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The Alexamenos graffito

The Alexamenos graffito (also known as the graffito blasfemo[1]) is an inscription carved in plaster on a wall near the Palatine Hill in Rome. It is generally thought to be the earliest known pictorial representation of the crucifixion of Jesus.[2][3][4][5][6]

Contents

Content

Tracing of the drawing

The image depicts a human-like figure attached to a cross and possessing the head of a donkey. In the top right of the image appears what has been variously interpreted as either the Greek letter upsilon or a tau cross.[7] To the left of the image is a young man, apparently intended to represent Alexamenos,[8] raising one hand in a gesture possibly suggesting worship.[9][10]

Beneath the cross there is a caption written in crude Greek: Αλεξαμενος ϲεβετε θεον. In standard Greek, the word ϲεβετε is the imperative of the verb "worship". This would suggest a translation of the entire sentence as "Alexamenos, worship God!".[11] However it has been suggested by several scholars that ϲεβετε should be understood as a variant spelling (possibly a phonetic misspelling)[11] of Standard Greek ϲεβεται, which means "worships". As a result, the full inscription would then be translated as "Alexamenos worships [his] God".[11][12][13] However, several other sources suggest a declarative statement "Alexamenos worshipping God", or similar variants, as the intended translation.[14][15][16][17]

Date

No clear consensus has been reached as to the date in which the image was originally made. Dates ranging from the late 1st to the late 3rd century have been suggested.[12][13][18][19][20]

Discovery and location

The graffito was discovered in 1857 when a building called the domus Gelotiana was unearthed on the Palatine Hill. The emperor Caligula had acquired the house for the imperial palace, which after Caligula died became used as a Paedagogium or boarding-school for the imperial page boys. Later the street on which the house sat was walled off to give support to extensions to the buildings above, and it thus remained sealed for centuries.[5][21] The graffito is today housed in the Palatine antiquarium in Rome.[22]

Interpretation

The inscription is accepted by the vast majority of scholars to be a mocking depiction of a Christian. Both the portrayal of Jesus as having an ass's head and the depiction of him being crucified would have been considered insulting by contemporary Roman society. Crucifixion continued to be used as an execution method for the worst criminals until its abolition by the emperor Constantine in the fourth century, and the impact of seeing a figure on a cross could be compared with the impact today of portraying a man with a hangman's noose around his neck, or seated in an electric chair.[23]

The accusation that Christians practiced onolatry (donkey-worship) seems to have been common at the time. Tertullian, writing in the late second or early third century, reports that Christians, along with Jews, were accused of worshipping a deity with the head of an ass. He also mentions an apostate Jew who carried around Carthage a caricature of a Christian with ass's ears and hooves, labeled Deus Christianorum Onocoetes ("the God of the Christians begotten of an ass").[24]

Others have suggested that the graffito depicts worship of the Egyptian gods Anubis[13] or Seth[25] or that the young man is actually engaged in a gnostic ceremony involving a horse-headed figure and that rather than a Greek upsilon it is a tau cross at the top right of the crucified figure.[26]

Significance

There is some controversy whether the veneration of the crucifix depicted in the graffito was actually practiced by contemporary Christians, or whether it was another element, like the ass's head, added to the image to ridicule Christian beliefs. According to one argument, the alleged presence of a loincloth on the crucified figure, in contrast to usual Roman procedure in which the condemned was completely naked, proves that the artist must have based his illustration on an activity he had observed Alexamenos or others performing.[27]. Also, Joseph Flavius speak about these in his book: Againt Apion (Contre Apion), 2.80, 1930, 72-73. Against this it has been argued that the cross was not actually used in worship until the fourth and fifth centuries[28]. On the other hand, N. Walker spoke about the connection between the name of God in Old Testament, and the aramaic form of the sacred name.

