Tag Archives: late antique art

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.

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Discovering Late Antique Rome: The Small Stuff

I thought I’d wrap up my intermittent series on the Late Antique city of Rome as visible today with a few thoughts/images of the smaller items (that is, not monuments or basilicas) on display in Rome’s museums.1

Because of their enduring character and continual use, those buildings of Late Antique Rome that are most likely to have survived the Middle Ages and Renaissance are the churches and things turned into churches, like mausolea or the Roman Curia. But the Late Antique world is not all monumental architecture and churches, by any means, just as the ‘Classical’ Roman world wasn’t all monumental architecture and temples. A great many Late Antique items of smaller stature are on display in Rome’s museums, especially if we take our starting date for the period that used elsewhere on this blog, of 235-641.

Third-century stuff

The third century is interesting — great political crises around every corner, a great lacuna in the history of Latin literature, but Romans are still making the same stuff they were making a century before, like sarcophagi:

IMG_1660This is a sarcophagus of ca AD 270 with a bunch of togate fellows who, according to Palazzo Massimo’s display label, are involved in a consular procession. It is of larger scale than most second-century sarcophagi, but that has more to do with the wealth of the owner than the period of production. The figures here are cared in very high relief, almost as statues in the round. I love this sarcophagus because it has such great images of togas, that most Roman of garments.

Right next to that sarcophagus in the museum is this one, ca 280-90:

IMG_1664Here we see the growing trend that had already begun in some of the imperial art of the late second century of more front figures who are divided from each other in their own wee alcoves (on this, see Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph). These are the Muses, those most classical icons of world culture.

In the Baths of Diocletian, you can find a few more third-century artifacts, such as this spectacular relief commemorating a gladiator’s victories:

IMG_1739And this fantastic sarcophagus:

IMG_1751

In the Capitoline Museums you’ll find this image of Mars, Jupiter, and Nemesis erected by the Praetorians of Gallia Belgica in AD 246:

IMG_2118And then there’s Constantine…

In the Capitoline Museums (which are not to be missed!), you can also enjoy not one but two of Constantine’s big giant heads, plus a few of his limbs:

Part of the Constantinian revolution was the emergence of Christian art in traditional places. Like sarcophagi (I like sarcophagi). Here’s one from the same room in Palazzo Massimo as the ones above:

IMG_1667Early Christian art is interesting because it can be hard to spot the stories as you know them. Except it seems, the Nativity, as in this detail from the above:

IMG_1666One interesting artistic trend of the fourth century is opus sectile mosaics. Rather than describe them, I’ll show them to you:

1st half of 4th c., Palazzo Massimo

1st half of 4th c., Palazzo Massimo

Second quarter of the fourth century, Capitoline Museums

Second quarter of the fourth century, Capitoline Museums

Opus Sectile has a very simple appearance that is quite disarming. It has its charm, though.

Fifth-century playing ground

Other things you can find in Rome’s museums include coins, such as this of Theodosius II (r. 408-450) in the Capitoline Museums:

IMG_2101 (2)Of major significance is this pair of early fifth-century statue bases:

IMG_2120 IMG_2122They were erected by Q. Fabius Memmius Symmachus (ca. 383-after 402), son of the famous Roman statesman and man of letters, Q. Aurelius Symmachus (c. 345-402). The top is dedicated to his father, the bottom to his wife’s grandfather, Virius Nicomachus Flavianus (334-394).2

I don’t wish to burden you with too much more of this sort of thing, so I will simply close with two images from the Vatican Museum of some Christian items that herald to us the start of a new era, as the Classical recedes and the Mediaeval approaches.

6th-c reliquary from Syria-Palestine, Vatican Museum

6th-c reliquary from Syria-Palestine brought to Rome by a contemporary pilgrim, Vatican Museum

6th-7th-c ivory lid, Vatican Museum

6th-7th-c ivory lid, Vatican Museum

Anyway, as you can imagine, Late Antique Rome is not as hidden as I originally thought. You just have to know what to look for and where. All sorts of Late Antique objects are in Rome’s museums, reminding us of the continuous history of the City as a centre of culture and human experience.


1. In case you missed them, my other posts on Late Antique Rome are (in order): Late Antique Rome? Where?; Mausoleo di Santa Costanza; Roman Basilicas: Hunting Late Antiquity; the Baths of Diocletian; as well as (although not of this particular series of posts) Thoughts on Rome’s Senate and Senate House in the Seventh Century 
2. The marriage of Memmius Symmachus to Nicomachus Flavianus’ graddaughter is the probable occasion of the production of a diptych of which I have seen both leaves, one in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the other in the Musée de Cluny; I only have a photo of the second, though, but it seems not to be on Flickr.

