Category Archives: Art

The Age of Augustus

Writing job applications makes you think not only about what you are good at but about what you’d like to do. I have always wanted a position that would allow me to research ancient Christianity and the Later Roman Empire while teaching Roman history and Latin. This includes crafting a course on the age of Augustus. I like the age of Augustus. Here I am with the Prima Porta Augustus (I really did come close to crying upon seeing it):

Why the age of Augustus?

Augustus was the ‘first emperor of Rome’. He blazed onto the scene at age 19 in 44 BC when his great-uncle Julius Caesar was assassinated and adopted him as his son posthumously. He consolidated power unto himself by 31 BC and acquired the title ‘Augustus’ from the Senate in 27 BC. He then proceeded to rule the Roman Empire until AD 14. Politically, what sets Augustus off from people like Uncle Julius, besides his longevity, was his formal acquisition of powers, authorities, and titles from the Senate. He didn’t simply aim for something like ‘Dictator for Life’. He gathered into himself a variety of constitutional powers that no single man had previously held, and his successors managed to hold onto them, turning Rome into a monarchy. This is a reason for such a course.

As a result of this, and here my late antique expertise adds weight to the importance of teaching the early empire, Augustus becomes sort of a ‘model emperor’. Consider the image above, of the beardless emperor, as opposed to:

Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, British Museum

Augustus’ beardlessness thus makes Constantine’s ‘look’ of particular political importance:

Augustus boasted that he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. Monuments from his era can still be seen in the city of Rome, such as the Ara pacis. Besides such monumental art and the shift in the city’s grandeur, a lot of great surviving Roman art comes from the Augustan era, such as the wondrous frescoes from his wife, Livia’s, villa, now on display in the Palazzo Massimo in Rome. Art and architecture from the age of Augustus, then, provide another reason.

The Laocoon Group, now in the Vatican Museums, may date to this period

Furthermore, this same era, from 44ish BC to 14ish AD is a productive time in Latin literature — at least, Latin literature that survives. In prose, we have here the last years of Cicero and the work of Sallust, Livy, and the later works of Cornelius Nepos and Varro. Poetry is a larger domain, however — all of the famous elegists, Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid, as well as the lyric achievement of Horace, not to mention the great epic poet Virgil.

A course on more than just politics, then

Take these elements, couple them with studies of ‘daily life’, and a course on the age of Augustus would be a wonderful glimpse of the Roman world as it existed for 58 years. The political narrative could be woven together with art and poetry, and how these interacted with each other could be part of the dialogue between professor and students.

Imagining this as a course with two lecture slots per week, I would divide it between narratives bringing history forward from the Ides of March 44 BC to the fourteenth day before the Kalends of September AD 14 (August 19). Parallel to the narrative lectures would be sessions combining lectures with discussions, moving through the art, architecture, and literature.

The primary learning outcome would be to see the transformation of the Roman world from the self-embattled Republic to the Early Empire, seeing Augustus and the culture that thrived during his reign in context. It would provide a background to understanding the rest of Roman history as well as later imperial aspirers, such as Charlemagne whose biographer Einhard used the biography of Augustus by Suetonius as a model.

Why read the Aeneid of Virgil?

Arms and the man I sing

I recently finished my fourth English reading of Virgil’s Aeneid, this time in the translation of Frederick Ahl with an excellent introduction by the late Elaine Fantham (Fantham taught me Latin verse in my MA at Toronto, and I have enormous esteem for her work and great affection for her person).

As with the Iliad, there are good extrinsic reasons to read Virgil’s great epic — all post-Virgilian Latin verse, especially epic, for one thing. Even Ovid’s Amores — a magnificent series of elegiac love poetry — are haunted by Virgil, beginning with the word arma. Also, Dante (whom I also love) and Milton (Milton also has some Lucan in him — and Lucan is, in many ways, the anti-Virgil). Or if, like me, you’re a Bernini fan:

Someone somewhere once called the Aeneid the epic poem of Europe. We are all, for good or ill, wrapped up in the great European cultural project, from Homer to Star Trek. The Aeneid permeates much of this, and not only poetry, but philosophy at least as early as Seneca, theology in Augustine, and the visual arts. Oh, and Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas. As I said about The Iliad:

not reading [it] means you are missing out on an integral part of your own cultural heritage and thus not leading a full life

Other reasons? So many. Here are three.

First, duty. This is perhaps a reason to read the Aeneid today. Over and over and over again in the Aeneid, the titular hero is ‘pius Aeneas’ — falsely rendered ‘pious’. Ahl goes for ‘righteous’, Heaney for ‘filled with devotion’. Aeneas, for all his faults (we’ll get to those), is a man who knows what his destiny is (okay, most of us don’t have gods and ghosts helping us out in that regard), and he does what is necessary to that end. He single-mindedly seeks to do his duty to his fate.

