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.

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