Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Summary of Lecture Thirteen

At the outset we returned to the Reims School of illumination, with two undoubted masterworks, the Ebbo Gospels and the Utrecht Psalter.

Together with much other useful work, writing and illumination was performed mainly within the confines of the monasteries. Charlemagne and his counselors understood that a more rigorous application of the Rule of St. Benedict was needed to counteract the laxness and corruption that had set in.

One product of this reform effort was the remarkable St. Gall plan. After many years of study, Walter Horn of Berkeley was able to interpret the detailed instructions on the plan to realize a three-dimensional version. (An ideal prescription, the plan was never realized as such in Carolingian times.) Combining the holy office with productive, educational, and hospitality functions, the monastery was designed to be as self-sufficient as possible.

In s larger sense the plan belongs to the overarching history of utopian thinking inaugurated by Plato and continuing into our own day with intentional communities.

The final hour dealt briefly with the Ottonian period. Two creations of Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim were considered: the church of St. Michael and the bronze doors. The latter, a remarkable technical achievement, represent a new application of the earlier belief that the Old and New Testaments were organically linked.

Ultimately, the most influential creation of the Ottonian era was the revival of monumental sculpture, as seen in the Essen Madonna and the Gero Crucifix in Cologne.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Summary of Lecture Twelve

As a mnemonic we alluded to the old triple sequence of archaic/classic/baroque. In a rough sort of way the sequence of the books of Durrow, Lindisfarne, and Kells accords with this scheme. As a footnote to the last lecture, we examined some striking images from the Echternach Gospels, a work that falls between Durrow and Lindisfarne. As posited by O.-K. Werckmeister, the image of the man seem to incorporate a numerological allusion pertaining to the word Adam. The Echternach image of the lion is possibly the ultimate masterpiece of Insular illumination.

By way of introduction to the Carolingian era, the Pirenne thesis was discussed. The noted Belgian historian expounded this concept in his late book, titled "Mohammed and Charlemagne." Weighing in on the perennial problem of the Fall of Rome, Pirenne held that the status quo largely prevailed through the sixth century, as the barbarian rulers sought to maintain the amenities of civilized Romsn life. It was the Islamic conquests in the seventh century that effected fundamental change, isolating Western Europe in a "natural" economy dependent on barter. The change forced the West back on its own resources, reorienting its fundamental axis to the northwest, with the great rivers of the Loire, the Seine, the Meuse, the Rhine, and the Elbe as the new "highways."

While some erosion of detail has occurred, essentially the Pirenne thesis seems to have held. This means that there is a basic disconnect between the revivalist ideology of Charlemagne's brains trust and the reality on the ground. (Needless to say, this was not to be the first time in which geopolitical reality clashed with ideological aspiration.)

In many respects, Charlemagne's court was peripatetic, in order to take advantage of local tribute and also to fight his numerous frontier wars. Yet a capital of a sort arose at Aachen on the western fringe of Germany. Here the palace chapel of 805 survives (then part of a larger complex, including the throne hall). The plan and elevation stem from San Vitale in Ravenna, with simplifications.

The gate house at Lorsch is a variation on a Roman triumphal arch, with a strong northern input in the chromaticism of the geometrical surface patterns.

Insight into the transition from Merovingian art to Carolingian is afforded by the two covers of the Lindau Gospels (Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum). The lower cover is dominated by barbarian lacertines, possibly with an apotropaic purpose. The upper cover, with its delicate figures in relief, is a superb example of Carolingian goldsmiths work.

We then focused on three illuminated manuscripts, representatives (as it were) of the archaic, classic, and baroque phases of Carolingian art. The images in the Godescalc Gospels (completed in 783) are somewhat awkward, also showing traces of insular influence. The full-page frontal image of Christ is virtually an icon, reflecting Charlemagne's policy of resistance to Byzantine iconoclasm.

The Coronation Gospels in Vienna is a purple manuscript, showing a strong classical influence.

Finally, the Ebbo Gospels (of the Reims school) exhibits a powerful expressionism. The deliberate distortions of the figure of Matthew are echoed by the "animation" of the landscape. The whole is a vivid depiction of the ecstasy of sacred inspiration.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Summary of Lecture Eleven

The gravamen of the lecture concerned four works (or groups of works) stemming from the Hiberno-Saxon or Insular orbit during the period ca. 625-820.

In the Hiberno-Saxon enterprise, the Irish (converted, some of them at least, by St. Patrick prior to 493) were the senior partners. Irish monasticism was a distinctive adaptation of the Egyptian model, whereby remote islands served as hermitages. The severe conditions toughened the monks, making possible the beginnings of their wanderings. These migrations took them, in the first instance, to northern England, especially Northumbria. There the English converts proved apt pupils, matching or even surpassing the accomplishments of their Hibernian teachers.