He is also a devoted son, father, husband — he seeks to do his duty to Anchises, his father, whom he carries away from Troy in spite of Anchises’ protestations. He also brings his son Iulus/Ascanius. He wishes to bring his wife Creusa, but she is slain in the god-rendered destruction of Troy.

Aeneas fulfils his duty to the gods. He brings with him his household gods from Troy to give them a new home. He performs sacrifices to the gods. He fulfils vows to the gods. He also fulfis his duty to the dead by giving them proper burial when possible.

In an age where we shirk duty when possible and do whatever we please, perhaps we could learn from Aeneas?

But — well, then there’s the second reason. Ambiguity. Is pius Aeneas always pious? Think of his own aristeia, the needless slaughter of so many Latins. The killing of his great foe. His manipulation and abandonment of Dido. Aeneas can be a violent, dangerous man. Not all of the killing in this poem is just, and some of the unjust killing is on the part of Aeneas, pius or not.

This is part of why I love this poem. Maybe we need to think about duty. But Virgil doesn’t avoid the muck. Death. War. Violence. Betrayal. These are the stuff of the crooked ways of humans. And his great, beautiful, heart-wrenching poetry draws you and pulls you. It’s an amazing poem — people like me want to find ‘morals’ to the story: Devoted Aeneas! But Virgil says, ‘Oh, but — violent Aeneas, angry Aeneas, shameless Aeneas, woman-abandoning Aeneas…’

Both Aeneases are real. That’s part of the beauty of the poem.

And so the third: The Aeneid is beautiful in Latin, beautiful in a good English translation. If you are Latin-less, get Fagles (Penguin) or Ahl (Oxford). Read it in verse — Dryden, if you’re into that sort of thing. I’ve not read C. Day Lewis’s. Death can be beautiful when narrated by the greatest poet of the Latin language. Storms at sea can grip you. Even catalogues of Romans take on something beyond expected glory when rendered in dactylic hexameter.

There is power in Virgil’s verse. I find this hard to put into words, which probably makes me a bad critic. But maybe beauty isn’t quite right as the third reason. This is a magnificent, complex poem, referring backwards and forwards to itself. The action and the set descriptions are carefully paced to keep your interest. The relationship to Homer is there at first sight, and suddenly more complex at fourth read. Read the Aeneid because it is … wondrous.

I have a friend who hates the term ‘instant classic’. Nothing, she says, is an instant classic. Well, Virgil was. He was taught in schools almost as soon as he existed. Already, his contemporaries had to find new things to do. This poem could not be ignored by Ovid. Lucan, in his choice of the grotesque horror of civil war, had to do something completely different, composing verse in the shadow the great Virgil.

The Aeneid is a rich, powerful, complex, beautiful poem about destiny, about duty, and about the ambiguities of life as lived by mortals who are trying to do their duty and fulfil their destinies. Read it. Then read it again.

#philologywillsavetheworld

Also: check out my post about The Odyssey!

Things in which I delight: Mosaics

A lot of people feel that 2016 was a terrible year, largely because of the Brexit referendum, Donald Trump, and the untimely deaths of several celebrities. Some of my friends also had personal sorrow and loss. I do not wish to downplay the bad stuff in the world, and I think we should think hard about how to make 2017 better.

In the spirit of making 2017 awesome, I’m going to post about things in which I delight every once in a while. Whenever the fancy strikes me, about whatever thing that grabs me.

Today: Mosaics

I’ve chosen mosaics because on Monday, I gave the introductory lecture to first-year Roman imperial history. As part of the lecture, I listed reasons to study the Roman Empire, including this mosaic:

IMG_2192This is an early second-century mosaic of doves from Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. The tesserae (the little bits of glass/tile/stone used to make a mosaic) are very, very tiny, often only a few millimetres in length. From a distance, it can be mistaken for a painting, so fine is the handiwork.

I delight in mosaics.

They have a particular aesthetic that other forms of art do not have. Now, I like other visual arts, other media of beauty. Maybe I’ll share some stained glass one day soon. Each has its own particular way of displaying beauty. Few mosaics look quite as much like a painting as the doves above (although there is only one painting in San Peter’s, Rome!). The bringing together of many small items, each unique, to create a larger whole, results in a different feel.

I’m not very good at writing about art, so let’s just move on to the pictures. If you want a set of 105 mosaic photos, I’ve got one of those on Flickr.

Here are some of the mosaic photos that I’ve taken. (Not, however, photo mosaics.)

The walls of the Vatican museum are full of mosaics, the provenance of which I don’t know. But I like the mosaics. Some of them are also on the floor, come to think of it. Here’s one on the wall:

14324068596_a409c855cb_oI like this next in particular; also from Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, it’s similar to the doves in size, both its own and its tesserae. It features goats, which are something else in which I delight:

14323870206_d48757db82_oThis next mosaic is from the Vatican’s floor, depicting Achilles dragging Hector around:

14160544047_57589817ec_oYou can also find ancient mosaics at the Louvre in Paris:

9739292243_e77aef4002_oThis one is part of the Mosaics of the Seasons, c. 225, from Daphne a suburb of Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey).

