This post and an upcoming posts will very briefly explain some of the major figures in the Church history during the period of AD 65 through AD 155 – the period known as the age of the Apostolic Fathers. Ultimately, Parts 7 through 9 will cover some of the key leaders within the three subsequent periods of the early Church (circa AD 155 to circa AD 800). I am presenting this material because it is critical for anyone studying and painting sacred images and sacred icons to be aware of the theological understanding of the scholars and bishops in the Church’s early history. Sacred art developed in tandem with the approved theology of the Church. I will ultimately show you how this is expressed, specifically how our Blessed Mother Mary is artistically portrayed in Part Nine and subsequent posts.
After Jesus Ascension to Heaven the Apostolic Fathers continued the mission of Jesus and His Apostles to shepherd the early Church. The term “Father” refers to the early leaders of the Church who remained faithful to the Apostolic faith and traditions and brought the early Church out of “diapers” into “young adulthood.” These men carried on the spiritual beliefs and religious traditions of the Apostles and, in some cases, directly knew the Apostles (for example, both St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp were disciples of St. John the Apostle, and St. Peter consecrated St. Clement of Rome a bishop).
The Apostolic Fathers lived and died between the years AD 65 through AD 155. Their writings began to be circulated around the year AD 95. Apostolic Fathers that I will not cover in this post are Marcion, who was an eye-witness to the martyrdom of St. Polycarp and wrote an account of it and the anonymous writers of important documents: (The Shepherd of Hermas – this document and the Apocalypse of Peter were eventually removed from the canonical collections of Christian writings), The Didache, The Epistle to Diognetus, and The Epistle of Barnabas.
Many scholars believe that the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the Epistles: of Paul, Peter, James, Jude, and John were all written before the year AD 100. Yet it took approximately another four hundred years for the dogmas, doctrines, writings and the Church approved Gospels/Epistles to be studied, discussed, codified, and accepted or eliminated by the bishops of the Catholic Church (Eastern and Western Rites). Concomitantly, the sacred art of the early Church was affected by and developed within these cultural and spiritual currents. To exemplify this I will definitely present images of these developments, as they apply to Our Blessed Mother Mary, in upcoming posts.
The Apostolic Fathers confronted numerous controversies and heresies. For example, Pope St. Clement of Rome (martyred in AD 99 or 101) addressed the question of the authority of the Bishop of Rome and clerical leadership (see his very important Letter to the Church at Corinth written in the first century). The Emperor Trajan (reigned AD 98 – 117) had him martyred by being thrown into the sea with an anchor around his neck.
While traveling to Rome to be martyred, the bishop St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote significant letters to various churches in Asia Minor on important theological issues. He promoted the structure of clerical hierarchy (deacons, priests, and bishops). Adhering to Apostolic Tradition, Ignatius promoted belief in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist (which was achieved by a validly ordained male priest through the Scriptural words of Consecration within the liturgical structure of the Holy Mass). St. Ignatius of Antioch is also the first bishop to use the word “catholic” (universal) to describe the first Christian Church communities. He was martyred in Rome’s Circus Maximus by being savaged by lions. His martyrdom occurred in AD 107 – 108.
The last Apostolic Father that I will briefly discuss in this post is the bishop St. Polycarp of Smyrna (a city in Asia Minor – currently in Turkey). Polycarp’s name, in Greek, means “much fruit.” St. Polycarp was a friend and disciple of St. John the Apostle; and he was known as a New Testament scholar, and author of an important letter to a Church community in Greece.
St. Polycarp was tireless in his fight against the Marcionite heresy. That heresy grew out of a heresy accepted by some interpreters of the Hebrew Scriptures who claimed that there were “two Gods” – one good and one bad. Polycarp was martyred in AD 155 or 156. The story of his martyrdom relates the attempted burning of this good bishop at the stake, but when the fire had no affect at all his frustrated executioners pulled him out and did the deed with a dagger!
The “Great Schism” between the Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic (Orthodox) Rites did not occur until AD 1056; and the Protestant movement did not begin until the middle of the 15th century. The Protestant Revolt came to full force in the early 16th century and continued through to the 17th century. The Protestant sects viewed sacred art as unnecessary for the faithful since they needed to concentrate only on Sacred Scripture (Sola Scriptura).
Prior to AD 1056 all Christians were “Catholics” from different cultural areas of Europe, Africa, and the Near East. Each one of these Eastern and Western Rite communities applied their own interpretation to appropriate liturgical music, sacred art, liturgical disciplines to their regional church environments. Examples of this interpretation are celibacy for male deacons and priests, and liturgical use of cultural specific language. This was achieved by remaining faithful to approved Catholic Creeds (Nicene and Apostles), Holy Scripture, clerical/hierarchical organization, etc. A unified set of Church dogmas and doctrines developed out of this 800 year history.
Thank you for stopping by and reading this brief post. My next post will briefly review the next group of “Fathers of the Church” – the Apologists.
My best wishes for a restful weekend; and if you are in the United Stats an enjoyable Super Bowl football game!
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