"Alexamenos fidelis"

In the next chamber, another inscription in a different hand reads in Latin Alexamenos fidelis, meaning "Alexamenos is faithful" or "Alexamenos the faithful".[29] This has been suggested as a riposte, by an unknown party, to the mockery of Alexamenos as represented in the graffito.[30]

See also

References

  1. ^ Harold Bayley, Archaic England,: An essay in deciphering prehistory from megalithic monuments, earthworks, customs, coins, place-names, and faerie superstitions, Chapman & Hall, 1920, p. 393
  2. ^ Walter Lowrie, Monuments of the Early Church, Macmillan, 1901, p. 238
  3. ^ Dom Dunstan Adams, What is Prayer?, Gracewing Publishing, 1999, p. 48
  4. ^ Father John J Pasquini, John J. Pasquini, True Christianity: The Catholic Way, iUniverse, 2003, p. 105
  5. ^ a b Augustus John Cuthbert Hare, Walks in Rome, Volume 1, Adamant Media Corporation, 2005, p. 201
  6. ^ Viladesau, Richard (1992). The Word in and Out of Season. Paulist Press. pp. 46. ISBN 0809136260. http://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN0809136260&id=3FRi1eU4BYEC&pg=PA46&lpg=PA46&dq=alexamenos&sig=LUZ_GhWGBsQJWf9AJGVn0lQvomE#PPA46,M1.  
  7. ^ Harold Bayley, Archaic England
  8. ^ Rodolfo Lanciani, Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries, 1898, chapter 5 'The Palace of the Ceasars'
  9. ^ Thomas Wright, Frederick William Fairholt, A History of Caricature and Grotesque in Literature and Art, Chatto and Windus, 1875, p. 39
  10. ^ Augustus John Cuthbert Hare, Walks in Rome, Volume 1, Adamant Media Corporation, 2005, p. 201
  11. ^ a b c Rodney J. Decker, The Alexamenos Graffito
  12. ^ a b David L. Balch, Carolyn Osiek, Early Christian Families in Context: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003, p. 103
  13. ^ a b c B. Hudson MacLean, An introduction to Greek epigraphy of the Hellenistic and Roman periods from Alexander the Great down to the reign of Constantine, University of Michigan Press, 2002, p. 208
  14. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia, The Ass (in Caricature of Christian Beliefs and Practices)
  15. ^ The Crucifixion and Docetic Christology
  16. ^ A Sociological Analysis of Graffiti
  17. ^ Charles William King, Gnostics and their Remains, 1887, p. 433 note 12
  18. ^ Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004, p. 244
  19. ^ Hans Schwarz, Christology, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1998, p. 207
  20. ^ Rodolfo Lanciani, Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries, 1898
  21. ^ Edward L Cutts, History of Early Christian Art, Kessinger Publishing, 2004, p. 200
  22. ^ Rodney J. Decker, The Alexamenos Graffito
  23. ^ N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?, 1997, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, p. 46
  24. ^ Tertullian, Ad nationes, 1:11, 1:14
  25. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Hasset, Maurice (1913). "The Ass (in Caricature of Christian Beliefs and Practices)". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/The_Ass_(in_Caricature_of_Christian_Beliefs_and_Practices). Retrieved 2007-07-13.  . "Wünsch, however, conjectures that the caricature may have been intended to represent the god of a Gnostic sect which identified Christ with the Egyptian ass-headed god Typhon-Seth (Bréhier, Les origines du crucifix, 15 sqq.). But the reasons advanced in favour of this hypothesis are not convincing."
  26. ^ Harold Bayley, Archaic England,: An essay in deciphering prehistory from megalithic monuments, earthworks, customs, coins, place-names, and faerie superstitions, Chapman & Hall, 1920, p. 393-394
  27. ^ "Archæology of the Cross and Crucifix", Catholic Encyclopedia (1917)
  28. ^ David L. Balch, Carolyn Osiek, Early Christian Families in Context: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003, p. 103, footnote 83
  29. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Hassett, Maurice M. (1913). "Graffiti". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Graffiti. Retrieved 2007-07-13.  
  30. ^ Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004, p. 244

External links

See also and: Josephe Flavius, Contre Apion, II (VII), 2.80, traduit per Leon Blum, LBL, 1930, 72-74. Norman Walker,The Riddle of the Ass's Head..., ZAW, 9, 1963, 219-231.

This article incorporates text from the public-domain Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913.

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