Elsewhere in Paris, you can see medieval mosaics, such as this one from the 12th-c floor of the double ambulatory of St-Denis. It is also about the seasons — in October, the vintner puts wine in his barrel:

7796704496_6968b492a7_oGoing back in time, the first ancient mosaics I saw were in Cyprus when I was there 2005-06, such as this one in situ in a villa at Kourion:

114095207_4ec73ac5a7_oMost mosaics I’ve seen, however, have been in Italian churches…

IMG_5381This is a vaguely blurry image of half the triumphal arch at Santa Maria Maggiore as well as some of the apsidal dome. The mosaic on the arch dates to the papacy of Xystus III (432-440). At the bottom is Jerusalem (parallelled by Bethlehem on the right side of the mosaic. Above it we see stories from Jesus’ life, such as the massacre of the innocents, Jesus in the Temple as a boy, and an event at the top that I can’t place. The glistening gold of the apse is 13th-century and features the Coronation of the Virgin; all of my photos of it are extraordinarily blurry.

IMG_2879This 11th-century mosaic is on the apse of the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. Christ, throned in glory, is flanked by angels. In the lower corners of the semi-dome you can see some of St Ambrose’s miracles.

Speaking of St Ambrose, here is my rather lacklustre attempt at a photo of the fifth-century mosaic in the side chapel of San Vittore in the same basilica.

6804126324_0054676f10_oStaying in the fifth century, let’s zip back down to Rome to San Paolo fuori le Mura to nod our heads in admiration of this big mosaic of Jesus dating to the papacy of Leo and lifetime of Galla Placidia (440-50):

Fifth-century mosaic from San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

Fifth-century mosaic from San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

I could fill this post with images of Roman church mosaics, but won’t. I’ll give two more, though. First is Santa Prassede, which is Rosamond McKitterick’s favourite Roman church:

IMG_2755Second, St Paul’s within the Walls (the American Episcopal church in Rome):

14121281141_9958bb96b7_oAs with many 19th-c images I love, this (sadly, blurry photo) is Pre-Raphaelite — Edward Burne-Jones.

In a vain attempt to keep Rome under control, here are camels on a dome from the porch of San Marco, Venice:

12743169073_9138f75184_oI think I’ll end here. Sorry that some of these are blurry. I do like a mosaic, though!

The danger of the “Byzantine”

I’ve already commented on this blog about the pitfalls of the word Byzantine, especially in relation to the mosaic art of Late Antique and Early Mediaeval Rome. I stand by that perspective. Indeed, after a conference I was at earlier this year, I am even more deeply entrenched in my anti-Byzantine position.

One of the many difficulties besetting the use of this word is its strong association with Greek and the Eastern Mediterranean (indeed, I think of Byzantine as Greek mediaeval, or mediaeval Greek, personally). This is combined with the fact that, despite the great cultural and political ruptures of the seventh century, historians of ‘Byzantium’ and the ‘Byzantine’ Empire like to start their story with Constantine or something like that (in which case we are far enough back in time to be clearly in the Late Roman East).

Why are these two things problems?

Justinian.

I haven’t dealt with him in my ‘Discover Late Antiquity‘ series yet — not properly. Nevertheless, Justinian reconquers North Africa, a bit of Spain, and Italy. His (re)conquest of Italy ran from 536 to 554. As a result, the heartland of the Roman West was reunited with the Roman East. This increases the cross-cultural exchange between East and West — traditional Italian artwork of Late Antiquity thus maintains ties with the traditional Hellenic artwork of Late Antiquity (that is, the ‘Byzantine’). Eastern craftsmen can make their way West within a united empire.

Let me now circle back to how the Hellenic, eastern-focussed use of this word and its application to art can cause problems.

In 553, the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of St Mary — the Basilica Eufrasiana — was rebuilt in Porec, Croatia. As Wikipedia will tell you, this basilica ‘is an excellent example of early Byzantine architecture’. Having observed lovely photos of this basilica, it strikes me as an excellent example of early Christian architecture. Indeed, a basilica of similar style to its comrades in Rome:

Photo by Wikimedia user JoJan

Photo by Wikimedia user JoJan

Central apse, by Wikimedia user JoJan

Central apse, by Wikimedia user JoJan

Nevertheless, Wikipedia is not the only source that will tell you that the Basilica Eufrasiana is ‘Byzantine’. At the aforementioned conference, one of the papers discussed the basilica’s images of female saints — all well and good. Indeed, given the fact that the Istrian Peninsula was part of the Byzantine world, I’d even be willing to grant limited use of the word Byzantine to the artistic style.

