The Philosopher in Christian Art

By Raffaela Fazio Smith, March 16, 2012

"Traditio Legis" - Christ hands the law to St Peter and St Paul. 4th Century sarcophagus. Vatican Museums.

"Traditio Legis" - Christ hands the law to St Peter and St Paul. 4th Century sarcophagus. Vatican Museums.

An excerpt from the recently published book by Art Historian Raffaela Fazio Smith "Face of Faith" that looks at the iconography of the figure of the philosopher and teacher in classical, Jewish and Christian art.

Greco-Roman Tradition
The importance of the figure of the philosopher in the Greco-Roman world is testified by pagan statues, mosaics and funerary art often representing seated philosophers. The image of a bearded man gazing at a book on his lap occurs frequently on sarcophagi. It probably symbolises the deceased who, during his/her lifetime, had striven to achieve the values that most people ascribed to a philosophical attitude, ie, discipline and self-control, justice and courage in the face of death. These virtues were engendered by pietas towards the gods and philanthropy towards one’s fellow human beings. (Interestingly, on sarcophagi sometimes the bearded man appears between two other figures: the orant and the chriophoros who exemplified respectively devotion toward the gods and the nation, and philanthropy toward one’s fellow man.)

"Largitio" on the north face, right side of the Arch of Constantine (Rome)

"Largitio" on the north face, right side of the Arch of Constantine (Rome)

In the early years of the Roman Empire philosophy had become particularly popular. Philosophers addressed people in the streets and tried to convince them of the validity of their teaching. By the second century, philosophy schools, splintered into many competing parties (Platonists, Aristotelians, Stoics, Epicureans, Pythagoreans, Cynics, Skeptics), were part of public life. They were not merely intellectual schools of thought: they advocated ways of life pursuing moral ideals, such as freedom, courage, love, and peace of mind. In the Greek intellectual tradition, one of the main objectives of philosophy was to do good. In order to do good, however, it was essential to know the truth. Therefore knowledge preceded virtue and the latter could not exist without the former. Moral life started with the knowledge of the nature of things. The wise person, the sophos, was both an educated and a good person. Striving towards perfect knowledge led to wisdom, which, in turn, paved the way to immortality. (Many pagan sarcophagi also show the divine patrons of the philosopher: the Muses presiding over learning and the creative arts.)



Face of Faith
by Raffaela Fazio Smith

The art of the early Christian communities conveyed the strong message of a ‘revolutionary’ faith, which would use already existing instruments to spread a new vision. This vision helped shape Western civilization. Christian artwork has evolved in style and substance over the course of 2,000 years, yet many of the symbols used in paintings or sculptures can be traced back to the early Christian period, between the third and fifth centuries AD. This guide provides a detailed study of the topic while remaining simple and user-friendly and providing an extensive range of photos. It focuses on the meaning of images and presents them in connection with non-Christian traditions. It also quotes the early sources that inspired many of these images, in a systematic and schematic way. For more information and to purchase a copy click here.


Jewish Tradition and Old Testament
In the Jewish tradition (especially in pre-exilic times), the sage was not a philosopher concerned with the knowledge of the nature of things but a skilful person capable of mastering daily tasks. He knew that the source of all wisdom was not human reason but Yahweh himself. The righteous trusted completely in the Creator. True wisdom started and ended with awe before the Lord (cf. Proverbs 9:10; 14:26; Psalm 11:10; Job 28:28; Ecclesiastes 5:7; Sirach 1:11-20).After the exile, wisdom began to appear as a personified female figure (cf. Wisdom; Sirach; Proverbs). The Old Testament refers to wisdom as Yahweh’s first creature rejoicing in his mysteries (cf. Proverbs 8:22 ff). As an instrument of Yahweh’s revelation, she has a role both in creation and in the history of salvation. Sirach mentions that wisdom pitched her tent, her dwelling in Israel and in the Torah (cf. Sirach 24:8-11.23). Wisdom, however, does not only address the Israelites but issues a call to all people (cf. Proverbs 1:20-23; 8:1 ff), inviting them both to share her delight as part of God’s family, and to learn from her what true life is. This call is sometimes expressed as an invitation to a meal (cf. Proverbs 9:5; Sirach 15:2-3; 24:19-21*). She is a tree of life (cf. Proverbs 3:18), or, like the rivers of Paradise, gives abundant water (cf. Sirach 24:25 ff). Wisdom seeks and gives true love by gradually creating communion and transforming human beings from within: “I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me.” (Proverbs 8:17)

Both in catacomb frescoes and sarcophagi, a common type in early Christian art is the teacher/philosopher who often joins the company of the orant and the shepherd, like in pagan funerary art. This male figure is usually portrayed seated, in profile, barefoot, reading from a scroll, and dressed in the philosopher’s exomis tunic and mantle which shows a partially nude torso. Sometimes a small character is introduced in the scene kneeling or kissing the feet of the seated man. This early philosopher representations were normally meant to symbolise the deceased who embraced the “true philosophy” in his/her lifetime or, more generally, the teaching of the church.

