This article is the first in a series of posts featuring the scholars from the International Catacomb Society
“Do they not know that it is not fitting for a Christian to go about in the dress of philosophers?” Damasus, bishop of Rome, posed this rhetorical question in a letter to bishops in Macedonia around the year 380. He was writing about Maximus, a protégé of Athanasius and defender of Nicaea, who attempted to supplant Gregory of Nazianzus as bishop of Constantinople. Damasus wrote to condemn Maximus’ usurpation and did so by focusing on his appearance. From the descriptions of Gregory and Damasus, Maximus had an unusual fashion sense for a Christian cleric: he dressed like contemporary philosophers. His hair and beard were long; he wore the philosopher’s distinctive robe; he carried a staff; and he wore cosmetics. Maximus, sometimes called “the Cynic” because of his appearance, had studied philosophy before turning to asceticism and, eventually, the Christian priesthood. Incidentally, prior to the confrontation with Gregory, Gregory had praised Maximus, not only for his orthodoxy and breadth of philosophical knowledge, but even for his appearance. In Oration 25 Gregory remarks that Maximus’ appearance was a twofold asset: on the one hand, it symbolized the harmony between revelation and philosophy for those Christians who would reject philosophy; on the other, it gave Maximus a foot in the door in debates with non-Christian philosophers. According to Gregory, Maximus “assume[d] their trappings and outward appearance while adopting our truth and sublimity.” After Maximus’ attempted usurpation, Gregory changed his tune. Reflecting on the event in a subsequent oration and in his later autobiographical poem De vita sua, he rejected Maximus as a charlatan and ridiculed his appearance.
This episode and its rhetorical aftermath expose a tension among late fourth-century Christian intellectuals and bishops regarding the “fittingness” of philosophy and philosophical culture, in particular, dress, and appearance. This tension is drawn even tighter when we consider the harsh rhetoric aimed at the philosopher’s appearance in writers such as John Chrysostom (“coworkers of the devil”) and Damasus (“the dress of idols”) and the frequency with which the “philosopher’s look” appears in early Christian art. It is literally everywhere: on sarcophagi, in the catacombs, on the walls and apses of basilicas, manuscript illuminations. This tension is the subject of my current research.
The philosopher “type” is so ubiquitous in early Christian art – and in Late Antique art in general – that it is easy to overlook. After all, men dressed in tunics with an outer mantle wrapped around them is just typical ancient clothing, right? Yes and no. The simple, rectangular mantle (himation in Greek) was what Greek men wore in the classical era. But Socrates sparked a fashion revolution of sorts by wearing his with worn-out edges (hence the term tribōn) and without a tunic, exposing his torso. This fashion was immortalized in Plato’s dialogues and infused with meaning: Socrates’ appearance was emblematic of his virtue, his austerity, and his masculinity. An important shift occurs here as real clothing (the fabrics that Socrates wore) is transformed into what Roland Barthes called “written clothing.” This is not simply description, but a verbalization of garments that relates them to various contexts, values, experiences, and emotions. This shift from real clothing to written clothing does something important: it delimits the meaning ascribed to clothing and structures a value-laden context around it. Clothing becomes a signifier. It becomes language. Prior to this delimiting, clothing communicates a broad spectrum of varied, and sometimes contrasting, meanings. Think of the range of meanings, positive and negative, that the black habit and white collar of a Catholic priest elicits in western society. In antiquity, the philosopher’s robe carried a similarly broad range of meaning. Dio of Prusa (c. 40-112 C.E.) complained that the philosopher’s look often invited harassment and abuse from the general public, while it should elicit respect and inspiration to good behavior. His oration on the appearance of the philosopher (Or. 72) is a good example of the way clothing is verbalized to steer an audience towards an understanding of the orator, his profession, and philosophy itself.
