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'Power and Pathos' gives a glimpse into Jesus’ world

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The very name of Jesus Christ reveals the dual environment into which Our Savior was born in Roman-ruled Judea around, as scholars now believe, between 6 and 4 B.C. Jesus is a Jewish name, and Christ (the anointed one) is Greek.

The Christian order gradually, over centuries, came to replace the Greco-Roman one. No one could have known that in 31 B.C. when the Hellenistic Age came to an end with the Roman victory at the Battle of Actium.

"Power and Pathos," an exhibition now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington affords a view into the world that Jesus and His disciples knew. When Sts. Paul, John and Timothy went to the Hellenistic city of Ephesus in their missionary journeys - and according to tradition the Blessed Virgin Mary settled there before her assumption into heaven - these early companions of Jesus would have been surrounded by Hellenistic statuary.

The first Christians were wary of statues. Mosaic law forbade "graven images" of the deity. Moreover, those subjugated by the Romans were often forced to worship statues of pagan gods or even rulers - and some paid with their lives when they refused.

It was well over a millennium before Christian artists, no longer having anything to fear from paganism, embraced Greek and Roman art as models for Christian images of Jesus, Mary and the saints. The Renaissance painter Michelangelo adapted two Hellenistic masterworks for the figures of his Sistine Chapel ceiling in Rome. Those were the Belvedere Torso and the Laocoon Group, which portrayed figures from Greek mythology and remain among the most admired treasures of the Vatican Museums today.

"Pathos" (lived, or experienced, in Greek) refers to the expression of emotion, something excluded from Classical Athenian art in the fifth century "golden age." Classical art focuses on images of the Olympian gods, perfect physical specimens at the height of their youth, serenely unmoved by human vicissitudes.

Hellenistic art not only expanded subject matter to include realistic portraits of actual individuals, but also portrayed the old and infirm, the young athlete, noblemen, artisans, and persons of differing ethnic origins. Even the Olympian gods could be portrayed with human frailties - exemplified in the exhibit by a sleeping Cupid portrayed with the chubby thighs of a toddler, or a statuette of Hercules resting from his famous labors and looking truly tired. Flab, potbellies, wrinkles, and looks of worried concentration abound.

The Hellenistic age began with the death in 323 B.C. of the military prodigy Alexander the Great, whose Macedonian-Greek armies swept through the eastern Mediterranean, conquered the Persian Empire, and reached into modern day Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. They took Greek culture with them, blending it with indigenous cultures, and opening up to non-Greek peoples once considered "barbarian." Among the colonies left behind with Alexander's death was Judea. Herod's temple, built in Jerusalem after 37 B.C., the temple described in the Gospels, was strongly influenced by Hellenistic architecture.

Bronze (a copper-tin alloy), with its great tensile strength allowing daring poses not possible in marble, its gleaming surfaces evocative of skin and hair, and its capacity for modeling detail not possible in stone, became the premier medium for sculpture. It cost more than marble, but thanks to the lost-wax process (explained in a short video accompanying the show) it was possible to create multiple originals of the same design.

Alas, bronze could easily be melted down for reuse in weapons or other works of art. Hence, many of the Hellenistic bronzes have been recovered in recent times (even in the last two decades) from underwater archaeology, the fruits of shipwrecks not only near Greece but also all over the Mediterranean along the far-flung merchant routes of Hellenistic shipping.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016