Christmas Tree in Context
Across from Rockefeller Center, a new exhibit illustrates the origins of the religion that Christmas commemorates
from left to right: A 6th century mosaic pavement fragment shows the month of April portrayed as a person; A double-sided slab depicting Medusa on one side and a cross on the other illustrates the transition from paganism to Christianity.
A trip to view the tree at Rockefeller Center can take on deeper meaning this year for visitors who cross the street to Olympic Tower to see an exhibit on the origins of the religion the holiday commemorates. “Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd-7th Century AD” illustrates the turning point when pagan religions prevailing in the Eastern Mediterranean were transformed into the religion of Christ.
Statues of gods and goddesses from house shrines give way to sculpted heads marked with crosses among the artifacts borrowed from museums in Greece, Cyprus and America. The profound gaze and intense features of statues of philosophers became the model used to depict the apostles.
from left to right: 1st century head of Aphrodite represents the prevailing paganism; A silver plate depicts David Fighting a Bear.
In the first section of the seven-part exhibit, the remains of a pig sacrificed to the goddess Kybele exemplifies the ancient Greek and Roman forms of worship and mystery cults prior to the time. As Christianity gained followers, markings on ancient coins blend imperial and Christian imagery. Mosaics and portrait busts show the rise of a new class of officials, and wedding rings indicate the gradual Christianization of the institution of marriage.
While worship initially took place in homes, freedom of religion led to the construction of churches and church furniture. Basilicas were based on the Roman secular type of building. Reliquaries and mosaics illustrate the rise and spread of the cult of saints.
Finally, a figure of fish and a bas relief of a shepherd holding a lamb show how popular themes were incorporated into Christian symbolism. The exhibit culminates with the famous 7th century silver David plates found in Cyprus. Narrating episodes in the life of David: defeating Goliath, fighting a bear, they show how the classical style and iconography became associated with Christian ideology.
Onassis Cultural Center, 645 Fifth Ave., New York, 212-486-4448. www.onassisusa.org