossor in some churches was a clergyman of the second order, like the anagnost and the porter. The Roman authority, which in questions of sepulture gave large toleration, very rarely interfered with these subterranean places; they admitted, except at moments of furious persecution, that the property of these consecrated areæ belonged to the community, that is to say, to the bishop. The entrance to the cemeteries was, besides, nearly always masked on the exterior by some family burying ground, whose right was beyond dispute.

Thus the principle of burial by the brotherhood stood complete in the third century. Each sect built its subterranean passage and enclosed it. The separation of the dead became a common right. They were classed by their religion in the tomb; to remain after death with his brethren became a necessity. Up to that point, burial had been an individual or family matter; now it became a religious and collective matter; it supposed a community of opinions on divine things. 313It is not one of the least difficult that Christianity shall meet in the future.

From its first beginning, Christianity was thus as opposed to the development of the plastic art as Islam has been. If Christianity had remained Jewish, architecture alone would have developed, as has been the case with the Mussulmans; the Church would have been like the Mosque, a grand house of prayer—that would have been all. But religions are what the races who adopt them make them. Brought among people who were the friends of art, Christianity became a religion as artistic as it would have been little so if it had remained in the hands of the Judeo-Christians. Thus it was some heretics who founded Christian art. We have seen the Gnostics entering into that path, with an audacity which scandalised the true believers. It was still too much so; everything that recalled idolatry was suspected. The painters who were converted were looked on askance, as having seemed to turn away to graven images the homage due to the Creator. The images of God and Christ, I mean the isolated images which seemed like idols, excited apprehension, and the Carpocratians, who had busts of Jesus, and addressed Pagan honours to them, were considered profane. The Mosaic precepts against figured representations were obeyed to the letter in the churches. The idea of the uncomeliness of Jesus, subversive of Christian art, was widely spread. There were some painted portraits of Jesus, St. Peter, and St. Paul, but this custom was regarded as being unseemly. The making of the statue of the woman with the issue of blood appeared to Eusebius as having need of an excuse; that excuse was that the woman who witnessed thus belief in Christ acted from a remnant of Pagan habit and by a pardonable confusion of 314ideas. Otherwise Eusebius repelled as entirely profane the desire to have portraits of Jesus.

The arcosolia of the tombs some called pictures. They were made at first purely decorative, destitute of all religious significance; vines, leaves, vases, fruits, birds. Then Christian symbols were mixed with these; then they painted some simple scenes, borrowed from the Bible, and in which a special delight was found in the time of persecution; such as Jonah under his gourd, or Daniel in the den of lions, Noah and his dove, Psyche, Moses drawing water from the rock, Orpheus charming the beasts with his lyre, and especially the Good Shepherd, in which they could only copy one of the most widely spread types of Pagan art. The historical subjects of the Old and New Testaments did not appear till most recent times. The table, the sacred bread, the mystic fishes, some scene of angling, the symbolism of the supper, are, on the contrary, represented from the third century.

All this little painting of ornament, excluded still from the churches, and which was not tolerated because it tended to precedent, had absolutely nothing original in it. It would be wrong to see in those timid essays the principle of a new art. The expression was feeble; the Christian idea totally absent; the countenance generally undecided. The execution was not bad; there were some artists who had received a good enough instruction in the studio. It is very superior in any case to that which is found in the real Christian painting which was born much later. But what a difference in the expression! Among the artists of the seventh and eighth centuries one can follow a powerful effort to introduce into the scenes represented a new sentiment; the material means were quite wanting. The artists of the catacombs, on the contrary, are painters of the Pompeian kind, 315converted by some motives entirely foreign to art, and who apply their skill to what is suitable to the austere places which they decorate.

The Gospel history was only treated by the first Christian painters partially and slowly. It is here especially that the Gnostic origin may be seen with clearness. The life of Jesus, which the ancient Christian painters present, is exactly that which the Gnostics and the Docetists have set forth, that is to say, that the passion does not appear there. From the Prætorium to the resurrection all the details are suppressed, the Christ in this order of ideas not having really suffered. They disembarrassed themselves thus of the shame of the cross—a great scandal to the Pagans. At that time there were Pagans who pointed to the God of the Christians with derision as the crucified; the Christians defended themselves from this. By representing a crucifix they were afraid of provoking the blasphemies of the enemy, and to appear wedded to their own opinions. Christian art was born heretical; it bears traces of that for a long time; Christian iconography disengaged itself from the prejudices among which it was born. It only leaves it to submit to the apocryphal, themselves more or less born under a Gnostic influence. Hence a situation for a long time false. Even fully up to the Middle Ages some doctors of authority condemned art; art on its side even ranked with orthodoxy—permitted itself strange liberties. Its favourite subjects were borrowed from the condemned books, so much so that the representatives forced the gates of the church when the book which explained them had been for a long time expelled. In the west in the thirteenth century art emancipated itself all at once, but it was not the same in Oriental Christianity. The Greek Church and the Oriental churches never triumphed 316completely over that antipathy to images which has been carried to its acme in Judaism and Islamism. They condemned the relief, and shut themselves up into a hieratic imagery, out of which serious art shall have much difficulty to emerge.

We cannot see that in private life Christians made any scruple of using the products of ordinary industry, which bore no representation shocking to them. Soon, nevertheless, there were Christian workmen who, even on the usual objects, replaced the ancient ornaments by images appropriate to the taste of the sect (Good Shepherd, a dove, a fish, a ship, a lyre, an anchor). A sacred guild of gold-smiths and glass-workers was formed especially for the necessities of the supper. Ordinary lamps bore nearly all the Pagan emblems; there was soon in trade lamps with the representation of the Good Shepherd, which probably came from the same workshop as the lamps with the representations of Bacchus or Serapis. The sculptured sarcophagi, representing sacred scenes, appeared about the end of the third century. Like the Christian paintings, they did not differ except in the subject from the styles of the Pagan art of the same period.

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