In the Roman era, the Greek mantle was often contrasted with the Roman toga, which was bulkier, of a different cut, and a more complex array of folds and draping (you needed a slave to help you put it on!). For Cicero, a Roman who dressed in the Greek pallium (as the Greek garment was called in Latin) was exposing his turpitude. Tertullian devoted an entire treatise to the garment (De pallio) when he put aside his toga to don it. He describes the pallium as the garment of philosophers, orators, teachers, and Christians, too, adherents of “the better philosophy.” Art historian Paul Zanker has demonstrated that the pallium became something of a popular fashion in Rome and across the empire – at least in representational art – by the third century C.E. Portraits on sarcophagi and in funerary frescoes depict men (and sometimes women) of various ranks, classes, and ethnicities dressed in the pallium and posed as philosophers or orators, scrolls in hand and with their index and middle fingers aloft in an oratorical gesture. Moses is decked out in a pallium in the Dura Europos frescoes. Christians also incorporated this iconography into funerary portraiture with numerous examples on Christian sarcophagi. This portraiture also extended into the iconography of Jesus Christ. One of the earliest examples is found on the so-called polychrome fragments housed in the Museo Nazionale Romano—Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, which shows a bare-chested Christ with long curly hair and beard, dressed in the pallium and declaiming while seated. Over the course of the fourth and fifth centuries, the pallium will adorn just about every Christian space.
Why is this significant? When clothing is represented in visual form (what Barthes called “image-clothing”), a similar delimiting of meaning takes place. However, it is not as definitive or clear-cut as verbalizing. There is still room for a range of meaning. In Roman-era art, images of philosophers memorialized and adorned. They filled classrooms and other learning spaces with an aura of authority and a link to a past tradition. In funerary art, the image was meant to communicate something about the deceased: about their education, their morality, and their cultured character – whether true or not.
So what interest did Christians have in perpetuating this type? From what I can tell, this was not about “borrowing” or “appropriating” from Roman art, nor simply about presenting Christianity as the “true philosophy.” In many ways, this isn’t even just about art. The appearance of the philosopher type in early Christian art was part and parcel of developments in late antique education, intellectual culture, and philosophical competition. In my first book, The Philosophical Life: Biography and the Crafting of Intellectual Identity in Late Antiquity (CUA, 2013), I explored the ways in which the image and identity of the philosopher was contested, developed, and molded in the biographical literature of Christian and Neoplatonist authors writing in the third through sixth centuries. These authors and their circles were invested (literally and figuratively) in intellectual culture. Moreover, they were seeking ways to direct the course of knowledge, tradition, pedagogical authority, and piety both from a foundation of shared ideas, values, and practices, and as competing parties within the intellectual field whose worldviews conflicted in significant ways. My current research moves this scenario from texts to images, and also considers where real, written-, and image-clothing intersect: how clothing was worn, how it was written about, and how it was visually represented as educational institutions, pedagogical authority, and theories of knowledge and virtue were in flux. Though I am not an art historian, I have taken much guidance from the scholarship of art historians like Paul Zanker, Robin Jensen, and Jaś Elsner. But I also enter these questions through cultural and social history, philosophy and theology, semiotics, and dress studies. This last field has been especially enlightening and, in many ways, has opened up this topic for me in fascinating ways.
The fifth-century Neoplatonist Proclus reportedly ordered his students in Athens to continue to wear the pallium in public. Such a display was an assertion of professional identity that was particularly risky in the shadow of the destructive rhetoric Christian leaders aimed towards its wearers. It was also an act of resistance. Meanwhile, though Christian clergy and intellectuals had abandoned the philosopher’s look (with the occasional exception) – and some, like Claudianus Mamertus, doing so precisely to distinguish themselves from other Platonists – the One known as the Logos and Wisdom of God would continue to be outfitted with the long hair, beard, and pallium that Damasus, Chrysostom, and Claudianus mocked. So too the Hebrew patriarchs, the angels, and the rest of the heavenly hosts. This iconographic theme originated in pre-Constantinian contexts when Christians sought out a place in the intellectual field. As the preservation, reception, and inculcation of the Greek philosophical tradition increasingly became the domain of Christian intellectuals, one of its most cogent visual symbols, the pallium, endured not in fabrics, but in stones, glass, and paint. Socrates’ cloak was now in Christ’s wardrobe. Next time you view some early Christian art, you will be hard pressed to miss this divine fashion.
 Gregory of Nazianzus, Or. 25.5 (trans. M. Vinson, St. Gregory of Nazianzus: Select Orations, FC 107, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003, p. 161)
Dr. Arthur P. Urbano is an Associate Professor in the Theology Department at Providence College. He is on the Board of Directors for the International Catacomb Society. You may find more of Dr. Urbano's photography at his Flickr account.