The Sutton Hoo treasure is the first monument of English art. The instructor briefly traced and critiqued the history of the more extreme claims of English exceptionalism, while recognizing the connection with the people who first spoke the English language.

The Sutton Hoo finds from East Anglia belong to a distinctive moment of transition between paganism and Christianity. The coins found in the purse were probably meant to pay the phantom rowers who would take the king to the afterworld.

The two most remarkable objects in the treasure (now in the British Museum) are probably the gold buckle and the purse. The buckle demonstrates an intricate pattern of lacertines and interlace, probably with apotropaic intent. The purse has a remarkable set of appliques, showing the virtuosity of the goldsmiths of the time.

The Book of Durrow (ca. 675; Trinity College, Dublin) was briefly noted in the previous lecture. Here we focused on the carpet pages (three survive), which probably had an apotropaic intent.

The Book of Lindisfarne (ca. 725; British Library) is also a gospel book, in this instance certainly made in Northumbria by English scribes. Larger and more lavish than its Durrow predecessor, this book replaces the evangelist symbols with full-page portraits of these authors. While these are of Mediterranean derivation, they clearly, almost relentlessly, translate the motifs into the linear northern style.

The Book of Kells (ca. 820) is the most extravant of the three Insular gospel books examined. It ranks with the Tres Riches Heures of the Limbourg brothers as one of the two most towering masterpieces of medieval illumination. There are carpet pages, evangelist portraits, narrative scenes and much else. The most elaborate text page is devoted to a presentation of the Chi-Rho theme.

Taken as a whole, these works document the remarkable Anglo-Irish partnership, yielding works that were unique in sophistication during the era. A recent book is entitled "How the Irish Saved Western Civilization." It should have been entitled "How the Irish and the English Saved Western Civilization."

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Summary of Lecture Ten

Our attention shifted to the Western Middle Ages. Although this realm gave the appearance of being the unfavored sibling of the two heirs of the Roman Empire, it turned into a Cinderella, as Western Europe was eventually to generate many of the key institutions that were to characterize the modern world.

The differing barbarian groups left their imprint on the emerging nation states of Western Europe (ethnogenesis). There were two contrasting pairs. In England and Germany. the language and culture of the intruders became dominant. In Spain and Italy--despite the heritage of the Vandals, Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Lombards--the original romance culture predominated. France saw a mixed system, as Germanic (Frankish) elements played a key role. This form of hybridity helped to assure the hegemony of France through much of the Middle Ages.

An excursus dealt with the written assignment. While religious art dominated, the Middle Ages (as a hierarchical society) saw a significant production of political imagery We suggested that an initial approach to the problem involves an enumeration of all the realms in which such imagery was likely to be found. These include coins (see Internet for examples), luxury items, buildings and monuments, mosaics and frescoes, and illuminated manuscripts.

An initial comparison of the Constantine coin documenting the 312 victory in Rome and the Missorium of Theodosius revealed significant similarities and contrasts. The path indicated by the Missorium might lead to the David plates from the Cyprus treasure (ca. 628), while the coin discloses many possibilities of follow up. Sometimes such objects are interesting for what they do not show--e.g. the absence of Christian imagery in the Missorium, and the lack of "Frankish" themes in the Charlemagne coin, with its "renaissance" orientation to the Roman imperial past.

Then we returned to the main theme of the lecture. Heretofore we have considered only two legs of our tripod: the classical and the Middle Eastern. Now we can access the Northern, or "barbarian" contribution. This had two components: the older Celtic stratum, going back to before the Roman conquest, and the newer Germanic strain.

In a previous lecture we discussed the consequences of the shift from papyrus and scroll to parchment and codex. In this lecture we sought to document the appearance of a third revolutionary contribution: new forms of writing and decoration in the Merovingian period. There were two main conmponents: the animated initial, and the binary typographical system of majuscule and minuscule. The latter has continued to be normative in our printed books (and even out computers, such as the one I am writing on).

In conclusion we briefly considered, via the Book of Durrow, the alternative system that developed in the Hiberno-Saxon realm. Adducing significant earlier "barbarian" decorative accoutrements, including such bling as spirals and interlace, the insular books also adopted a decrescendo method as a transition from the initial to the main text.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Summary of Lecture Nine

Broadly speaking, the period stretching from 565 (death of Justinian) to 843 (conclusive settlement of the icononoclastic controversy) was a time of troubles in the Byzantine Empire. Major territorial subtractions occurred: Italy (lost to the Lombards), the central-southern Balkans (occupied by the pagan Slavs), and Syria and Egypt (Muslim).

In addition, the Persians invaded, only being defeated with great effort by Heraclius in 628.