However, from being used of the art, this word began to applied to the cultural context and worldview of the people who commissioned it and used the basilica. And this simply will not do. Istria is not Greek. Istria was not Greek. The cultural worldview of the sixth-century, Late Antique people of Istria was not Byzantine.

Female Martyrs on triumphal arch, photo by Wikimedia user JoJan

Female Martyrs on triumphal arch, photo by Wikimedia user JoJan

The reason this is a problem is because the presenter kept on finding Greek sources to corroborate her interpretation of the mosaics and the artistic scheme of the basilica. However, one glance at those same mosaics will show the viewer quite a lot of Latin — because that is the language of the Late Antique Istrians.

Ecclesiastically, in fact, the Istrian Peninsula was under the archiepiscopal oversight of the Bishop of Aquileia. And, along with that bishop and some others, was among the places that, around this time, entered into schism with the Bishop of Rome over the Three Chapters (on which I’ve blogged here). Therefore, Greek canon law is not germane to any discussion of how Istrians viewed women; Latin canon law, however, is. As are the writings of the ecclesiastics of Aquileia. Nonetheless, the paper to which I am referring continually resorted to Greek, ‘Byzantine’ sources.

I can only guess that the reason was because of the overuse of this word to refer to all Late Antique art of a certain style, and a confusion between politics (yes, this was then part of the Eastern Roman Empire) and culture (but it was not, therefore, Greek).

Byzantine is a word that can be very useful. But I find that the earlier it is applied, or the farther West it journeys, the more it simply confuses matters.

Discover Late Antiquity: Sixth-century religion

Our little tour through Late Antiquity reached the end of the 400s a few weeks ago — just in time for the Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University, Belfast, to declare on May 31:

Society doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian.

What, we all wonder, does society need?

a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership and contributing to society, who is a thinker and someone who has the potential to help society drive forward

That is to say — someone with the skills gained by almost any humanities degree. Like sixth-century history. I should have written this blog post the moment I read Charles West’s excellent piece on the subject at History Today, but I didn’t. Because work.

First, if you’ve missed the rest of this little journey, I’ve made a Discover Late Antiquity page, so you can go there to catch up on what you’ve been missing! As usual, I’m starting our discussion with religion, literature, etc. For a quick glimpse of sixth-century manuscripts, don’t forget my last post! Now that I’m done the preamble, let’s begin with religion.

Sixth-century Religion

Sixth-century mosaic of Christ, Santi Cosma e Damiano, Rome

Sixth-century mosaic of Christ, Santi Cosma e Damiano, Rome

The sixth-century saw the realisation in the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East of the final schism between Mono/Miaphysite Christians and the Chalcedonians. At the turn of the century, the emperor in Constantinople, Anastasius I, was sponsoring a document called the Henotikon that had appeased some of the Miaphysites, but in 518 Justin and then his nephew Justinian (r. 527-565) supported the Chalcedonian cause. Although some of Justinian’s actions tried to appease the Miaphysites, others only exacerbated the problem, with the result that Jacob Baradaeus began consecrating a parallel episcopal hierarchy in the Levant, Syria, and Asia Minor — this today is the Syrian Orthodox Church. At the same time, the forerunners of the Miaphysite Coptic Orthodox Christians were active in Egypt, harbouring folks like Severus of Antioch (one of the greatest theological minds of the age) when their Miaphysite beliefs clashed with imperial policy.

Part of Justinian’s appeasement tactics was the condemnation of the ‘Three Chapters’. The Three Chapters were the person and writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia; the letter of Ibas of Edessa to Mari the Persian; and certain writings of Theodoret of Cyrrhus. Because Ibas and Theodoret were reckoned orthodox by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, many — especially in the western Mediterranean — felt that the condemnation of the Three Chapters was a sly repudiation of Chalcedon. For why that is not necessarily the case, read this post.

The condemnation of the Three Chapters culminated in the Second Council of Constantinople of 553, now regarded as the Fifth Ecumenical Council by Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Christians. Pope Vigilius was there, and after some tergiversations agreed to the condemnation. A schism erupted between Rome and northern Italy, called the Istrian Schism, and lasted until Pope Sergius I in the 600s.

On another side of the Chalcedonian debate were those Christians who rejected both the Miaphysite position and the Council, traditionally termed ‘Nestorian‘ in English. This group of Christians founded what is today known as The Church of the East. They flourished in the Persian Empire and beyond, possibly as far as Tibet in the 500s. Chalcedonians did not flourish in the Persian Empire because their support of a form of Christianity aligned with the Roman Empire was perceived as dangerous; many of them were taking refuge in what is now Georgia; the Georgian Orthodox Church is still part of the Eastern Orthodox Church with its own pre-Russian tradition.

