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.