Two contrasting examples of art in the time of Heraclius were examined: the Cyprus Plate in the Met of David Fighting Goliath (intensely classicizing) and the mosaic of St. Demetrios (frontal and "Middle Eastern"). This contrast shows that the dichotomy of style, while it was minimized in the time of Justinian, persisted all the same. The classicizing current was to recur throughout later Byzantium, as seen in the Paris Psalter (also showing, inter alii, David).

The early sixth century witnessed a chill in the status of images. The first response, the Jewish one, was the mildest: they simply stopped making images in synagogues. The Muslims had always disapproved of images in mosques. In 721 the Caliph Yazid issued an edict commanding the destruction of such images in Christian churches. Laxly enforced, this step nonetheless was a major step.

In 726, apparently, Leo the Isaurian took the first step of iconoclasm, by destroying a favorite image over the great gate of the Palace in Constantinople. His son Constantine V was especially rigorous. Neither was against images as such, since secular ones appeared, but against religious images, held to be an invitation to idolatry.

The dispute was not finally settled until 843. The iconodules had won--but at a price. No religious figures in the round were allowed. Reverence for icons was supposed to be directed solely at the prototype (the holy figure)--not at the material object.

Beginning apparently in 867, Hagia Sophia was reequipped with images, some of which were seen in class. The Catholicon at Hosios Lukas, a cross-in-square church, demonstrates the hierarchical principle of allocation of mosaics, with Christ in the dome, the Virgin in the main apse, and the other scenes and figures distributed according to rank.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Summary of Lecture Eight

The class concerned the invention of the book, especially the illustrated book, as we know it during the late-antique period. The previous standard had been set by the Egyptians, who developed papyrus as a support for writing. They then glued the papyrus sheets together to form scrolls. This method was used by the Greeks and during the earlier Roman period. Papyrus is friable, a weakness abetted by frequent unrolling of the scrolls.

Parchment made from skins of animals emerged as a more durable support material. By the fourth century the codex became dominant replacing the scroll. This technique posed the issue of dual composition, verso and recto, at each opening--a potential not always well realized (as we saw with the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux).

The pictorial material commonly employs the device of continuous narrative, seen in the reliefs of the Column of Trajan and (almost a millennium later) in the Bayeux Tapestry.

To permit some conclusions about the origins of the illustrated book, we examined three examples from the Hebrew Bible and three from the New Testament. Because of its poor condition, the Quedlinburg Itala leaf is hard to assess (but see the illustration in Nees). It is unique in showing four closely related scenes from the Book of Samuel. Flaking of the pigment discloses instructions to the illustrator: "Here paint this."

There are basically two schools concerning the origin and development of pictorial cycles. The first, headed by Kurt Weitzmann, holds that the artists were essentially conservative and that the pictorial recensions lead back to a single archetype, presumably an illustrated Septuagint.

However, supporting evidence has not emerged, and another school (supported e.g. by Lawrence Nees) holds that the artists were more creative, and that there is no single archetype. The instructions in the Quedlinburg leaf would seem to support the Nees position.

Badly burned in 1731, the fragments of th3e Cotton Genesis nonetheless attest a very rich cycle in this manuscript. Also rich is the imagery of the well-preserved Vienna Genesis, a purple manuscript of the sixth century. Here the scene of Rebecca and Eliezar is a notable example of continuous narration.

The Rossano Gospels is purple manuscript of the New Testament. Two elaborate scenes of Christ before Pilate suggest derivation from monumental frescoes or mosaics.

The Rabbula Gospels of 586 is an elaborate Syriac manuscript, with notable full-page scenes of the Crucifixion and the Ascension. The canon tables illustrate the architectural principle of the great arch embracing lesser ones, suggesting the concept of hierarchy.

St. Augustine's Gospel in Cambridge is a fragment of Luke. In addition to the narrative scenes, there is a large portrait of the evangelist, accompanied by his symbol, a winged bull.

These vari0us scenes are important because they mark the inception of a system of iconography, which (with various permutations) lasted until the time of the French Revolution.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Summary of Lecture Seven

On several occasions the term "Byzantine" has come up. It is not easy to delineate a boundary between late-antique/early Christian, on the one hand, and Byzantine, on the other. The shift has something to do with the affirmation of the hegemony of Constantinople. It may also reflect a new maturity, as the contradictions of the earlier mode become fused (by and large) into a new unity.

Three helpful books were noted: A. Grabar, The Golden Age of Justinian; E. Kitzinger, Byzantine Art in the Making; and R. Cormack, Byzantine Art (Oxford History of Art series).

The personality and accomplishments of Justinian are pivotal in the establishment of the First Golden Age of Byzantine Art. Of unknown ethnicity, the peasant Justinian owed his fortune to his uncle Justin (ruled 518-27). After assuming the sole emperorship, Justinian faced opposition, culminating in the Nika riot, which destroyed the original building of Hagia Sophia.