Amongst the monasteries of the Judaean desert there also arose the Second Origenist Controversy, surrounding some of Origen’s teachings in On First Principles but more importantly the teachings of the fourth-century mystic Evagrius of Pontus. This controversy resulted in a condemnation of Origenism in a series of anathemas often wrongly attributed to the Council of Constantinople of 553.

In the Eastern Empire, the sixth century is also the century of spiritual leaders Barsanuphius and John (whom I love), their disciple Dorotheos of Gaza, and Simeon Stylites the Younger. St Sabas/Savvas of Judaea died this century. Romanos the Melodist, early Byzantine liturgical poet par excellence, lived in the 500s as well. We cannot forget Cosmas Indicopleustes, an Alexandrian Nestorian who wrote an amazing description of the world and his travels in Arabia and India; of greater philosophical precision is the Miaphysite Alexandrian philosopher John Philoponus.

Besides getting thoroughly embroiled in the argument over the reception of Chalcedon, the West saw what may be termed the ‘Arian Controversy 2.0’. The newly emergent kingdoms of the West were largely ruled by ‘Arian’ or ‘Semi-Arian’ rulers (today’s usage would say ‘Homoian’), and they would debate with the Nicene-Catholic populations — Theoderic the Great in Italy, the Vandals of North Africa, and the Visigoths of Spain were Homoian/Arians. Theoderic treated the Nicene-Catholics of Italy well and with respect; the Vandals made their lives a living hell in Africa, as we read in Victor of Vita’s (d. 535) History of the Vandal Persecutions. The Franks were Catholic, which sets them apart; their king Clovis I, on the eve of the century in 496, was baptised into the Catholic form of Christianity by Remigius, Bishop of Reims, under the influence of his wife Clotilda.

However, as Gregory of Tours in the History of the Franks (c. 590) makes clear, the ‘Catholic’ Franks were generally as impious and unholy as the pagans and Arians; they, too, looted churches and such and lived riotously unvirtuous lives. It’s worth keeping in mind when we begin to imagine Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages as special eras of great religious fervour.

In 586, Reccared, King of Spain converted to Catholicism. That’s a big deal.

St Benedict (480-547) is kind of a big deal, too. His Rule, written for his small community of 12 monks at Monte Cassino, would become the standard of western monasticism in the centuries to come. He drew upon the preceding tradition, like John Cassian of the 400s and the early sixth-century Rule of the Master.

Cassiodorus (485-585) also founded a monastery after his career in the public service under King Theoderic; he wrote all about it in his Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning. His other religious writings include a commentary on the Psalms and some other exegetical pieces; he also wrote a Christian philosophical treatise ‘On the Soul.’

The philosopher-poet Boethius (480-524), besides his translations of Aristotelian works and his famous Consolation of Philosophy, wrote theological treatises ‘On the Trinity,’ ‘Against Eutyches and Nestorius,’ ‘Whether Father, Son and Holy Spirit are Substantially Predicated of the Divinity,’ and ‘On the Catholic Faith,’ amongst others.

So as not to be too much more long-winded, other important western religious figures of the century include: Caesarius of Arles, Ennodius of Pavia, Avitus of Vienne, Brigid of Kildare, Brendan the Navigator, Columba (missionary to Highland Scotland), Kentigern/Mungo (missionary to the Glasgow region), Columbanus (Irish monastic founder in France and Italy), and Pope Gregory the Great (pope, 590-604) who closes the century; I’ll save him for the 600s. None of this brings out questions of canon law and liturgy, of course, but there’s just no room!!

Discover sixth-century manuscripts

A couple of weeks ago I was browsing a wee shop that sells prints of icons, and I noticed that several were images from the Rabbula Gospels; I bought the images of the Crucifixion/Resurrection, the Ascension, and Pentecost. Here are my little prints:

IMG_7349The Rabbula Gospels is a sixth-century Syriac Gospel codex, illuminated with quite wonderful images, as you can see. I first encountered this book in Kurt Weitzmann, Late Antique and Early Christian Book Illumination.

That evening, I was reminded in conversation of the Codex Fuldensis (Codex Bonifatianus I), a Latin New Testament containing a Harmony of the Gospels, as well as the rest of the 23 books of the New Testament canon, the Epistle to the Laodiceans, and Jerome’s Prologue to the Gospels:

Thinking on these made me consider some other sixth-century manuscripts I like, pages from which I shall show here just to make you happy. The first that came to mind was the St Augustine Gospels (before 597, now in the Parker Library, Cambridge, CCC MS 286):

Folio 125r, 12 scenes from the Passion

Folio 125r, 12 scenes from the Passion

This manuscript was brought to England from Rome by St Augustine of Canterbury in 597.

