The donkey in western Christian art

From the graffiti and fresco art of Rome to the present day, the presence of the donkey in Christian art would develop gradually over the centuries. In the 13th century with the flowering of Italian painting in connection with the Franciscan tradition the donkey would be centre stage in many set piece New Testament themes. The story will be gradually explored here and the additions that appear as blog posts will be added onto this page.images

The Graffito Blasfemo

During the first centuries of the Christian tradition the depiction of Christ crucified was quite rare and the Chi-Rho sign or the icthus fish symbol were more common. One of the earliest Alexamenos 1depictions of the crucifixion, in a graffito in Rome (2nd or 3rd century), shows the figure of a donkey on the cross – clearly mocking the Christian religion. The insult written underneath is: “Alexamenos 2Alexamenos worships his God.”

The famous graffito blasfemo, as it is known, was carved into plaster on a wall in the Palatine Hill in Rome. It can be seen in the Palatine Antiquarian Museum.

Onolatry (ass worship)

There have been various interpretations of this graffito (see Wikipedia article) but the more interesting connection here can be found in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia article by Maurice Hassett: The Ass in Caricature of Christian Beliefs and Practices.  “The calumny of onolatry, or ass-worship, attributed by Tacitus and other writers to the Jews, was afterwards, by the hatred of the latter, transferred to the Christians (Tac., I, v, 3, 4; Tert., Apol., xvi; “Ad nationes”, I, 14). A short time before he wrote the latter of these treatises (about 197) Tertullian relates that an apostate Jew one day appeared in the streets of Carthage carrying a figure robed in a toga, with the ears and hoofs of an ass, and that this monstrosity was labelled: Deus Christianorum Onocoetes (the God of the Christians begotten of an ass).”

4th century fresco in Via Latini catacombsA 4th century fresco in the catacombs in the Via Latini depicts the Sacrifice of Isaac (46 x 90 cm) and the donkey is drawn with exceptional realism.


This article will be updated and continued as an ongoing project.  Additions will appear as new posts, then be added here to the Culture & History pages.

20th August 2015

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