15.05.20, Birk, Kristensen, and Poulsen, eds., Using Images in Late Antiquity

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Alice Christ

The Medieval Review 15.05.20

Birk, Stine, Troels Myrup Kristensen, and Birte Poulsen, eds. Using Images in Late Antiquity. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2014. pp. 288. ISBN: 9781782972617 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Alice Christ
University of Kentucky

Using Images in Late Antiquity is a volume of fourteen studies preceded by a brief introduction which states that it is the last of three to emerge from the international conference on "Art and Social Identities in Late Antiquity" held at the Accademia di Danimarca in Rome, January 13-15, 2010. The two previous volumes, published in 2012, focused on Patrons and Viewers in Late Antiquity (Aarhus Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity 10) and Ateliers and Artisans in Roman Art and Archaeology (Journal of Roman Archaeology Suppl. 92). A number of studies in this volume might have fit as well into the first, and at least one, "Late Antique Sculpture in Augusta Emerita and its Territory (Hispania): Officinae, Patterns and Circuits," by Trinidad Nogales Basarrate, into the second. However, it is clear that this volume is not simply a catch-all for belated submissions of old conference papers. Several authors include bibliography through 2013, while Stine Birk, Lea Stirling and Birte Poulsen here publish continuations or variations on themes they addressed in an earlier volume. Not all offerings focus equally on images in use, but they are generally a worthy selection of contributions to the recently expanding interest in Late Antique visual culture, as intended by the editors. The studies are arranged in generally chronological order from the late third through the eighth century, although some encompass longer time spans than others.

Most emphasize continuity of Christian and classical culture. However, the first study, by Paolo Liverani, proposes that the Christian public inscriptions and dedications elaborate a new interplay between texts and images to instantiate a quasi-liturgical participation of readers and viewers in the new religious community. "Chi parla a chi? Epigrafia monumentale e immagine pubblica in epoca tardoantica," is a rather dauntingly semiotic comparison of types of frontality in images to types of address in inscriptions on traditional Roman public monuments and early Christian churches in Rome. While traditional Latin public dedications are impersonally presentational, like a framing device for an image, the Christian dedications and verses of praise employ modes of address (personal and emotional or hortatory) previously known in funerary inscriptions, which engage a hearer/viewer with a dedicator or dedicatee or both. This is a stimulating analysis of new developments in the Late Antique/Early Christian conceptions of the functions of images and their relation to words. It will be worthwhile to try the method on further examples. Troels Myrum Kristensen's "Using and Abusing Images in Late Antiquity (and Beyond): Column Monuments as Topoi of Idolatry," likewise emphasizes a new Christian visual formulation. It surveys select literary and artistic examples of Christian representations of idols as column statues scattered across time, space and media throughout the middle ages sufficient to show that the topos is indeed widespread and enduring. There is room for more analysis of the context and affiliations of particular examples.

Stine Birk's "Using Images for Self-Representation on Roman Sarcophagi" surveys material from the author's Depicting the Dead: Self-Representation and Commemoration on Roman Sarcophagi with Portraits (Aarhus Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity 11). The exposition is careless about who may be choosing how to represent the dead; whether a given role is intended as an allegory of biographical experience or virtue or a claim of metamorphic apotheosis; and even at times about details of particular iconographies. Selene as a sleeping goddess (e.g. p. 37) would be simply a parallel case to Ariadne, but in her actual role as a portrait counterpart to Dionysus (not a known vehicle for a male portrait, as Birk points out) visiting a sleeping lover, she supports a point Birk wants to make, namely that women can be represented with many of the same roles and virtues as men. Whether this observation should be extended to include Penthesileia as exemplary of female virtus remains dubious. The study is more suggestive than authoritative on possible reflections in funerary imagery of changes in gender ideals and religion.

Eric Varner's "Maxentius, Constantine and Hadrian: Images and the Expropriation of Imperial Identity" lends supporting detail and a comprehensive bibliography to recent suggestions that Constantine's anti-tetrarchic "classicizing" style in his portraits and sculpture is, like his building projects, a continuation and expropriation of Maxentius's imagery of Roman renewal, already based on Hadrianic models. Collecting imagery exemplary of the traditions an empire claims to inherit or renew is also the theme of Katharina Meinecke's "The Encyclopaedic Illustration of a New Empire: Graeco-Roman-Byzantine and Sasanian Models on the Façade of Qasr al-Mshatta." Meinecke's analysis of motifs and types of figured and unfigured scroll design suggests they are not the result of chance collaboration of artisans from different regions, but deliberate copies from works belonging to conquered and rival prestige cultures in other media, here combined for their eighth-century Umayyad patrons into an unprecedented architectural ornament like a carved tapestry design.