His most enduring achievement was the Corpus Iuris Civilis, which underlies the legal systems of most countries in the world (though not the English-speaking ones). This work, commonly known as the Justinian Code, is a mixed bag. Created under the guidance of Tribonian, the Code does harmonize and organize a vast mass of earlier Roman law and legal opinion. However, it sought to enforce religious uniformity and morals, leaving a dubious legacy. Examined closely, the Code provides evidence, supported by other sources, for the growth of a magical world view. This shift away from rationality is symbolized by Justinian's closing of the philosophical schools of Athens in 529.

The confusion of realms (politics and religion), as we might term it, evidences the Byzantine principle of Caesaropapism, whereby the emperor felt empowered to interfere in religious matters. This doctrine may be reflected in Justinian's appearance (by means of mosaic) in the sanctuary of San Vitale.

The great church of Hagia Sophia is a great engineering and decorative achievement. It is hard to describe the plan, but it reflects an effort to fuse the centralizing and longitudinal principles. It also relies on the late-Roman constructional device of the pendentive to effect the transition between the foundational square and the dome above. The original decoration, or most of it, was largely abstract, relying on a principle of surface flow, what might almost be termed viscosity.

In addition to great buildings (duly chronicled by Procopius), the era saw a remarkable production in the minor arts, as seen in the ivory angel (British Museum) and the Riha Paten (Dumbarton Oaks Collection).

The final section of the lecture was devoted to icons of the pre-Iconoclast period. The most important cache of these (some 36 items) resides in the monastery of St. Catherine's at Mount Sinai. We examined the Peter icon, the Marian one, and the Christ icon. Other early icons have been preserved in Egypt (some 30), and the city of Rome (four). The icons represent the beginning of many centuries of European panel painting. At the time, however, they evoked disquiet as foci of idolatry. This problem was to lead to the outbreak of Iconoclasm in 726.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Summary of Lecture Six

We briefly returned to the subject matter of Lecture Four, which attempted the difficult task of documenting the rise of monumental Christian architecture in 4th-century Rome. The Eternal City's character as a palimpsest complicates the task, as we saw with the three main levels of St. Peter's.

Restabilization of the empire under Diocletian created new prosperity (as seen in such provinces as Britain, North Africa, and Syria). The return of cash flows from taxation made the Constantinian building boom possible.

Early Christian monumental architecture (of the petrification stage) purloined the two major Roman templates: longitudinal (Basilica Ulpia) and central-plan (the Pantheon). While this is not primarily a course in architecture, some knowledge is required to understand the structural environment in which mosaics and other decorative features dwell. The Richard Krautheimer book in the Pelican series was recommended.

The chief theme of the lecture was architecture and mosaics of Ravenna during the period 402-565 (including the twin city of Classe). A former Roman naval station, Ravenna became the Western capital (replacing Milan) for security reasons in 402.

We looked at five major buildings.

The cruciform Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (about 425) shows the typical contrast between outer austerity and inner splendor. The mosaics show a blend of older iconography (the Good Shepherd) and the new imagery of the martyrs (St. Lawrence). The starry sky connotes the idea of the dome of heaven.

Of the two baptisteries. the Orthodox one (mainly 450s) is the more impressive (the Arian Baptistery was used by the barbarian rulers, who tended to be of that sect). The octagonal plan suggests two rationales. The first is the idea of Harmony, deriving ultimately from the Pythagorean discovery of the physical basis of the musical octave. The other, complimentary idea, is the sense of the eighth day as a symbol of renewal after the seven days of Creation.

S. Apollinare Nuovo was originally an Arian basilica dedicated to Christ the Redeemer. Later the mosaics were slightly altered, mainly by excising the figures of Theodoric and his courtiers from the Palatium scene. The holy martyrs, female and male, illustrate the visual principle of seriation. High up on the walls are the 26 scenes of the Public Life of Christ and his Passion. One set shows the youthful, beardless Jesus, the other the bearded type. To the best of my knowledge no convincing theological explanation has been offered for this distinction (the latter type becomes standard).

Probably the most remarkable of the Early Christian monuments of Ravenna is S. Vitale (consecrated in 549 or thereabouts), on an octagonal plan. The structure was commanded and paid for by the Emperor Justinian, though he never physically visited the city, appearing only in his mosaic portrait in the sanctuary. This building shows the adaptation of a central-plan scheme as a congregational church, a device that was to become standard in the East (while the West basically clung to the longitudinal plan).

S. Apollinare in Classe, the sole survivor of a once flourishing group in that former port city, also belongs to the Justinianic era. The nave shows a rare type of wind-blown capitals. The effect is dominated by the apse area, with its gigantic mosaic in the half-dome. Here the iconography is complex (as it were, overdetermined), including the orans figure of the saint enacting the sheep allegory. a giant cross (reflecting the veneration of the True Cross, ostensibly discovered by St. Helena), the Transfiguration, and possibly (as a member of the class suggested) the eucharistic wafer.

