BMCR 2020.04.51

Inscribing faith in late antiquity: between reading and seeing

, Inscribing faith in late antiquity: between reading and seeing. Image, text, and culture in classical antiquity . London; New York: Routledge, 2020. xvii, 366 p., [14 p. of plates]. ISBN 9781472459183. $140.00.


This study by Sean Leatherbury aims to reconstruct the perception and performance of the reader of late antique inscriptions in churches, synagogues and mosques from about 300-800 CE. The attempt is made to reverse the subject-specific separation of inscription, material, building and environment in order to embed the respective epigraphic material in its spatial, visual, religious and cultural context. The book explicitly places itself in the tradition that the Byzantine art historian Amy Papalexandrou described with the claim “to put the texts back on the buildings”.[1] The study engages with epigraphic texts across the entire Mediterranean during a long period of time, which naturally leads to an eclectic approach to the subject. A comprehensive collection and study of the extant epigraphic material is neither possible nor intended. Instead, the author is working on well-selected case studies with a geographical focus on North Africa and Italy in the West and East Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine in the East.

The majority of the epigraphic material examined is mosaic testimonies and to a lesser extent carved inscriptions, since painted wall inscriptions have rarely been preserved. The author addresses this problem and its implications for the analysis, although little attention is given to the fact that the mosaics were certainly more expensive than (for example) simple graffiti and thus a form of decoration commissioned in general by a culturally more homogenous upper-class.

In order to embed the inscriptions in their contemporary cultural and religious context, an extensive source corpus of classical authors, patristic texts and late antique prose and poetry is used, which certainly is a great strength of the work, although it is regrettable that the Syriac or Coptic material finds little consideration. Nor is the extremely diverse religious topography of late antique Christianity really taken into account. Late antique rabbinical texts, which would have been quite important for embedding the epigraphic material from the synagogues, are unfortunately also under-represented, which results in a focus on the Graeco-Roman late antique Christian cultural sphere. The fact that the sources mainly originate from contemporary elite discourse and thus cannot stand for the perception of the texts in the cultural context of all ancient onlookers is due to the extant texts and is an endemic problem of all studies of the premodern world.

The book is divided into chapters not according to the classical epigraphic categories, but to artistic or content-related aspects. The author begins each chapter with a case study, in which the intention and subject of the chapter is outlined, and which is subsequently supported by a multitude of other evidence. These chapter-opening case studies are referred to with great regularity, which increases the clarity of argumentation of the respective chapter.

In an introductory chapter, the relationship of late antique Christian, Jewish and Islamic sacred buildings to the design and epigraphy of pagan temples is established, with regard to continuities but also to explicit changes. The increased appreciation of religious texts in the so-called book-religions and the enhancement of the interior of religious buildings by the liturgy held there and not outside is correctly emphasized by Leatherbury; he thus convincingly explains the impetus for his study. The problem of the literacy of visitors of churches, synagogues and mosques, which is important for a work on the perception of epigraphic writing in a religious context, is also touched upon. Nevertheless, a more comprehensive use of the extensive research, especially on the topic of the social stratification of late antique church visitors, would have been desirable. The publications of, for example, Ramsay MacMullen, Jaclyn Maxwell or Éric Rebillard should be emphasized here, as they were not taken into account.[2]

The second chapter (Material texts) focuses on the colouring and materiality of the inscriptions and their cultural associations. The increasing appreciation for the written word in a sacred context, as explained in the introductory chapter, is sensibly elaborated. The author conclusively argues that corresponding effects on the habits of the visitors’ view of religious buildings are also reflected in the emphasis on the colour and material of the inscriptions. The actual or apparent haptic dimension, brilliance and “jeweled style”[3] of the (mosaic) letters, especially in gold or glass, underlines the value of the written word for the religious experience. To some extent, this experience was even independent of the individual observer’s concrete ability to read. Unfortunately, in this respect the extensive rabbinical theories on the meaning of colours are not taken into account.

The third chapter (Framing texts, framing belief), like the previous one, deals with the emphasis on texts in the late antique religious context, here through various forms of framing, whereby Leatherbury, in the tradition of Schapiro and Derrida,[4] understands “framing” as an essential contextualization of the inscription for the antique reader. The reconstruction of this contextualization is conclusive both in the recourse to traditional frames (tabulae ansatae) and with regard to new frame forms that increasingly appeared from the fourth century onwards. In some cases, however, the interpretation of complex framing of the inscriptions is somewhat imprecise. For example, an inscription from a Christian church, which is placed in a mosaic frame modelled to resemble the Jewish temple, should not rashly be interpreted as representing the “triumph of Christianity over its monotheistic predecessor” (p. 126).

In the fourth chapter (Ekphrasis and experience) the ekphrastic inscriptions from Late Antique churches are studied. These were not necessarily just mere descriptions of the inscription itself or its architectural context, but were also related to the performance of the reader in his own movement in the sacred building or involvement in ritual and liturgy. The reader thus became a participant in the sacred space himself, as Leatherbury impressively demonstrates.

The connection between texts and images in sacred interiors is examined in the fifth chapter (Embedding texts into images). The author attempts to show that in Christian and Jewish religious buildings not only images in wall or floor mosaics were explained or commented on by inscriptions (tituli), but also the performative act of reading completed the pictorial representations in their interaction with the (literate) onlooker, precisely because these religions were based on a clearly defined textual foundation. It is problematic that the analysis to a large extent makes use only of pseudo-epigraphic material, for example the poems of Prudentius. The extant real epigraphic material is not very extensive, which somewhat weakens Leatherbury’s argumentation on the great importance of such tituli for the observation of the pictures in religious buildings. However, the examination of the actual inscriptions is concise. The view of the conscious use of text/image combinations to guide contemporary interpretation of the representation, in particular, is convincing and could have been carried out even more thoroughly.