Next I thought of yet another Gospel book, the Rossano Gospels. This is one of the Purple Codices of the New Testament, written in Greek majuscules. Here is an image of Christ before Pilate:

RossanoGospelsChristBeforePilate One of the more epic manuscripts of the century is the Vienna Genesis, a Greek majuscule that includes this image of the Flood:

ViennaGenesisPict3DelugeNot quite what you give your kids in Sunday School:

More gruesome, in my opinion, is the image of the Flood from the Latin Ashburnham Pentateuch (turn of 6th-7th c):

Meister_des_Ashburneham-Pentateuch_003There are, of course, many more 6th-century illuminated manuscripts on which to feast your eyes. I close now with an image of the 6th-century canon law manuscript, Collectio Corbeiensis, Paris, lat. 12097 (naturally enough):

corbeiensis random folioYou, too, can spend your days looking at illuminated manuscripts online! Most of these images came from the Wikimedia Commons, where you can find pages for The Rabbula Gospels, The St Augustine Gospels, The Rossano Gospels, The Vienna Genesis, and The Ashburnam Pentateuch. Collectio Corbeiensis can be found on the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s digital collections site, Gallica.

Roman — not Byzantine

Although this title looks the sort of thing you’d expect from continuist Byzantinists, I’m actually arguing about Rome in what follows — that early mediaeval art in Rome is not Byzantine.

Apsis_mosaic_San_ClementeWhen I first visited San Clemente in 2014, there was a group of people looking at the magnificent apsidal mosaic. One of them remarked, ‘This is Byzantine’, in as natural a way as possible. I recommend you click on that image to the left to get a taste of San Clemente’s apsidal mosaic. It is a remarkable piece of craftsmanship, and I would never speak ill of it. People in the Middle Ages were great workers of beauty, and Roman mosaics are among those works of beauty.

But I was annoyed at the person saying that San Clemente’s mosaic was Byzantine. For one thing, it was built c. 1099-1125. I don’t think it’s very precise to call Roman art in the twelfth century ‘Byzantine’ — the papacy was already into its schism with the East, and the city was largely a papal city, although the Normans sacked it in 1084 due to papal-imperial politics, including the destruction of the fourth-century San Clemente, leading to the creation of the new one. The emperor in these politics was not in Constantinople but in the Holy Roman Empire. Crusading zeal aside, the outlook of Rome in this period was decidedly western.

Nonetheless, I can imagine someone saying that the current mosaic is a replacement of the fourth- (or ninth-?) century mosaic lost in the fire of 1084. And surely that mosaic would count as Byzantine. Therefore, this mosaic is an imitation Byzantine mosaic.

I guess here’s where I get properly controversial, since there are mediaevalists and art historians who would argue for the use of the word Byzantine in relation to early mediaeval Roman art. Nonetheless, two days ago I visited Santa Prassede with Rosamond McKitterick, and she argues strongly for the Romanness of Santa Prassede’s mosaics. So I’m in good company. Here are a few of my photos of Santa Prassede’s mosaics to give you the flavour:

First of all, I can see immediately why we want to call early mediaeval Roman art Byzantine. Just look at it! And then, just look at Byzantine art, like the famous Christ Pantokrator from Ayia Sophia:

Jesus-Christ-from-Hagia-SophiaThat one from 1261, of course, is much more naturalistic than these ninth-century mosaics. What people usually have in mind is more the sixth-century apsidal mosaic at St Catherine’s in Sinai:

transfiguration-st-catherines-monasteryOr the sixth-century mosaics at Ravenna:

Pendentive_(San_Vitale_in_Ravenna)There is certainly a visual continuity running across these sixth-century mosaics from the edges of the ‘Byzantine’/Justinianic world into the Roman mosaics of the ninth century sponsored by Pope Paschal I. However, this same visual continuity also strikes the heart of sixth-century Rome, as Santi Cosma e Damiano, at the edge of the Roman Forum and built by Felix IV c. 524, as seen in my photos below:

Rome in 524 is living under the rule of Ostrogothic king Theoderic. They are only newly reunited ecclesially with Constantinople. Is it really accurate to say that this kind of art is ‘Byzantine’ in this case? Indeed, is it not visually united with the fifth-century mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore?

IMG_1613 IMG_1606Finally, why don’t we step back and see the visual continuity that runs from the Constantinian age and the Mausoleo di ‘Santa’ Costanza? (My photo)

IMG_1569This is Roman-style Late Antique and Early Mediaeval art, and it exists in mosaic and fresco, although mosaics are more durable. I have given examples from the fifth and sixth centuries as well as the ninth (see also the apsidal mosaics at Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, also commissioned by Paschal I), but I could have added the late sixth (San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, c. 580) and seventh as well (Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura and San Teodoro for mosaics and the remnants of the diaconia in the curia, now in Cripta Balbi, for frescoes). I do not know my eight-century Roman churches at all — apologies there.

