What Daniel meant to the persecuted Egyptians

Originally at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/11995928/What-Daniel-meant-to-the-persecuted-Egyptians.html

by Chris Howse

Beautifully carved on a small ivory box 1,500 years ago, Daniel stands, hands raised, palms outward, in prayer. He wears a conical hat with a turn-over point, no doubt to indicate he is an exiled Jew in Babylon. On each side prowls a lion, mouth agape, looking like he wouldn’t mind making lunch of Daniel, had not higher authority forbidden it.

What can’t be seen on the front view of the box (a round one, called a pyx, which is only the Greek for “box”) is the angel who has secure hold of the hair of the prophet Habakkuk to transport him with a bowl of bread and pottage, as the story tells, for Daniel’s dinner. And on the other side of the box is an angel with a ram, the one caught in a thicket that Abraham offers as a sacrifice in place of his own son, Isaac. I think this gives a clue to what Daniel is doing carved on the box, which is one of the breathtaking items in the British Museum exhibition Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs.

The Epistle to the Hebrews, picks out Abraham as one of the exemplars of faith from the earliest times who “stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword”.

As for Daniel in the lions’ den, he is painted and carved in churches from the early centuries when Christians commemorated the martyrs on the walls of the catacombs. Hundreds of years later, he was still a widely popular figure to be carved on the capitals of Romanesque columns. There’s a vigorous example carved above a Norman doorway at Down St Mary, Devon, to which the historian Dr John Stevenson recently drew my attention.

I think you’d call the lions on the ivory box stylised. The ones in Somerset were carved by someone who wouldn’t have expected to meet a lion. In one Armenian carving the lions appear to be somersaulting in obeisance. In many carvings they lick Daniel’s feet. In many others they sit, cat-like, as Daniel prays.

Where Daniel is shown, you often find his companions Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, called in the Greek version Ananias, Azarias, and Misael. That is how they are captioned in a remarkable stucco painting five foot across (also in the British Museum exhibition), found in an excavation in 1913 at Wadi Sarga, Egypt.

These are the “Hebrew children” thrown into the burning fiery furnace. Their hats are mentioned in the Bible, and here resemble Daniel’s on the pyx, but curlier, like the Phrygian cap of liberty embraced by the French Revolutionaries.

The burning fiery furnace and the lions’ den appealed to early Christians because their images of faith met the terrible persecutions that periodically swept the Roman Empire.

The Egyptian stucco painting also depicts St Cosmas and St Damian and their companions martyred under Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century. It also mentions in an inscription the otherwise unknown “sixty martyrs of Samalut”.

Another remarkable survival from Egypt are a number of third-century statements written on papyrus (preserved in the dry Egyptian climate) formally declaring that suspects have sacrificed to the Emperor, proving they are not Christians.

“Aurelius Diogenes,” reads one, “son of Satabus, of the village of Alexander’s Island, aged 72, with a scar on his right eyebrow. I have always sacrificed to the gods; and now, in your presence, and according to the terms of the edict, I have sacrificed.”

But Christians who refused to sacrifice and deny God took courage from the faith of Daniel and the Hebrew Children.

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