Tag Archives: san paolo fuori le mura

Coming to grips with late antique Christianity

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

I once heard an anecdote about a colleague who (I think) said that Constantine’s revisions of the imperial postal system were more significant than his conversion to Christianity. This may, in fact, be true, depending on how you define your terms. However, it is the case that, overall, coming to grips with Christianity will help you understand late antiquity better than knowing the imperial postal system.

If you begin with the Tetrarchy and Diocletian, you will need to have some grasp of who Christians are and why the Roman government disliked them for understanding the persecution.

If you begin earlier with the Third Century Crisis and are interested in Latin literature, the fact that we have so little Latin literature from the second century will throw you into the arms of Cyprian of Carthage and his letters.

Beginning with Constantine there is a conversion of the upper classes, and these are the people who produce or for whom are produced most of the stuff that survives from antiquity — fancy houses, poems, philosophical treatises. Their religion is thus not inconsequential. And they eventually do become Christians — we can learn about the last pagans of Rome (to cite the title of a book by Alan Cameron)

And if you are interested in Later Latin Literature, Christianity is all over the place. Some of the greatest poets of Late Antiquity write explicitly religious poetry. It would be a shame to study the world of late antiquity (to cite the title of a Peter Brown book) and miss out on Prudentius and the other Christian epicists. Likewise the Greek verse of Gregory of Nazianzus, or the sublime Syriac poetry of Ephrem and his luminous eye (to cite a Sebastian Brock title).

While the rise of western Christendom (to cite Peter Brown again) is a major feature of the study of the Mediterranean world in Late Antiquity (Averil Cameron this time), I admit one should be perspicacious. There is a lot to grapple with.

Consider the realm of texts: Augustine of Hippo is the ancient Latin author with the largest surviving corpus, for one thing. We have more Christian letter collections from Late Antiquity than the non-Christian ones from preceding centuries. Indeed, Christians love books — sermons, letters, poems, long theological tractates, canon law documents, apologies, polemics, biographies, hagiographies, liturgies, and so forth, flow forth in abundance in Late Antiquity in Latin, Greek, Syriac, and Coptic.

Material culture is also a big realm, from Spain and even Britain in the West to Mesopotamia in the East, the Roman Empire and its Persian neighbour has its fair share of physical remains, some of them the large, mosaic-encrusted churches of Ravenna, others the foundations of churches in Salamis on Cyprus. This is not to mention the myriad smaller objects of Christian origin — ivories, icons, Bibles, Bible covers, communion vessels, etc.

Moreover, Christianity is a complex phenomenon. Are we looking at the beliefs and writings and practices of the educated elite? What about the urban poor? What about different modes of belief amongst different Christian bodies? Bishops? Laypeople? Rome? Antioch? Nisibis?

In fact, there’s so much, whether you like Christianity or not, how could you help but take an interest in it if you’re interested in Late Antiquity?

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 oneĀ 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!