Imperial imprint on the image of the capital is also the theme of Sarah Bassett's "Late Antique Honorific Sculpture in Constantinople," which catalogues recorded and surviving honorific portraits. She finds these to be overwhelmingly members of the imperial family, particularly of the Theodosian dynasty, placed in the major plazas. In contrast to private portraits and local civic honorific statuary, sources emphasize especially radiant materials such as alabaster, porphyry and precious metals while the style of surviving examples is more formalized, abstract, frontal and flat, likely for placement in framing niches. Some of these images, as described in texts, appear again in Simon Malmberg's wide ranging study of Constantinian to Theodosian patronage of triumphal and dynastic programs at city and palace gates and in the mosaics of S. Giovanni Evangelista in Galla Placidia's Ravenna. "Triumphal Arches and Gates of Piety at Constantinople, Ravenna, and Rome" posits connections between city gate projects and imperial development of extramural martyr shrines, particularly of Saints Stephen and Laurence, in all three capitals. It includes an important new identification of the relic procession on the Trier ivory as emerging from the Melantias gate in the Constantinian wall and arriving at the new church of St. Laurence built by Eudocia or Pulcheria as part of a Theodosian ornamentation of imperial residences and tombs in the area along the via Egnatia.

Ine Jacobs, "Temples and Civic Representation in the Theodosian Period," adds to the growing body of archeological evidence that Christian temple destructions are highly exaggerated in hagiographic literature. More interestingly, the study presents cases of deliberate preservation of impressive façades and prospects even as temples were decommissioned or fell into disrepair, and also of deliberate reworking of city colonnades and precincts to hide dilapidated sites and promote views of churches as foci in the cityscape. The Christian city, like the classical, required its armature of gates and colonnaded streets to be punctuated as splendidly as possible by civic and religious landmarks. This is also the theme of Hendrik Dey's "Urban Armatures, Urban Vignettes: The Interpermeation of the Reality and the Ideal of the Late Antique Metropolis," which suggests that, while representations of cities in later mosaics and those more distant from the city depicted show only a generalized ideal of city walls, colonnaded street and central plan and basilica churches, vignettes at Madaba and Gerasa may preserve a condensed plot of famous landmarks. Cities are shown in churches because the Christian universe is conceived as made up of cities in the traditional way. Birte Paulsen points out that they are not shown as vignettes in private domestic mosaics so far known, but cities as female personifications can appear in both contexts. "City Personifications in Late Antiquity" catalogues a number of these in mosaics, with an emphasis on city personifications newly invented in Late Antiquity and on groups of personifications, in order to interpret the medallion busts of Alexandria, Berytos and Halikarnassos in the house of Charidemos at Halikarnassos. Reasons for new creations and combinations may be specific to each patron, possibly with autobiographical reference. They may be inspired by use of city personifications in official iconography and regalia and hence possibly allude to official careers; places of business, family or property connections; or more broadly to elite education in philosophy (Alexandria) or law (Beirut); or yet more broadly to identification with the imperial culture of great cities.

Katherine Dunbabin's "Mythology and Theatre in the Mosaic of the Graeco-Roman East" belongs to a cluster of studies solidly in the camp of classical literature and art as paideia, not religion, although it is noncommital about the degree to which pantomime, tragedy, or literature may have contributed to the renewed popularity of mythological subjects in fifth- and sixth-century domestic mosaics. She notes that, like the city personifications, mythological characters and stories lose narrative specificity and may require labels as they tend towards generic references to elite values and pleasures such as hunting, revelry or love. These, along with pastoral and marine paradises, are also the subjects of Arnaldo Marcone's "Alla ricerca di un' identità: Tradizioni classiche nella prima iconografia Cristiana." Cases like the Christ rising in a sun chariot in the Mausoleum of the Julii are taken to show that elite Christian patrons subscribed without qualms to the same visual language of their traditional surroundings and to warn against expectations of Christianized symbolic meanings in compositions, like the floors of the double basilica of Aquileia, that partake of these traditional iconographies. Lea Stirling asks whether sculptural assemblies in baths and villas show evidence of valuing famous masterpieces by the ancient canonical sculptors celebrated in literature. "Collections, Canons, and Context: The Afterlife of Greek Masterpieces in Late Antiquity" finds instead that the paideia of the owners concentrates on the placement of traditionally appropriate subject matter (watery Venus and athletic Hercules motifs in baths; divinities associated with pleasures and well-being in villas), although villas in Greece are more likely to include famous statue types, perhaps transmitted through the local sculptural tradition of Attic sarcophagi. "Late Antique Sculpture in Augusta Emerita and its Territory (Hispania): Officinae, Patterns and Circuits," by Trinidad Nogales Basarrate, finds that Spanish elites, too, participated in Late Antique sculpture markets, but unlike fourth- and fifth-century mosaics, the sculpture is almost never local production after the mid-third-century collapse of civic patronage.

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