Friday, October 12, 2007

{Lecture Five]

Lecture Five was a guest presentation concerning artistic relations between Ireland and Italy in the earlier Middle Ages. Regular class meetings will recommence with Lecture Six on the following Thursday

Friday, October 5, 2007

Summary of Lecture Four

The instructor briefly reemphasized the importance of the Dura Synagogue and its paintings. The plan is of the relatively rare broadhouse type, which seems to have been deliberately chosen to serve as (among other things) a kind of art gallery. When new, the effect of the 100-plus frescoes on all four walls must have been dazzling. At all events, the ensemble attests the Jewish invention of Biblical narrative in painting, a resource accessed at about this time by Christians (as we saw in the catacombs). In appropriating this material, Christians shifted the emphasis, employing a typological subtext that seems foreign to the original cycles. Typology, linking otherwise remote events and persons, is a key element in the repertoire of allegorical exegesis. An example is the link between the Brazen Serpent and the Crucifixion.

Constantine's unification of the Roman empire was the resolution of some 18 years of civil war following the failure of Diocletian's ingenious but unworkable tetrarchic system. He effected the "merger" of the Roman state with the Christian church.

For his most monumental church buildings Constantine drew upon the Roman tradition of the secular basilica, exemplified by the Basilica Ulpia In Trajan's Forum. The key elements of this structural type are the nave, the aisles, the apse, and the clerestory. Old St. Peter's (which has two additional side aisles) has a kind of invisible vertical axis linking the subterranean shrine of the Apostle to the high altar of the visible church. In this way the link between the catacombs and the new official art of the church was made plain.

St. Peters and its Roman oompanion, St. John Lateran, have been altered beyond recognition (though old prints and drawings make reconstructions possible). The interior of S. Maria Maggiore (432-440) gives an idea of the overall effect.

In addition to the longitudinal (basilica) paradigm, the fourth century advanced the central-plan type, seen at S. Costanza, originally a mausoleum of one of Constantine's daughters. These two types, longitudinal and central-plan, were to be canonical in church architecture for centuries.

The Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (359) is the most lavish of these stone coffins to survive. Its anterior panels show a mingling of themes from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The side walls present the allegory of the grape harvest, alluding to the eucharist.

The Projecta Casket, with its almost insouciant mixture of secular, pagan, and Christian motifs, is characteristic of the emergent miniaturization trend, in this case employing goldsmiths work of the highest quality.

Two examples of ivory carving were also seen.

A closer look at the mosaics of S. Maria Maggiore took us into the fifth century, when Rome, under the leadership of the popes, was struggling to recover from the sack of 410. The dedication of the building alludes to the newly-proclaimed doctrine of Mary as Theotokos, mother of God. The triumphal arch mosaics reflect this doctrine. In the nave, the subjects are narratives from the Hebrew Bible. We saw three examples from life of Abraham, evidently selected to reflect the typological inflection Christians gave to these narrative scenes.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


There was a typo in the version of the First Assignment provided electronically. The number of the Ktisis mosaic in the Muesum in 2825, as in the handout. (The electronic version has been corrected.)

Technical difficulties, some expected, some not, have occurred. We are addressing these.

At all events, you can't miss the Ktisis mosaic. Just go the Museum gallery and examine it directly.

The final for this course will be on December 20 at 7 PM. The last class will be on Monday December 17.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Summary of Lecture Three

The main part of the discussion concerned two significant instances of "underground" art, one from the center of empire, the outskirts of Rome; the other from a frontier town in the Middle East.

Over the years a number of myths have grown up about the Roman catacombs. Although martyrs were buring there these underground cemeteries never served as places of refuge. The paintings--major evidence for the emergence of early Christian iconography--do not date from the Apostolic period, but only from the time after ca. 200 CE.

The ceiling painting at the catacomb of SS. Peter and Marcellinus shows two types of imagery--symbolic and narrative. The central figure of the Good Shepherd represents an appropriation of an old personification of Philanthropia--compassion for humanity--reinterpreted in accord with New Testament references. The orans (praying) figures at t he corners suggest contemporary worshippers, and more generally the love of God. The narrative scenes of the life of Jonah were understood typologically, with Jonah as a precursor of Jesus--but also in terms of the aspirations for resurrection of the ordinary believer.

Much of the imagery stems from the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament for Christians, suggesting dependence on earlier Jewish imagery.

The catacombs also contain images of Hercules, Orpheus and other classical themes. These figures were also understood typologically--and in terms of the preparatio evangelica, the aspects of truth that the Creator vouchsafed to worthy pagans. These appropriations constitute the first stage of the Christian adoption of classical mythology, a trend that was to last through the Middle Ages, becoming most prominent in the Italian Renaissance. The mosica of Christ as the solar principle reflects the "compromise" principle of the Sol Invictus, honored on December 23.

