Continuity and Change in Late Antiquity

The period from 300 to 700 was for a long time—for centuries—interpreted as the time of Rome’s, of Classical Antiquity’s, senescence. Everything declined and fell. Standards eroded. In the 1960s a new interpretation emerged that is today regnant in the academy although perhaps not in the broader culture. This was a time when, apart from economic, social, and institutional dislocation, a buoyant, triumphant Christian culture put its stamp decisively on virtually every aspect of life. This was “Late Antiquity.”

Transition was originally inspired by Demetrios Konstantios, the late director of the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens. The volume is a catalogue from a 2011 exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York. Typically for the genre, the volume opens with various laudations followed by expert and illustrated essays covering aspects of the overall theme and then by beautiful reproductions of 144 objects. The idea behind the exhibition was to situate Greece—understood rather generously—in the world of late antiquity. That is, the objects included were (with only a few exceptions) either made in Greece, or found in Greece, or today conserved in Greek collections.

Readers—and viewers!—of Transition are treated to an intellectual and visual feast. The volume opens with a sparkling essay by Peter Brown, one of the founding fathers of the late antique paradigm. Subsequent essays treat broad cultural themes, geographical settings, coins, personal adornments, death and burial, places of worship, art generally and icons in particular, and aesthetics. Each essay is up to date and accessible. All have material that will inspire the expert and the non-expert alike.

Icon of Saint Peter, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, 6th Century. Photo: Peter Brubacher

If the book may be said to have a thesis it is this: Once Constantine granted toleration to Christianity in 313, the arts of pagan antiquity were adapted to Christian uses. Styles and production values largely persisted but subject matter changed dramatically, albeit gradually. Objects essential to daily life, say lamps, dishes, and small chests, acquired Christian symbols and decorations, crosses most often but also lambs, chi-rho monograms, ships, fish, and even images of saints. Personal adornments such as ear- and finger-rings, bracelets and armlets, necklaces, and clothing acquired similar symbols and images. Floor mosaics, large and small inscriptions, column capitals, statues, and sarcophagi acquired Christian symbols or illustrated Christian themes. Ecclesiastical architecture, of both the basilican and centrally-planned varieties, developed slowly but gained confidence, style, magnitude, and prominence. The walls and apses of churches were decorated with magnificent mosaics that were loud proclamations of triumph and not merely decorations. A beautiful piece of jewelry bearing a cross continued to signal the wealth and status of its owner but also announced her adherence to the new faith. Jaś Elsner speaks of “a melting pot of styles, visual allusions, and religious references” (31). He, like the book as a whole, stresses continuities amid dynamic, creative changes.

Slobodan Ćurčić’s fine essay on aesthetics makes three intriguing points. First, increasing abstraction represented a rejection of naturalism with its dependence on a range of symbols related to the natural world. Older artistic conventions were replaced by theological principles. Second, dematerialization had the paradoxical effect of denying materiality to material forms. He illustrates this point with examples of lace-work carving on column capitals. Third, the proliferation of two-dimensionality suggested new ways of capturing reality and simultaneously curtailed the role of sculpture. Ćurčić’s essay helps the reader work through the catalogue as a guide to why so much looked the same while at the same time looking so very different. Katherine Marsengill’s essay sums up scholarly thinking on the rise of the icon. These potent images had many sources, of course, but a key one was Egyptian mummy portraits. One might thoughtfully compare the encaustic icon of Saint Peter from Saint Catherine’s in Sinai (30 fig. 4) with the stunning portraits included in the catalogue (nos. 139-141). Immediately striking are the haunting, all-seeing eyes. But the mummy portraits commemorated the dead for the living whereas in icons the oversize eyes abandon naturalism to insist that the holy dead are still alive, that they “see” us, that they remain involved in our world. This is a wonderful illustration of Ćurčić’s point about older conventions yielding place to theological principles. And it reveals Elsner’s “melting pot.” And, finally, it reminds the student of late antiquity to take continuity and change in tandem and not in opposition.

Thomas F.X. Noble, Ph.D., is a professor of medieval history at the University of Notre Dame. He won the 2011 Otto Gründler Book Prize for his book Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. He currently serves as the President of the American Catholic Historical Association.