Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/The Ass (in Caricature of Christian Beliefs and Practices)

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 1
The Ass (in Caricature of Christian Beliefs and Practices)

by Maurice M. Hassett


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). "And the crowd believed this infamous Jew", adds Tertullian (Ad nationes, I, 14). Minucius Felix (Octavius, ix) also alludes to this defamatory accusation against the Christians. The caricature of the Crucifixion, discovered on a wall in the Palace of the Cæsars on the Palatine in 1857, which represents a Christian boy worshipping a crucified figure with an ass's head, is a pictured form of this calumny. A Greek inscription, "Alexamenos worshipping his God", is scratched on the caricature. This person is generally held to have been a Christian page of the palace, in the time of the first Antonines, whose companions took this means of insulting his religion. Wünsch, however, conjectures that the caricature may have been intended to represent the god of a Gnostic sect which identified Christ with the Egyptian ass-headed god Typhon-Seth (Bréhier, Les origines du crucifix, 15 sqq.). But the reasons advanced in favour of this hypothesis are not convincing. The representations on a terra-cotta fragment discovered in 1881, at Naples, which dates probably from the first century, appear to belong to the same category as the caricature of the Palatine. A figure with the head of an ass and wearing the toga is seated in a chair with a roll in his hand, instructing a number of baboon-headed pupils. On an ancient gem the onocephalous teacher of two human pupils is dressed in the pallium, the form of cloak peculiar to sacred personages in early Christian art; and a Syrian terra-cotta fragment represents Our Lord, book in hand, with the ears of an ass. The ass as a symbol of heresy, or of Satan, is represented in a fresco of the catacomb of Prætextatus: Christ, the Good Shepherd, is protecting His flock from impurity and heresy symbolized as a pig and an ass. This representation dates from the beginning of the third century (Wilpert, Pitture delle Catacombe, Pl. 51, 1).

LECLERCQ in Dict. darch. chrét., I, 2042 sqq. (Paris, 1903).

MAURICE M. HASSETT