On the west bank of the Euphrates River, the city of Dura Europos was founded in 303 BCE and destroyed by the Persians in 256/7. The remained undisturbed until its 1920 rediscovery and subsequent excavation. The shrines of Dura show a "delicious confusion" of religions. In addition to the official cult of Zeus, one could visit the Mithraeum, the Temple of the Palmyrene Gods, and others.

While not unique, the paintings of the Synagogue are the most extsnsive and impressive ensemble to have survived. They are kept in the National Museum of Damascus. Most of the scenes are narratives stemming from various books of the Hebrew Bible. Attempts to find a single, overarching theme have not (to my knowledge) proved successful. It is probably best to regard them as reminders of the history of the Jewish people, as recorded in Scriptures.

As flat objects, the paintings did not--at this time--come under special scrutiny as idolatry. The frescoes show a number of "anticlassical" devices, including flatness, stacking to indicate depth, reverse perspective, and attenuation of cast shadows. The combination of Greco-Roman and Persian costume illustrates the principle of hybridity.

The Christian Building at Dura is modest. It is simply a typical courtyard house, retrofitted for a new purpose. The main rooms are the assembly hall and the baptistery. The latter contained some paintings, since removed to Yale University. The Good Shepherd backs the font area in the baptistery. In this composition we noted a typological "footnote" in the little figures of Adam and Eve at the lower left (Jesus was regarded as the New Adam.)

Examples of sculpture from Palmyra, Coptic Egypt, Carthage, and Adamklisse (Bulgaria) illustrate Middle Eastern principles in the broad sense. It is probably these principles that came to the fore in the new reliefs of the Arch of Constantine--rather than any metropolitan development.

READING. To learn more about this material, the instructor recommends the following books:

R. Bianchi-Bandinelli, Rome: The Late Empire, NY, 1970.

A. Grabar, Early Christian Art, NY 1968.

R. Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, rev. ed., Harmondsworth, 1987.

L. J. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First 1000 Years, second ed., New Haven, 2005.

T. F. Mathews, The Clash of Gods, rev. ed., Princeton, 1999.

W. F. Volbach, Early Christian Art, NY, 1962 [excellent photos; text negligeable]

K. Weitxmann, Late Antique and Early Christian Book Illumination, NY, 1977.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Early Medieval Triad


As a rule triadic schemes are subtler and more revealing than dichotomies (“binaries”), a methodological principle brilliantly theorized by the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Yet C. R. Morey’s scheme trichotomizing the sources of medieval art requires much adaptation and updating; as it is, it will not serve.

Clearly the racial explanation fails. If, in pharaonic Egypt, the collective DNA (so to speak) dictated the convention of fractional representation (in which heads appear in profile), how could a very similar DNA pool generate the opposite practice: heads presented frontally? In a different part of the world, scholarly attempts (e.g. by N. Pevsner) to stipulate regularities governing the volatile record of English art (“Englishness”) have failed, even though the population pool has changed very little.

Setting aside improbable theories of racial constants, we are on firmer ground with language and religion. In the ancient Middle East most of the dominant languages were Afro-Asiatic, as distinct from the Indo-European tongues of Greece and Rome. This difference tended to set those speakers apart from the Greco-Roman ruling circles. In the Early Christian period another contrast emerged, as the Syrians became Nestorians and the Egyptian Copts Monophysite, while Greek and Roman speakers remained orthodox Catholics. Yet what is the connection between these three elements—language, religion, and art? Taking a leaf from the study of modern ethnic groups, some contemporary historians have posited that these elements fused synergetically to make up a pattern of resistance. “Deviant” cultural expression served as a marker for group solidarity. Compare the role of hip-hop in today’s African American culture. Of course such phenomena are always subject to coopting, but that propensity helps to explain the spread of Middle Eastern artistic conventions through the whole panoply of medieval lands.

In examining our data, the form of the objects demands the closest scrutiny. We must dust off that often disparaged tool of study—style analysis. A side glance at modern youth, with its preferences for distinctive clothing and music, shows that for the participants style does indeed matter. It is style that sets “our crowd” off from the others, whether they be “lames” or “the man.”

In our situation, style analysis requires a constantly available fund of mental images—what is termed visual literacy. Thus a reference to the Junius Bassus sarcophagus or the mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna should conjure up a reliable image. Without this store of visual knowledge, one cannot travel very far.


At first glance it would seem that the adoption of Christianity obliterated Classicism for a thousand years. The Middle Ages was the anticlassical age par excellence, and Classicism, so long suppressed, revived only with the coming of the Italian Renaissance. This stereotype is much too simple

A closer look at representative monuments of the Late Antique period shows that Classicism was indeed menaced in the later 3d century and the early 4th (reliefs of the Arch of Constantine; 315). In ensuing decades, though, it revived, showing a vigorous, but somewhat coarse exuberance in the Junius Bassus sarcophagus, followed by a kind of dreamy elegance during the Theodosian period. There were of course many periods where a countertrend surged, latterly in the major works of Justinian’s maturity, such as the mosaics of San Vitale of ca. 547.

