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.