The Tracking of Changes in Christianity by Examining Those who were Idolized

Kieran Monaghan, CU Boulder


Seeminlgy all prominent religions and ideological groups are centered around and often founded by individuals, whose example acts as a benchmark by which all group members follow suit. The ideals of a religious group may change over time, but there will always be a leading figure that directs or exemplifies its currrent values and struggles. For Christianity this figure was originally Jesus of Nazareth, who stood in opposition to the Romans and died as a morally perefct man on the cross. A model of Christian behavior. While Christ would historically remain in the Christian spotlight  through to modern times, many others would distinguish themselves as models of changing Christian paradigms. 

Jesus Christ: A Symbolic Foundation



Hans Schaufelein, Doctrina, Vita, et Passio Jesu Christi, 1537

 Special Collections, CU Boulder Libraries    



Jesus Christ is undoubtedly the most influential figure when it comes to embodying the characteristics endemic to Christianity. The symbol of the higher man or meta-hero is one that would go on to permeate the entire western world. The image of Christ would become the ideal to which people sought to live up to, as well as compare other archetypal ideas to. It is for this reason that in the middle ages evil (personified by lucifer) was defined by the church as the abscence of ultimate good (Christ) and not as its own fundamental force.  The symbol of Christ was so succesful at spreading due to its reflection of an innate psychological truth. "... it is Christ's suffering at the hands of the collective society that is signifigant for it is an image of the suffering that the ego must go through at the expense of the unconscious, in the process of individuation." (Jung, Carl G. "Christ a Symbol of the Self" The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, vol 9, part 2, 1968) 


Polycarp: Martyrdom & Imitatio Christi

If Christ was attractive as a symbol primarily because of his sacrifice, one would expect many to follow in His footsteps. Martyrs are one of the first groups of people to be idolized in the early Christian world. This makes a great deal of sense when considering that the primary conflict for those of Chrsitain ideation at the time  was between their faith and  Roman law.  Christians would often be publically murdered by the Roman state for entertainment and to set an example, as it was politically negative to  have a growing group of people who believe that the son of God was put to death by those within the Roman bureaucracy. Those who were murdered believed that they must stay true to God and to their faith if they were to stave off damnation, so those who did so facing death at the hand of the Romans were looked up to. Perhaps the most well known of these martyrs is Polycarp, whose death was also an imitation of Christ (imitatio Christi). Polycarp was burned at the stake and pierced in the torso for refusing to partake in Emperor worship, which most Christains considered to be a form of blastphemous idol worship. Polycarp is quoted to have said "How the can I blaspheme my King and Savior? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season ... but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked." Polycarp reasons that momenatry suffereing is worth enduring for eternal paradise.  "Polycarp's imitatio is excplitily stated from the outset, where his conduct is compared to that of Jesus. Polycarp is part of a mimetic chain, one that connects the audience of the martyrdom to Christ himself." (Hartog, Paul "The Christology of the Martyrdom of Polycarp: Martyrdom as Both Imitation and Election by Christ" Perichoresis, vol 12, Issue 2, 2014) Early Christrian martyrs were not only standing up for their beliefs under threat of death, but also emulating the central model of Jesus.  The idolization of martyrs reflects both the struggle between early Christians and the Roman state as well as the palpability of the symbol of Christ.

Constantine: A Christian Emperor

The most pressing threat to Christians following  inception of the faith was Roman persecution. The struggle between the Roman state and stringent Christian beliefs persisted for centuries until obstensibly it was ressolved when the two opposing parties merged. This came at the hand of Constantine, who argued for a divine sanction of his monarchy by linking it to the rule of God. This was explained by Eusebius that the Emperor can invoke the Logos (Hellenistic concept of reason), in turn partaking in divine rule by reflecting the kingdom of heaven on Earth. (Eusebius,  Averil Cameron, and Stuart G. Hall. "Life of Constantine" Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999) The amalgamation of the Christian faith and the Roman Empire is a major turning point in the history of Christianity as it emboldened the Catholic Chuch's power, giving it the means to direct the political course of the West for the following thousand years. The decision of Constantine to make Christianity the official Roman state religion would heavily intertwine secular and religious leadership, which would remain standard until modern times.