Late Antique Rome: Mausoleo di Santa Costanza

The Mausoleo di Santa Costanza was the first stop on my hunt for Late Antique Rome four weeks ago (although I’d seen the Baths of Diocletian [298-305] several times from the bus window already!), given that it’s only a ten minute walk from where I’m staying. I tried going after work on a Friday night, but got there at 6:09 — nine minutes after closing! Alas. I peeked around at the seventh-century (and beyond) Basilica di Sant’Agnese at the bottom of the hill and returned the next morning to see Santa Costanza at the start of a long day of churches and museums!

Mausoleo di Santa Costanza

As you can see, the mausoleum, like similar, larger ones elsewhere in Rome (Castel Sant’Angelo [Hadrian’s] & Augustus’ spring to mind) is basically a large, brick cylinder on the outside. I understand that it was initially faced in coloured stone.

This mausoleum was built for the daughters of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. The real showcase is not the exterior, I can assure you, although it does look a lot like the mausoleum built by Maxentius for his son in 307 (in the Forum, originally mistakenly identified as the ‘Temple of Romulus’):

It's Forum Time!

The mausoleum of Maxentius’ son is on the right, over my left shoulder.

The real show case is the lightness of the interior, now a church (although Constantina was not a saint), with its circle of pillars supporting arches and a dome; the fresco is not original, although I think I read somewhere that the theme of it is.

Mausoleo di Santa Costanza

Mausoleo di Santa Costanza

Mausoleo di Santa CostanzaIn the background of the first of these three photos, you can see a reproduction of Constantina’s porphyry sarcophagus, the original of which is now in the Vatican Museums. When they moved it, the cart required four oxen to pull it! Porphyry is a very heavy, very dense stone.

Not my photo (but I have seen it in person!)

Architecturally, Santa Costanza reminds me of the Late Antique roots of Romanesque architecture. Italian Romanesque is never as heavy as it is somewhere like Durham Cathedral or Dunfermline Abbey, and I’ve read that some people refuse the name to Italian architecture of the Middle Ages. Be that as it may, Italian mediaeval architecture such as that visible in San Clemente or San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura or the churches of Verona is visibly and tangibly linked to this Late Antique style; tradition runs strong in Italian art and architecture.

Sant'Agnese

Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura; 8th-century, just down the hill from Santa Costanza

Verona Cathedral

12th-c Cathedral of Verona

For me though, the real star of Santa Costanza is the interior decoration. The ambulatory — that is, the space between the pillars and the outer wall — still has a good supply of the original mosaics. And I love mosaics, especially Late Antique and Early Mediaeval ones.

The ceiling of the ambulatory contains these very lovely designs, and the image of the people partying (?) in the last one is my favourite. Mausoleo di Santa CostanzaMausoleo di Santa CostanzaMausoleo di Santa CostanzaThe star of the show, however, is Jesus. First, here is a beardless Christ from the eastern niche of the ambulatory:

Mausoleo di Santa CostanzaMausoleo di Santa CostanzaAnd a bearded Christ in the western niche:

Mausoleo di Santa Costanza

I like that the people, including Jesus, are all dressed as Romans in these images. And bearded Jesus even has on a purple toga, which is fitting for the King of Kings. The others, too, have togas. Sometimes people criticise these old, encultured images of Jesus and the Apostles; sometimes those same people get excited about new, encultured images. These images are portals into the mindsets of fourth-century Romans. They are also portals into upper-class fashion of fourth-century Rome!

In a Late Antique mosaic, every stands out sharply. There is enough naturalism that these people do not look like children’s drawings, but there is a growing preference for showing things head-on. This is especially the case for Christ, who is the main attraction, after all. This is part of a wider movement of making a beautiful whole that is made up of smaller, brilliant pieces, each interesting in its own right — a stylistic departure from ‘classical’ modes of balance and proportion.

Finally, beardless Jesus is not surprising, since the Good Shepherd in the catacombs is himself beardless! I am not sure what the interpretation of him beardless is, though. Nonetheless, already in the 300s he has a halo.