Christian Roman art and architecture are habitually traditionalist. Their style remains Late Antique and persists with a certain degree of Classicism in architecture combined with a visual abstraction that we consider ‘Byzantine’ while northern Europe and Spain go through Romanesque and Gothic. This ‘Byzantine’ style of Roman art, indeed, continues well beyond definitively traceable Byzantine cultural influence in Rome, such as this 14th-century mosaic at Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome’s only Gothic church (my blurry photo; apologies):

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Or what about the Dormition of the Virgin, a thirteenth-century mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore? (My pic.)

IMG_1609None of this is to say that ‘Byzantine’ forces were never at work in Rome during the Middle Ages. Eastern Christian influences were certainly present in Rome after the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, such as through ongoing contacts with the Emperor in Constantinople, especially after Justinian’s Reconquest, and then through the arrival of eastern clerics. In the seventh century, many ‘Greek’ (that is, Greek-speaking) clerics came to Rome, such as the circle of St Maximus the Confessor. The Roman liturgy adapted some Greek/Eastern liturgical practices to her own use, and the papacy may even have taken on some Greek bureaucratic ideals. St Gregory the Great, in fact, even spent time in Constantinople before becoming Bishop of Rome! So, yes, there is cultural exchange. But it also goes both ways — Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care is very popular in Eastern Christianity, for example.

All this to say — since words matter, we should be precise. Early mediaeval art in Rome is not Byzantine. It stands in its own strong Roman tradition, a tradition that persists in mosaics, at least, up to the High Middle Ages, and also has ties with its sister art in the Easter Mediterranean (‘Byzantine’ art).

Saturn in Keats’ ‘Hyperion’

John Keats by Joseph Severn, 1819

John Keats by Joseph Severn, 1819

Having read Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, I was inspired to read Keats’ Hyperion. Keats’ Hyperion is a fragmentary narrative poem about the Titans after their defeat by the gods of Olympus. I didn’t quite absorb it all. It washed over me in a wave of words and rhythm, entrancing me and tugging me, but I was lulled by it in the wrong way.

So I’ll have to reread it.

Anyway, the thing that struck me at the very beginning is that Keats’ vision of Saturn takes into account one striking fact that careful readers of Latin verse observe — Saturn is not Kronos.

We all know the old story of Roman adaptatio of Greek deities with their own, something that had such a powerful impact upon them (and, it seems, their Etruscan neighbours) that little of pre-Greek Italic myth has any existence. And so, it is very frequently (but not always!) possible to say, ‘Jupiter/Jove is Zeus. Juno is Hera. Minerva is Athena. Mars is Ares.’

Saturn is Kronos.

Right?

I mean, he is the leading ‘Titan’ and father of the Olympians, such as Jupiter.

However, when we read Vergil, it is evident that Saturn is not a mean, nasty jerk-face who enjoys gobbling up his children the moment they’re born (this is about all most of us are aware of re Kronos via Hesiod). He is, rather, the king of the Golden Age. He creates the first and greatest race of human beings. For Latins, the return of the Age of Saturn is a good thing.

Keats’ Hyperion begins with Thea approaching the supine form of defeated Saturn. And the Saturn she approaches is not the Titanic villain Kronos. He is clearly the golden god of good things, the god of plenty, the king of a golden age.

Of course, Keats knows his Greek myths as well.  The creation of all things from Chaos, for example, is part of the poem. But he has made for us a sympathetic Saturn, rather than the rather the unsympathetic Kronos of Hesiod (and Goya).

This is a wee reminder that when Romantics name ‘Greek’ gods by their Roman names, they are not (merely?) being patronising. There may in fact be a point to so doing. And I would further argue that for someone like Keats, naming the gods by their Roman names makes the most sense, given that he spent his final years in Rome, leaving Hyperion unfinished at the time of his death in 1820.

Just a quick thought, but I felt like articulating it.

A Great Thing About Catholic Europe: Most Churches are Free

The Romanesque church of St-Julien-le-Pauvre, Paris (free)

The Romanesque church of St-Julien-le-Pauvre, Paris (free)

If, like me, you have an amateur/non-scholarly interest in the history of art and architecture and find yourself travelling Europe on a budget (as was the case throughout the research trips conducted in the course of my PhD), the freeness of most churches in Catholic Europe (in stark contrast to London, home of the moneychangers) is a tremendous blessing.1

If you like Late Antique art, free entry to Santa Costanza in Rome will get you early mosaics plus a mausoleum. Free entry to Santa Maria Maggiore gets you Late Antique mosaics plus some bonus Classical pillars (so do San Lorenzo fuori le Mura and a host of other Roman churches). Free entry to Sant’Ambrogio in Milan gets you a very fine Late Antique sarcophagus (the Late Antique mosaics in the treasury are worth 2 euros, though). Rome, in fact, has quite a lot of Late Antique art in its churches — chiefly mosaics. Even in San Pietro in Vincoli, where the Late Antique decoration was largely redone by Michelangelo in the Renaissance, there is a seventh-century mosaic of St Sebastian.