Becket: Establishment of Papal Power

Unknown Author “Thomas Becket’s Murder in the Canterbury Cathedral”  Wikimedia Commons, 13th Century Manuscript

In the period from the turn of the millennia to the late thirteenth century Europe saw a great deal of unification following several crusades as the power of the papacy solidified. A prominent example of the exercise and further establishment of papal authority was the interactions between the King of England and the Pope following the murder of Thomas Beckett of Canterbury by the King’s knights in the twelfth century. Beckett had previously refused to concede the church’s powers of autonomy to the secular king, and in the wake of his death there was an immediate revulsion of Christendom during which the Pope went into a week’s mourning  and imposed a personal interdict on the king. King Henry gave into the demands of the Pope within the year, preserving the agency of the church to operate in accordance with its own authority in England. This anecdote serves to demonstrate that during Christianity’s golden age not even secular kings were above the absolute authority of the pope when it came to religious matters. This authority also served to unite Christians across the continent as demonstrated by the Pope’s ability to call upon those from all kingdoms to battle in foreign wars, with the promise of indulgences which were characterized by the forgiveness of sins.

Vincent of Beauvais “Pope Innocent IV sends Dominicans and Franciscans out to the Tartars” Wikimedia Commons,  Paris, Master of the Cité des Dames (illuminator); c. 1400-1410

Annotated Bibliography



Hartog, Paul “The Christology of the Martyrdom of Polycarp: Martyrdom as Both Imitation of Christ and Election by Christ” Perichoresis, vol. 12, Issue 2, 2014

The author, a professor at the university of Chicago, explains the complex ideations behind martyrdom, offering that Polycarp (a martyr of the early Christian era) not only acted in a way of ultimate emulation of Jesus of Nazareth, but that his sacrifice was also perceived as though he was chosen by Christ to offer himself up. This contention provides an explicated dichotomy of action from both Polycarp himself as well as the ideal figure of Christ who simultaneously choses an individual to walk in his footsteps. The author’s analysis offers a window into the ideals of the early Christian period where Jesus and his actions were the sole and most compelling ideal by which those of Christian faith (such as Polycarp) had to live up to.


Jung, Carl G. “Christ, a Symbol of the Self” The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, vol. 9, part 2, 1968

The author, a prominent psychoanalyst, explains the psychological significance of Christ as a figure and by extension as a symbolic representation of the ideal man. It is explained that the symbolic nature of the figure of Christ allowed him to readily occupy an innate psychological niche within the psyches of individuals that lived at the turn of the common era. This is then further expounded as the primary reason that Christianity promulgated through the west as it did, arguing that there is a psychologically instinctual predisposition that easily mapped onto the faith of Christianity.


Unknown Author “Thomas Becket’s Murder in the Canterbury Cathedral”  Wikimedia Commons, 13th Century Manuscript

This image depicts the earliest known artistic rendition of the murder of Thomas Becket in the Canterbury Cathedral by the knights of the King of England, who had been promoted to action by the King’s comments. The image illustrates Becket standing in a passive and dignified manner with a monk kneeling before him. The knights stand behind the monk, one pointing to Becket with his finger with the others having their swords drawn ready to strike the archbishop. Becket’s death would embarrass the king, and he would later be canonized.


Vincent of Beauvais “Pope Innocent IV sends Dominicans and Franciscans out to the Tartars” Wikimedia Commons,  Paris, Master of the Cité des Dames (illuminator); c. 1400-1410

The artist depicts Pope Innocent IV upon the papal throne with a pair of Dominicans and a pair of Franciscans kneeling at his feet as the pope sends them to areas controlled by the Mongols, seemingly to spread the faith or to convey a message. This image explicitly shows the grandeur of the papacy near its height, with the pope appearing in the opulent fashion of a king on his throne. The piece seems to be depicted in somewhat of a byzantine style, with the depicted ornamentation seeming very Turkish in fashion. The pope was the ultimate religious authority at the time, and this painting on vellum conveys such.


Eusebius,  Averil Cameron, and Stuart G. Hall. “Life of Constantine” Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. Print.

The author, a historian from the fourth century recants the life and achievements of the emperor Constantine who during his reign made Christianity into the state sponsored religion of the roman empire. Eusebius utilizes numerous primary sources within his biography, and his narration can be considered a primary source in the capacity that a modern reader can gain a great deal of insight into the perception many held at the time about Constantine as a ruler and his relation to the faith of Christianity. Constantine’s rule marked the change to religious and political unification, which remained standard for centuries following.


Hans Schaufelein, Doctrina, Vita, et Passio Jesu Christi, 1537 Special Collections, CU Boulder Libraries