Romanesque and Byzantine art are only a short step away…

The best little museum in Paris

Paris is a city of museums and galleries — the Louvre, d’Orsay, l’Orangerie, Cluny, la Crypte archéologique beneath Notre Dame, Carnavalet, Marmotan Monet, du quai Branly, Rodin, Invalides, Centre Georges Pompidou, and so forth. Last Saturday I visited what I think may be the best little museum here (and it’s free!!), the Bibliotheque nationale de France’s (BnF) collection of ‘Monnaies, médailles et antiques’ — coins, medallions, and … antiquities?

Now, you may think a museum that bills itself as a coin museum would be pretty lame. If you think thus, you’re clearly not that into numismatics and haven’t visited the Museum on the Mound in Edinburgh. I have two things to say to you — 1. coins can be cool; 2. this museum isn’t only coins. It’s not even mostly coins. Or medallions. Mostly, antiques (antiquities??).

At heart, this little two-floor museum is the BnF’s collection of the above items, on display for the public to view for free, no library card necessary!! (I have such a library card, but that’s beside the point.) It’s in the old library site, ‘Site Richelieu’, 5 Rue Vivienne, through the right entrance, and then up the big, marble staircase.

I went expecting a bunch of small but awesome items, and I wasn’t disappointed.

By small, I mean that the largest item, besides a headless statue torso, was a Mesopotamian stele with cuneiform on it — about three feet high. And a few statue heads. And a beautiful Persian sword. But most of the artefacts were small and most of the space was devoted to these small objects.

The first small items I enjoyed seeing were Early Modern, including a medallion from some French King or other (they’re all Louis or Charles, anyway), and cameos of Reine Elizabeth Iere d’Angleterre and Olivier Cromwell. Didn’t expect those – certainly not the latter!

Elisabeth Iere, Reine d'AngleterreThose were not the most exciting cameos, mind you. Throughout the museum, I found a wondrous array of cameos of Roman emperors and family as well as of mythological figures. This was excellent. I could have played ‘Guess the Roman Emperor’ (extolled by me here) if I’d wanted. I didn’t, but I still delighted in them, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Trajan, (amongst others) and a family portrait including, of all people, Geta!*

A cabinet of cameosHere’s the cameo with Caracalla and Geta:

Caracalla and Geta!The best cameo was this one of Augustus (the mounting is Early Modern):

Beautiful Cameo of AugustusI loved the cameos, I really did. But we should move on. Because there was other amazing stuff.

Like the throne of the Merovingian King Dagobert I (603-639). If it’s not his, it is at least seventh-century from the right part of the world.

Not my photo; my photo is blurry.

Or an eleventh-century ivory chess set, called ‘Charlemagne’s chess set.’

Mediaeval chessman

Mediaeval chess!Or a large number of consular diptychs, such as this one:

Consular Diptych of Fl. Anatasius Probus

Consular Diptych of Fl. Anatasius Probus

 And the other ivory diptychs, to boot.

Mid-14th-century diptych

Gothic diptych from the mid-1300s

There was also a variety of other Late Antique stuff, including things from the fifth century, such as these medallions of the Emperor Honorius (r. Western Empire 395-423) and his sister, Galla Placidia (392-450; mother of Valentinian III):

Medallions of Honorius and Galla PlacidiaThis pleases me greatly, given that sometimes those centuries (the fifth in particular) feel a bit neglected in the world of museums. But not here. There were grave goods from the Merovingian King Childeric (d. 481)!

Sword hilt of Childeric

Childeric’s sword hilt

Decorations from the Sheath of Childeric

Decorations from the Sheath of Childeric

Oh, and some coins.

Coin of Valentinian III

Coin of Valentinian III (r. Western Empire 423-455)

Coin of Theodosius II

Coin of Theodosius II (r. Eastern Empire 408-450)

Coins from Romulus Augustulus, last Roman Emperor

Coins from Romulus Augustulus, last western Roman Emperor (deposed 476)

I recommend you visit if you’re ever in Paris, take in small objects, including Mesopotamian, Pharaonic Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Late Antique, Early Mediaeval, Central Mediaeval, and Early Modern ones. Small, beautiful, delicately-carved exquisite objects populate the two small floors of this museum. Worth seeing.

*Who is Geta? Geta is a short-lived emperor of the late-second/early-third century, brother to the Emperor Caracalla who had his younger brother executed and then pronounced a damnatio memoriae on the poor fellow. As a result, few portraits survive (although there is one in the Louvre), and there is a famous painting where Geta’s head has been blotted out:

A happy family