BMCR 2015.01.35

Using Images in Late Antiquity

, , , Using Images in Late Antiquity. Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2014. viii, 312; 16 p. of plates. ISBN 9781782972617. $65.00 (pb).


The title of this collection, simply phrased and encompassing a broad range of potential inquiries, conceals a sophisticated and focused contribution to the literature on late antique art. The volume comprises fourteen essays, of which two are printed in Italian and the remainder in English, all derived from papers delivered at the Danish Institute in Rome in 2010. The paperback is well produced: the binding of my copy has withstood cavalier treatment, and the grey-scale figures, published within the essays, and color plates, set at the end, are consistently legible. I noted no typos.

The first essay, by Paolo Liverani, heralds the volume’s happy disregard for traditional divisions between sacred and secular through an examination of the inscriptions that accompanied images on civic monuments and in church interiors of the fourth through the sixth centuries. Modes of address and their relationship to figural imagery are classified according to a typology developed by Giovanni Pozzi. In late antiquity, modes of address that had previously been reserved for private and commemorative monuments appeared on public monuments. The inscription of the Arch of Constantine, an impersonal address to an impersonal viewer, reproduced the traditional approach of civic monuments. By contrast, the mosaic and the inscription of the triumphal arch of the Constantinian basilica of St. Peter encouraged viewers to address Christ in a “paraliturgical” manner (26), and thus to constitute themselves as a Christian community.

The three essays that follow engage portraiture in diverse fashions. Stine Birk tackles the use of portrait heads on idealized figures on Roman sarcophagi, advancing the hypothesis that “iconography on sarcophagi expresses the gender of the deceased and the portrait the sex” (41). Eric R. Varner considers Constantine’s appropriation of Maxentius’s monumental interventions in the city of Rome, including extended treatment of the colossus. Instead of suppressing his erstwhile rival’s patronage, Constantine adopted its “historicized rhetoric” (70) to his own ends. Sarah E. Bassett turns to honorific statuary from Constantinople, with particular attention to the use of reflective materials (silver, polished alabaster, colored glass, and jewels) to project an image of “imperial sanctity, radiance, and luminosity” (91).

The next two essays address the production and reception of sculpture. Lea Stirling asks whether the reputations of famous artists and concepts of historical styles informed late antique evaluation of specific statues. Despite frequent literary invocations of the “brilliance of particular artists” (111), collectors were probably more interested in the iconography and provenance of the statues that they acquired. Trinidad Nogales Basarrate presents an account of local sculptural production in Augusta Emerita (modern Mérida) between the third and the sixth centuries.

The image of the city forms the common thread connecting the next four essays. Ine Jacobs analyzes the fate of urban temples in the Theodosian period. Although some temples were violently destroyed or left to decay, these were (literally) unattractive options that produced urban eyesores. Far more common was the re-purposing of temples, either to religious or to secular functions, and their systematic dismantling for building materials. Both options produced manifold benefits: “the eventual outcome … surpasses the interests of subgroups in society” (144), serving a widely shared interest in the maintenance of the civic landscape.

Simon Malmberg draws attention to proximate clusters of “imperial palaces, city gates, and extra-mural martyr basilicas” in Constantinople, Rome, and Ravenna, which “bound together the city and its immediate hinterland” (184). Hendrik Dey argues for the “topographical accuracy” (203) of urban vignettes on the floor mosaics of late antique churches in Palestine, Syria, and Arabia. Their prominence in ecclesiastical settings demonstrates the vitality of an ideal image of urban monumentality in civic and religious imaginaries alike. Birte Poulsen considers the range of associations that could be evoked by domestic depictions of the personifications of cities, from the owners’ paideia to their membership in an “international ‘jet-set’” (222).

The next three essays consider the revaluation of traditional iconographies in late antiquity. Katherine M. D. Dunbabin explores the relationships between the mythological scenes depicted on mosaics between the second and sixth centuries and the stage performances of pantomime artists and dancers. In the later mosaics, mythological figures became detached from strict narrative contexts and represented instead “examples of moral qualities” (247), a transition that may have paralleled contemporary changes in stage practice. Theater and the figural arts were more closely interrelated than is often admitted; indeed, it is more useful to think of them as developing in tandem, than to speak of one “influencing” the other. Arnaldo Marcone argues that the relationships between “pagan” and “Christian” iconographies are best represented by cultural, not religious history, emphasizing shared ideals of paideia. Troels Myrup Kristensen addresses the construction of “idolatry” by Christians through images of statues placed atop columns.

Kristensen’s examples range from the late antique to the middle Byzantine, introducing a shift to post-Roman topics that is continued in the concluding essay. Katharina Meinecke presents preliminary results of research into the sources of motifs on the carved facade of the Umayyad qasr at Mshatta, which she understands to constitute a program expressing the universalist ambitions of the young caliphate.

In their brief introduction, the editors situate the volume within “the burgeoning field of late antique visual culture which has received major impetus over the last 30 years or so” (1). Indeed, the conference at the Danish Institute took place exactly three decades after the publication of Peter Brown’s seminal essay on “Art and society in late antiquity.”1 Many themes developed to great profit in the volume under review are found in nuce in those ten pages of Brown’s, for example: the role of bishops in the “urban renewal” of the late fourth and fifth centuries; the central importance of dedicatory inscriptions; the emperor as “the urban benefactor writ large”; late antique art as an “art of the city… that assumed onlookers who could supply the associations ‘triggered off’ by a few clear pointers”; and the use of “traditional images” as “part of a neutral technology of life.”

The contributions to the present volume also share the conviction that artifacts of the civic world, traditionally studied under the rubric of “late Roman” art, and those of the ecclesiastical world, traditionally studied as “early Christian,” speak most eloquently when viewed together as products of a “bedrock of shared humanity” (in Brown’s words). This broad- mindedness constitutes the volume’s most obvious strength for an audience of specialists. Furthermore, all of the essays are marked by a laudable clarity of purpose and expression, rendering them suitable for discussion in graduate seminars; many will find their way onto undergraduate syllabi as well.


1. Peter R. L. Brown, “Art and society in late antiquity,” in Kurt Weitzmann, ed., Age of Spirituality: A Symposium (New York, 1980), 17-27.