What are the grounds for this ebb and flow? Some have thought that the alternation might correlate with war and peace: the anticlassical trend comes to the fore in eras of turbulence, and the calmer classical mode resurge in peacetime. Be that as it may, what was the source of the countercurrent that challenged Classical hegemony? Undoubtedly it was mainly Middle Eastern, though that factor had become generalized, even cropping up in Roman Britain in what Ernst Kitzinger has termed the “subantique.” In the case of the Arch of Constantine reliefs some argue (especially R. Bianchi Bandinelli) that it drew upon a background of Plebeian Art in Roman Italy, a kind of “primitive” counterpoint to the idealistic official art. In this explanation class trumps ethnicity.

Resurgent classicism found a literary counterpart in the Latin writings of the pagan Claudian and the Christian Ausonius, among others.

With the age of Justinian (527-65) the first cycle, the continuing evolution of Late-Antique Classicism, characterized by a systole and diastole of prominence and recession, concluded. But that was not the end of the story. Scholars typically handle recurrences by positing a series of “renascences”: those of the Heraclian, Carolingian, 12th-century, Gothic, and trecento periods. (See Panofsky’s monograph on this topic.

The Middle Byzantine period (after the resolution of the iconoclastic controversy in 843) became a major reservoir of revived Classicism, bequeathing much to the West (see Demus monograph).

What are the major episodes of Classicism in Western Europe after 1000?
1) Reiner of Huy and the ensuing Mosan art, seen especially in manuscript illuminations;
2) Early Gothic sculpture as seen at Chartres and Paris, probably stimulated by Byzantine ivories.
3) The somewhat isolated case of the Reims Visitation.
4) Nicola Pisano and his nude Hercules; possible Giotto’s frescoes.


The geographical definition of the expression Middle Eastern is somewhat fluid. The core consists of Western Asia plus Egypt. Many though would annex the Maghreb (western North Africa). Older books use “Near Eastern,” and older ones still simply call it the Orient—hence the Orientalism castigated by Edward Said.

Major foci of development during the later Roman Empire and the late antique period were the “caravan cities,” border towns in the Syrian desert such as Hatra, Palmyra, and especially Dura, with its harvest of religious monuments. Some would extend the purview into Sassanian Persia. Coptic Egypt (the source of monasticism) was certainly a prime contributor. The Roman army, attracting many followers of Mithra, seems to have extended this manner to far-flung areas, such as Roman Britain (which witnessed bonding with native Celtic and Pictish trends).

In a nutshell, frontality, free manipulation of proportions, “stacking” instead of perspectival recession, erosion of the figure-ground contrast, and a tendency towards overall pattern characterize the Middle Eastern trend. Idealization and illusionism (a la Grec) went out. “In” were pattern, stylization, expressivity, and symbolism. These features have struck many observers as proto-medieval. Was there, though, a direct causal link, or simply a similarity of ethos based on a worldview centering on religion? Various salvational religious competed with Christianity in the Middle East, including Judaism, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, and Manicheanism, and their followers sought a distinctive art as the vehicle of their faith.

Eventually this Middle Eastern current struck up a certain coexistence with Classicism, as seen in the Mary Icon of Mt. Sinai, with its two illusionistic angels hovering in the background. The inherent capacity for blending and hybridization—metissage as some term it—was crucial for the creatively impure art of the later Middle Ages.


Concordant analysis by a number of specialists suggests a vast fund of art originating in the Eurasian steppes; this enormous zone stretches from the Ordos at China’s Mongolian frontier across the Urals to Ukraine with the Scythians and Sarmatians. Sometimes this art of nomads is termed the “Animal Style.” It is not so much a style as a preference—human figures are rare and animals (generally stylized in intricate patterns) are supreme. This art first came onto the radar screen with the Siberian treasury assembled by Peter the Great almost 300 years ago. This art and others like it stem from a nomadic (or “Migrations”) lifestyle, preferring small, precious objects because of their portability.

In this light, the Germanic, Viking, and Hiberno-Saxon arts (more familiar to us than the ones mentioned) represent offshoots of the great cauldron of creativity whose locus is in Inner Asia and Eastern Europe. Be that as it may, much scholarship has been devoted to deciphering characteristic motifs, such as the interlace, the lacertine, and the spiral-and- trumpet. Originally at home in pagan milieus, these Northern style components make their way into Christian art through Hiberno-Saxon manuscript illustration (the famous Books of Durrow and Kells), and then, especially on the continent, through metalwork (as in the lower cover of the Lindau gospels in the Morgan Library). Hiberno-Saxon art has engaged the attention of such scholars as Francoise Henry, and R. L. S. Bruce-Mitford. Continental Migrations art has been the province of Scandinavian (E. Salin) and German researchers.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Summary of Lecture Two

[NOTE: There will be no class on September 13, in accordance with the college calendar.]

