To Nurture or Neglect: The Body in Early Christian Art and Cappadocian Thought
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 7 (1990)
Christians of the fourth century faced a true dilemma when contemplating the beauty of the human form. Did the body deserve care and honor as a noble creation of God, or was it a fleshy and corrupt hindrance to spiritual growth? Centuries of exegesis had left the matter largely unresolved by the time the Cappadocian Fathers began setting forth their views on the subject. Basil of Caesarea, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus, were among the most influential theologians of their day. What they felt to be the proper role of physical beauty in Christian dogma reveals, not surprisingly, a blending of the Classical philokalia and austere Biblical sensibility. Yes, the body should be nurtured to give recognition to God, the Master Craftsman; and yes, the body must be neglected in order to suppress its dangerous urges. Surprising though it may seem, these contrasting opinions were held simultaneously, without apparent thought of contradiction.
Such duality was commonplace in the realm of Christian aesthetics. It involved issues such as the inherent perfection of man and the physical appearance of Christ. When the artist wished to depict inspirational Christian heroes, two drastically different figure types emerged under the term “athlete” and became synonymous representations of the ideal man. This paper will briefly explore these body types as they are expressed in the writings of the Cappadocian Fathers and illustrated in the art of the third to the seventh centuries.