Romanesque art and architecture are not to be missed, either. Most Italian churches maintain a very ‘traditional’ style throughout northern Europe’s Romanesque period. That is, while they maintain the round arches, etc, like Romanesque, they aren’t as weighty or massive. I’m a big fan of this bit of doorframe from Verona Cathedral:

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The Benedictine Abbey of Sankt Paul im Laventtal, Austria, is a very excellent example of Romanesque architecture:

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Another free but highly restored Romanesque church worth visiting is St-Germain-des-Prés, in Paris.

After Romanesque comes Gothic, such as Notre Dame de Paris, la Sainte-Chappelle, a host of Parisian churches, Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, the Duomo of Milan, etc. All free! Less famous but still Gothic, Munich Cathedral:

IMG_9011Anyway, to speed things up …

The Renaissance in Florence? Largely free.

Michelangelo’s Pieta in San Pietro, Rome? Free.

Caravaggio in Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome? Free.

Saint Teresa in Ecstasy at Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome? Free.

Free art.

The whole history of Western art from Late Antiquity onwards.

Free.

Everywhere.

All you have to do is turn up at a church.


1. If, like me, you also have an amateur/non-scholarly interest in the history of music, Spotify or a university subscription to the Naxos Music Library can fulfill the same function as free Catholic churches.

Art does not exist in discrete boxes designated by period

Santa Maria Maggiore, competing visually with the Colosseum?

Santa Maria Maggiore, competing visually with the Colosseum?

Growing up in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, and then Thunder Bay, Ontario, I had this idea that the history of the arts was neatly compartmentalised. After mediaeval stuff, there was Renaissance, then Baroque, then Classical, then Romantic. (Which is where music history should maybe end?) My first clue that this was not so cut-and-dry was when I learned that Beethoven, although ‘Classical’ is, in certain respects, drawing us into the Romantic.

When we think about visual art, it’s pretty much the same. People didn’t stop building Romanesque churches just because Gothic had come around. Gothic-style art was not immediately engulfed by the Renaissance. And sometimes it can be hard to see where the Renaissance ends and the Baroque begins.

Not only do stylistic periods overlap, but in real life they also co-exist. This coexistence is abundantly evident in Rome, where the same church might house ancient columns, Late Antique mosaics, mediaeval mosaics and a mediaeval crucifix, as well as some Renaissance paintings and Baroque architecture and sculpture. Some places that look like the Baroque vomited all over their inside still have their wooden, mediaeval crucifices and maybe an early mediaeval Byzantine Madonna and Child. And sometimes you can find the 19th century peeking around the corner.

It’s a simple point, but an important one. The visual world of a single place and period is not restricted to its historical moment. The Colosseum is not just a Flavian monument; it persists in monumentality in Late Antiquity, in the Middle Ages, in the Renaissance, through every period of art in the Eternal City, right up until today. It does not cease to be part of the visual landscape of Rome just because modern Roman buildings are quite different.

I think this simple observation is important for historians when they start to try to take into account the visual evidence of a given period. It is important to track the changes and developments peculiar to each moment, but we also need to remember what the rest of the visual world of these people was.

For example, fifth-century Rome is not just refurbished Constantinian basilicas. It is not just the Theodosian Mausoleum. It is not just the mosaics in Santa Sabina and Santa Maria Maggiore. It is also the Basilica of Maxentius, the Baths of Trajan, the Ara Pacis, the Column of Trajan, the Pantheon, the Circus Maximus, the imperial residence on the Palatine. Rome in the 400s was still ancient Rome, and these secular and pagan monuments were the main visual displays for the populace of the City, including her bishops (‘popes’).

This means that when we look at the mosaics in the fifth-century basilicas, we need to ask ourselves what message Xystus III or Celestine I was sending into this world full of triumphal arches, secular military campaigns, pagan temples, altars to false gods. What does it mean? In this still-so-pagan visual world, is the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea up on the wall in Santa Maria Maggiore, alongside Joshua making the sun stand still in the sky in battle against the Amorites, or Melchizedek prefiguring Christ not making its own statement about the supremacy of Rome’s new religion and protector?

Finally, I think that this Classical visual culture will still have had its effect upon the Christians as they started to make themselves visible in the public spaces of Rome, or in their sarcophagi. I think it would be unavoidable, living right alongside the Arch of Septimius Severus and the Column of Marcus Aurelius, let alone the Classical sarcophagi along the roads in and out of the City.

These are thoughts that could be considered for any city and any time. What did it look like to them? What else was there besides what was new? How might this have influenced them? Did it affect Tallis to write Renaissance music for singing in Gothic churches? Who knows? We never will if we don’t ask.