As the matrix out of which the first phase of medieval art arose, the Roman Empire merits special attention. The "afterglow" of the Roman Empire was indeed tremendows. We need only think of the "Byzanatines" as we term them), in their own eyes, the "Romaioi/" In the West the Holy Roman Empire maintained an existence of a sort for a milkennium, from 800 to 1806.

Rome played an inspirational role in the earlier history of the United States, as seen in the Capitol in Washington, housing as it does the US Senate. At one time knowledge of Latin was de rigueur for an educated person, and the values inculcated by Cicero and Vergil were taken very seriously.

All this has changed with the popular culture of recent decades, where the Romans are portrayed, in tabloid fashion as self-indulgent and cruel. Serious scholars debate the question :"Was Rome doomed" and "Are we destined to suffer the same fate (see books by Paul Kennedy and Cullen Murphy).

The murder of Julius Caesar in 44 started things off. In the ensuinc turmoil, Octavian aka Augustus (Julius' great nephew) emerged victorious in 30 BCE. Mindful of the fate of his great uncle Augustuus avoided any monarchical trappeings, but assembled enormous power with the acquiescence of a supine Senate. Augustus conrrolled the legions, a superb fighting forcel, and that was all that mattered.

We examined the Gemma Augustea in Vienna as a document of Augustus' claims, and more generally as an exemplar of the "Roman language of art." We noted the personifcation of Roma.

The peace brought by Augustus and his successor (not to speak of heavy taxes) yielded many public works: roads and acqueducts, temples and basilicas. These were funded either by the public fisc or by wealthy patrons.

In the view of many historians the palmy days ended in 180, when Marcus Aurelius was succeeded by his dissolute son Commodus. Septimius Severus attempted a restoration, but things went to dogs agin under his son Caracalla (note the superb bust of the latter at the end of the new Greco-Roman galleries at the Met).

In 384 Diocletian put things back together again with his Tetrarchic system. This did not last, though, and Constantine brought things back together. With his Edict of Milan of 313 Costantine end3d the persecution of Christiany, signifying by later acts his personal sympathy. He fopunded Constantinople in 330. (The Arch of Constantine marks, though contestably, the start of medieval art.)

Justinian (527-565) sought to restore the Roman Empire in the West. He also was a prodigious builder and law reformer (the Code Justinian). Yet in the 630s the expansion of Islam largely nullified Justinian's efforts.

Finally, Charlemagne created his own version of empire in Western Europe (coronation of 800).

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Summary of Lecture One

Lasting until about 1000 CE, the earlier medieval period displays distinctive characteristics, especially in Western Europe. Its launching, the so-called Fall of Rome, poses the larger question of the fragility of civilization. Recently, historians and sociologists have placed the issue of the collapse of civilizations in comparative perspective, adducing instances ranging from the ancient Maya to the Soviet Union.

It is a mistake to dismiss the earlier Middle Ages as simply the "Dark Ages." The era witnessed the creative process of ethnogenesis, including the emergence of such modern nations as France and England, with their distinctive (and indeed glorious) languages. Old French appears for the first time in a written document of 843, Old English (Anglo-Saxon) somewhat earlier. Moreover, in the realm of art a modest economy does not necessarily spell artistic inferiority, witness the many brilliant manifestations of the Primal (or Tribal) Arts.

The following features are significant in our period.

A. The emergence of three constituent art streams, followed by their gradual admixture (hybridity): 1) The Greco-Roman stem, wherein the Roman element is itself composite, juxtaposing highm and low featuress. 2) The Middle Eastern contribution, generated in the resurgent cultures of Egypt, Syria, Armenia, and Persia. 3) The northern "barbarian" contribution: Celtic, Germanic, Scandinavian.

B. While the Roman Empire fialed in the West, it survived in the East, where Byzantine civilization came to form the basis for Eastern European distinctiveness, anchored by the Orthodox church.

C. Religion plays an important role. The late antique period is not just a simple handover from Greco-Roman polytheism to Christianity, for there was a jostling of "New Age" faiths, those of Mithras, Isis, Cybele, Mani and so forth. Moreover, as contemporary scholars working with gnostic documents and newly found gospels have shown, early Christianity was more diverse than is usually assumed.

D. In art some genres, including monumental sculpture, did indeed fade away. Yet there was rioch compensation in the new sophistication of ivory carving, manuscript illumination, enamel, and goldsmiths' work. With some justice it has been remarked that the minor arts were the major arts of the earlier Middle Ages.