In the sixth chapter (Embedded prayers), the previous results are clarified through the example of the epigraphic representation of prayers, whose importance for the liturgically-charged interior of sacred buildings of the late antique book-religions is again correctly emphasized. The author chooses a rather broad definition of prayer, which is often not entirely convincing—graffiti of crosses or single words do not necessarily constitute a prayer. However, the interpretation of the prayers recorded in the inscriptions as calls for reperformative perpetuation is conclusive, especially in connection with deictic markers and references to individual donors for whom should be prayed at these places. However, it is questionable whether, for example, circularly arranged prayer inscriptions stimulated actual performances of prayers while moving around in circles.

A rather extensive conclusion rounds off the results of the work in a precise and accessible way. The numerous illustrations, including 30 colour plates, are sensibly selected and provide direct insight to the author’s explanations. Especially for chapters two and three the colour illustrations are necessary and generally excellent.

The focus of the book is explicitly not on archaeological and socio-historical questions, which have already been treated quite extensively, including in the most recent general publications on Late Antique epigraphy.[5] Nor is it the aim of the work to undertake an in-depth epigraphic, archaeological or historical investigation of individual objects or groups of objects. The study focuses instead on the inscribed texts themselves and their immediate religious and cultural context. The focus is on epigraphic visuality backed up by discourses on visuality itself, epigraphic habit and the concrete interaction of the onlooker with the inscription. Another aim is to shed light on possible differences in the design, perception and handling of inscriptions in Christian, Jewish and Islamic religious buildings as well as on similarities. At least for the contemporary Christian and Jewish upper classes, a lively cultural exchange can be assumed, which is also reflected in a common epigraphic culture, as Cyril Mango, among others, has shown.[6] Leatherbury’s study impressively underscores this result and shows the impact on the performative aspects of this epigraphic culture in churches and synagogues of Late Antiquity. Nevertheless, a stronger concentration on differences in the epigraphic habit in the studied regions, as thematized by Rudolf Haensch,[7] or changes over time and the respective results on the perception of the onlookers would have been desirable. More problematic is the inclusion of the Islamic material, on the one hand because inscriptions from mosques only play a role towards the end of the studied period and are thus hardly ever really dealt with, and on the other hand because the relationship of early Islamic culture to the late antique Mediterranean is not discussed and publications by leading scholars of Islamic studies such as Fred Donner or Patricia Crone are not taken into account.[8] Comparing the Christian, Jewish and Islamic material is thus not possible because of the imbalance of the source material, both epigraphic and literary. Concentrating only on the rich Christian material would not have diminished the value of the study. Despite these weaknesses in its conception, the innovative approach to contemporary perception and performance of and with inscriptions in a religious context makes Sean Leatherbury’s book an important study for understanding late antique epigraphy.


[1] Papalexandrou, Amy, “Texts in Context: Eloquent Monuments and the Byzantine Beholder”, World and Image 17 (2001), 260.

[2] MacMullen, Ramsay, “The Preacher’s Audience. AD 350-400”, The Journal of Theological Studies 40 (1989), 503-511; Maxwell, Jaclyn, Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity. John Chrysostom and his Congregation in Antioch, Cambridge 2006; Rebillard, Éric, “Sermons, Audience, Preacher”, in: Dupont, Anthony e. a. (edd.), Preaching in the Patristic Era. Sermons, Preachers, and Audiences in the Latin West, Leiden 2018, 87-102.

[3] Roberts, Michael, The Jeweled Style: Poetry and Poetics in Late Antiquity, Ithaca 1989.

[4] Schapiro, Meyer, “On some Problems in the Semiotics of Visual Art: Field and Vehicle in Image-Signs”, Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 6 (1972), 9-19; Derrida, Jacques, La verité en peinture, Paris 1978.

[5] e. g. the excellent articles in Bolle, Katharina, Machado, Carlos and Witschel, Christian (edd.), The Epigraphic Cultures of Late Antiquity, Stuttgart 2017.

[6] e. g. Wilken, Robert, John Chrysostom and the Jews. Rhetoric and Reality in the Late 4th Century, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London 1983; Mango, Cyril, “Byzantine Epigraphy”, in: Harlfinger, Dieter. e.a. (edd.), Paleografia e Codicoligia Greca I & II, Atti del II Colloquio Internazionale, Berlin/Wolfenbüttel, 17-21 ottobre 1983, Alessandria 1991, 235-249; Horden, Peregrine & Purcell, Nicholas, The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History, Oxford 2000; Concannon, Cavan & Mazurek, Lindsay, Across the Corrupting Sea: Post-Braudelian Approaches to the Ancient Eastern Mediterranean, London 2016.

[7] Haensch, Rudolf, “Zwei unterschiedliche epigraphische Praktiken: Kirchenbauinschriften in Italien und im Nahen Osten”, in: Bolle, Katharina, Machado, Carlos, and Witschel, Christian (edd.), The Epigraphic Cultures of Late Antiquity, Stuttgart 2017, 535-554.

[8] Donner, Fred, Muhammad and the Believers. At the Origins of Islam, Harvard 2010; Crone, Patricia, God’s Caliph. Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam, Cambridge e. a. 1986.