Written in the Stars

Felicity Harley-McGowan

One Sunday afternoon in February, as a snowstorm rapidly descended upon Manhattan, I darted through Grand Central Terminal in an effort to catch my train. The floors were already slippery, and as I navigated both crowds and puddles, it was hard to remain upright. On entering the vast main concourse, I saw a pair of feet, standing directly in my path.

As I prepared to skirt them, I noticed their battered shoes: The feet were barely protected from the weather, and around their ankles lapped the long damp shreds of torn trousers. I looked up to see to whom these feet belonged: a young man, oblivious to the bustle around us. His head was tilted backwards, his eyes wide, and his mouth slightly agape. Like so many visitors to New York, he was utterly transfixed by the celestial mural arching high above him.

Yet this wasn’t a tourist; this man lived on the city’s streets.

The “power” of the image has become something of a cliché. In a society awash with images, their very ubiquity means that many become lost: We simply cannot process the vast number we encounter in different media, day by day.

Sacred Collisions

Grand Central Terminal has been described as a living temple to New York’s illustrious past. As both train station and sanctuary, however, it embodies what can be achieved in the creation of beauty and functionality. With this dual role, it is not unlike the medieval cathedral – a place where the marketplace collided with the sacred, and where Christianity was at the vanguard of providing the kind of transformative experience that train stations, libraries, or museums (the new temples) now furnish.

Yet the roots of this role can be traced to the earliest Christian churches. Witnessing a young man respond with his whole body to the interior space of a train station, and to a mural within that space, caused me to reflect on just how savvy some early Christians were about the use of images in the ancient church. In fact, various leaders of early Christian communities thought carefully and often strategically about the functions of images, rather than regarding images as idle, as mere decoration.

Across the Mediterranean basin in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries, Christian communities created their own spaces for meeting, prayer, and worship. Most of these have been destroyed; some survive in the literary record, or exist in fragments; others remain intact. Piecing this evidence together, we know that many of the spaces were carefully decorated with images, and the ceilings and apses of some of the earliest purpose-built churches were painted blue to resemble the heavenly realm.

To be sure, such early Christian evocations of the heavens did not have the complexity of the zodiac mural that stretches across the barrel-vaulted ceiling at Grand Central. That mural, created in 1912 by French artist Paul César Helleu and Australian-born Charles Basing, depicts the signs of the zodiac from October to March. For months, the artists hunted for the exact shade of blue-green for the sky in order to emulate the color seen over Greece and Southern Italy. They consulted an astronomer to ensure the correct placing of familiar constellations, as well as the ecliptic, equator, and Milky Way.

Cosmic Canopy

Even without such astronomical precision, early Christian portrayals of the night sky were similarly evocative. One example dates from the 3rd century, when a Christian community in the ancient town of Dura Europos, in modern Syria, set about remodeling a house for their use and converted one room into a space for baptism.

For this room, the community devised a cycle of images that would cover the walls. Drawn from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, these images underscored the theological significance of the sacrament of baptism; they also defined the space as sacred (and they can be seen today, preserved at the Yale Art Gallery). The focal point of the room was a large font, framed by thick columns that supported a canopy, the underside of which was painted blue and speckled with white stars. Here, beneath this canopy, initiates were immersed.

They may not have looked up to behold something as extravagant as the 2,500 gold leaf stars  hat a commuter sees dispersed across the Grand Central mural; but there is no doubt that as they were immersed in the life-giving waters, the impact of the painted sky canopy that arched above their own heads was equally profound. Was humanity in 3rd-century Syria so different from humanity in the early 1900s, or today?

As I watched the star-gazing Manhattanite in February, I was also reminded of the early Christian poet and bishop Paulinus of Nola. In the 4th and 5th centuries, Christians were no longer adapting modest houses for worship but building great halls, with ceilings fit to look up at in awe. Paulinus advocated the use of images to create inspiring spaces in which to honor God, as well as instruct the faithful and the unconverted alike in the beliefs core to Christianity.

Ancient Firmaments

Paulinus had renounced a senatorial career in favor of a Christian ascetic and philanthropic life, and settled at Nola, in Campania, Italy, where he embarked on a number of building projects, renovating older churches, and building new ones. He believed that painted images within a church could prove so inspiring that on taking time to observe them, a person’s mind would be turned from hunger or worldly vices to God – they would be transported.

Besides depicting scenes from the Bible, Paulinus’ lavishly appointed churches contained poetic inscriptions he had composed. These could be read aloud to illiterate visitors as they entered the sacred space. For the apse high above the main altar in one of his Nolan churches, Paulinus commissioned a mural that would similarly evoke the heavenly realm. Yet there he inserted not simply stars, but Christ himself, ruler of the cosmos. Paulinus was convinced that any person who stood beneath such a canopy would be utterly transformed by what he found and receptive to hear God’s call.

The images he so passionately commissioned  and championed were not idle. In his mind, they would quite literally feed those who took the trouble to bend their neck backwards, took time to consider.

Taking Time to Look Up

Walking to my train that day in February, I felt that I had witnessed just this. A man had come seeking one kind of shelter from the storm but had found another – not in a roof, or even food or clothes, but in a space whose majestic proportions and detailed rendering of the cosmos had indeed transported him out of the present moment. It was as though he had stepped out of 5th-century Italy.

As new technologies for creating, sharing, and viewing images evolve, so will civic spaces. In different architectural forms, they will surely address practical needs; but some will also serve the unchanging human need for inspiration and beauty. As we work to equip the church for its mission in this millennium, the urging of early Christian writers to produce images that are not idle is worth returning to. Like Paulinus and the Christians at Dura, we know that if we take time to look, we can be changed.

Felicity Harley-McGowan, a Lecturer at Yale Divinity School, is a specialist in early Christian and medieval art. Before coming to YDS last year, she taught at the University of Melbourne. She is preparing a monograph on the earliest images of crucifixion and co-editing (with Henry Maguire) a volume on the life and scholarship of Ernst Kitzinger.