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date: 21 July 2019

Abstract and Keywords

Comparing textual and visual interpretations of biblical narratives is complicated insofar as the two modes address distinct intellectual activities: reading and viewing. Although early Christian art often presents scenes and characters from Scripture, it represents much more than literal illustration of its source texts. Art necessarily amplifies details, provides expanded context, and places the figures within a larger compositional framework, all of which guide viewers’ interpretation of familiar stories. Images often even diverge from the narratives in significant ways and are juxtaposed in order to point to an overarching, theological meaning. Thus, while early Christian biblical art is essentially exegetical, it operates through visual perception rather than verbal exposition. Images also interact directly with their surroundings in ways that written words do not. They appear on tombs, in churches and shrines, and on liturgical objects and common domestic vessels, thus introducing visual references to Scripture into liturgy, devotional practices, and daily activities, enriching and elaborating their significance. This chapter offers an introduction to the distinct and complex ways that early Christian art represents a form of non-verbal commentary on Scripture and takes a close look at a particularly relevant example: the depiction of Abraham’s offering of Isaac.

Keywords: Abraham, catacomb, iconography, Isaac, mosaic, San Vitale, sarcophagus, visual art

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