In the mid fourth century a new type began to appear. The figure of the teacher/ philosopher was now shown frontally, holding up (rather than reading) a scroll, making a gesture of speech and often surrounded by other men. The central character is identified with the Risen Christ. This scene is known as Traditio Legis since the Lord hands over the Law to his disciples, usually Peter and Paul. Christ is either seated on a throne with his feet on the mantle of the sky-god to symbolise his heavenly kingdom, or stands on a mount representing both Golgotha and the New Eden (four rivers are often portrayed as flowing from under Christ’s feet). Two palm trees are sometimes introduced on either side of the scene as symbols of eternal life. The standing figure of Christ is shown with his right hand making the so-called “gesture of power”, ie, stretching out his arm and opening the palm towards the observer (a sign of triumph in the pagan representation both of Roman emperors and gods, such as Sol Invictus), and with his left hand holding the scroll. (Peter’s unusual position on Christ’s left-hand side – instead of his traditional place of honour on the right – is due to the fact that Christ makes the “gesture of power” with the right hand thus holding with the left the scroll to be handed over to Peter.)

Christ amongst the disciples, 4th century apse mosaic, once part of a Roman imperial mausoleum (now inside the Sant'Aquilino chapel of St Lawrence's basilica, Milan (Giovanni Dall'Orto)

Christ amongst the disciples, 4th century apse mosaic, once part of a Roman imperial mausoleum (now inside the Sant'Aquilino chapel of St Lawrence's basilica, Milan (Giovanni Dall'Orto)

Christ was represented as a teacher/philosopher because Christians clearly interpreted his teaching as the “true philosophy” compared to the Greco-Roman tradition and Jewish wisdom. Christian teaching in fact had things in common with both of these, but also had very specific characteristics. Certain classical philosophers (especially Socrates) and Old Testament figures were considered by some early Christian writers as “proto-Christians’ who lived according to “reason” and, with their teaching, paved the way for Christian revelation.


“Those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Hananiah, and Azariah, and Mishael, and Elijah, and many
others…” Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 46


Like many pagan philosophies, Christianity taught people how to overcome the fear of death and to implement self-restraint, justice, philanthropy. However, there was a major difference: whereas pagan philosophers believed it was impossible to know God and to practise virtue without knowing the laws determining how things are and will always be, Christians believed that Christ himself was the Truth, a mysterious truth that needed to be followed rather than fathomed. Pagan philosophers thought that God was part of nature: he dwelt in a realm above the earth, but did not exist outside the world. The cosmos had its own laws and even God was subject to them (see bottom). For Christians, on the contrary, nothing is impossible to God since God’s categories are very different from human ones: “what is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).


Galen on Moses
“…he believes everything to be possible with God, even should he wish to make a bull or a horse out of ashes. We, however, do not hold this; we say that certain things are impossible by nature and that God does not even attempt such things at all but that he chooses the best out of the possibilities of becoming”
Galen, On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body: (11.14)


In this sense, Christian doctrine is close to Jewish tradition. Both in style and often in substance, Jesus’s words were similar to the words of an Old Testament sage. He taught in the synagogues (cf. Mark 1:21-28; 6:2-6; Matthew 4:23; 9:35; 12:9-14; Luke 12:13-15) and was sometimes called “rabbi” (Mark 9:5: 11:21; 14:45). As in the teaching of wisdom, he used ordinary events to reveal the secrets of God’s kingdom (parables) and spurred his listeners to reflect and make up their minds. However, his call had an unprecedented urgency. Christ presented some similarities also with the personified figure of wisdom in the Old Testament. The Gospel of John describes Jesus in terms that were typical of hymns to wisdom: glory, light and life descending from heaven. Like wisdom, Jesus participates in God’s creation and dwells with humankind (John says that his tent is pitched among us, rather than in the Torah). He is the vine and provides the bread of life and living water; he reveals God and invites everybody to a communion of mutual love. However, to this vision of Christian wisdom Paul added a radical interpretation. He underlined the paradoxical wisdom of the event of the cross, which now became the criterion for knowing God. The crucified Christ established a new bond between divine and human realities. In him, God showed that he wanted to meet his creatures not only in the harmony and beauty of the world but also in man’s most sorrowful experiences.


“Approach me, you who desire me, and take your fill of my fruits, for memories of me are sweeter than honey, inheriting me is sweeter than the honeycomb. They who eat me will hunger for more, they who drink me will thirst for more.”
(Sirach, 15:2-3; 24:19-21)


Pagan authors on “philosophical Christians”
Galen, the famous physician who lived in the latter part of the second century, wrote in his Summary of Plato’s Republic: “Thus we now see people called Christians, though they have drawn their faith from mere allegories, sometimes acting like true philosophers. For their lack of fear of death and of what they will meet thereafter is something we can see everyday, and likewise their restraint in cohabitation. For they include not only men but also women who have refrained from cohabiting all through their lives; and they include people who, in self-discipline and self-control in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice, have attained a pitch not inferior to that of true philosophers.”.

Iconographic Summary:


The Philosopher/Teacher = Christians/Christ/The Church

The virtues of the deceased
The early representations of the seated philosopher shown in profile symbolise the Christian deceased who had lived a life of virtue by embracing the “true philosophy”.

Christ the True Master
The representation of the philosopher/teacher shown facing head on is a figure of Christ the true master who calls his disciples (and all humankind) to listen to his words of life and entrusts them with his message.

The True Knowledge
(the teaching of the Church)
The seated philosopher/teacher could also be interpreted as the teaching of the Church which offers true knowledge, enabling the faithful to understand God and follow the example of Christ, as opposed to the empty teaching of the world.

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