• Email
  • Print

The View from the Precipice

The Origins of Christian Art

by Michael Gough
Praeger, 216, 191 illus. pp., $5.95 (paper)

Handbook of the Byzantine Collection

Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC
J.J. Augustin Publishers, Locust Valley, N.Y., 125, 125 illus. pp., $4.00 (paper)

The Art of the Byzantine Empire, 312-1453 AD, Sources and Documents

by Cyril Mango
Prentice-Hall (History of Art Series), 192 pp., $4.95 (paper)

The Early Churches of Constantinople: Architecture and Liturgy

by Thomas F. Mathews
Pennsylvania State University, 272 pp., $19.50

The Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai: The Church and Fortress of Justinian

by George H. Forsyth, by Kurt Weitzmann
University of Michigan, 236, 452 plates pp., $45.00

Treasures of Ireland: Irish Pagan and Early Christian Art

by A.T. Lucas
Viking, 200, 41 color plates, 134 illus. pp., $14.95

No field of history shows more clearly than does the history of religious art the utter indifference of the past to its own future. A visitor to the excavations beneath the Vatican can step, in a few yards, from the tasteful burial chambers of the Roman pagans to beneath a grill, where he looks up into the golden inscription around the dome of St. Peter’s. The historian may wish to trace the evolution that linked the one to the other; but to the dead, who lay in their pagan tombs, the transformation was inconceivable. They had lived their lives with their backs turned on the future. Even if these vaults had contained early Christians, the unimaginable quality of the future would have been no less.

Historians of the Early Church have been known to turn the dead in their graves to look into that future; but historians of Early Christian art have, on the whole, avoided doing this violence to the dead and to the evidence. For this reason, the study of Early Christian and Byzantine art is something more than an indulgence of scholar-aesthetes, or a light fringe of illustration to the heavy realities of Later Roman history. It is the best balcony from which to view the sheer drop of the precipice that separates us from our ancient past.

The six books here reviewed can, in their various ways, be consulted with profit and confidence as glimpses into an alien world. Michael Gough’s The Origin of Christian Art is a sufficiently comprehensive guide. It may be described without irony in the author’s own words referring to the artistic quality of the coins of the Emperor Anastasius: like these it has a “reassuring if gloomy solidity”; and it is especially enriched by the late author’s deep acquaintance with the little-known and inaccessible monuments of Asia Minor.

The world surveyed briefly by Gough from the first to the eighth centuries AD can only be fully understood if the difficulties in understanding are squarely faced at the outset. Hence the Handbook of the Byzantine Collection from Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, challenges us by the surprising extent of the artifacts associated with the Early Christian period—great silver dishes, exquisite little rings, cut gems, gold-leaf glass: for what were such diverse objects used? Professor Cyril Mango’s admirable collection and translation of Byzantine texts—The Art of the Byzantine Empire, 312-1453 AD—encourages us to listen in to the Byzantines themselves talking about their art; but what we hear is an alien language: early Christians insist on saying very different things from what we would say when we stand before the same monuments as they had visited and commissioned.

Professor Thomas F. Mathews’s The Early Churches of Constantinople: Architecture and Liturgy shows how we must think away the religious life of all later Christian centuries before we can even begin to imagine what a Christian service in Constantinople in the fifth and sixth centuries was really like. To have extracted from the pathetic debris of a modern Turkish city and from a humus of accepted traditions current since the early Middle Ages in the Orthodox church a picture of the ceremonial aspects of the Early Christian liturgy is a triumph of fruitfully applied speculation. That some of Professor Mathews’s reconstruction must remain hypothetical and open to challenge on matters of detail is a tribute to the perseverance with which the author has thought his way through an unpromising debris of evidence to the distinctive flavor of the religious ceremonies in which the Christian people of Constantinople participated when their city was the capital of a world empire.

Forsyth and Weitzmann’s The Monastery of Saint Catherine is a superb dossier of photographs (as yet without a text) on one of the great shrines and pilgrimage centers of the age of Justinian. Last of all, we have a book which, surprisingly, can serve as a model for them all, A.T. Lucas’s Treasures of Ireland: Irish Pagan and Early Christian Art: surprisingly—because it is about the art of prehistoric and early medieval Ireland (a world originally unimaginably distant from the Mediterranean origins of Christian art, to which a Mediterranean culture came only through missionaries at the end of the Early Christian period); a model—because it shows how the challenge of the exceptionally alien art of the La Tène age can be met by a trained eye, a skilled pen, and an adventurous choice of illustrations.

A review may best proceed by urging the authors of these very different books to a conversation on the present difficulties we experience on entering fully into the Early Christian world. Of one thing we can be certain: premature certainty in understanding Early Christian art is our common enemy. Two factors encourage such premature understanding. First, there is the obvious temptation to read back the rich later history of Christian art into its origins in an ancient world which was, by the time Christianity appeared as a cultural force, very ancient indeed, and very certain of its artistic traditions. Second, there is the overavailability of photographs. Seen in isolation on a page, so many skillful modern reproductions create a false impression. For nothing that we see in books on Early Christian art ever stood alone in this way. Men once stood before them; even the most humble objects were once used for specific purposes; other monuments—some a thousand years older—stood beside the churches and carvings of the Early Christian period.

Premature understanding is an enemy to which each author has squared up in his own way. Michael Gough’s approach is the most straightforward. He tells us briefly what elements in the art of the classical world contributed to the formation of Christian art; he tells us what the enigmatic figures in the catacombs symbolize; a warm appreciation of the monuments of Asia Minor breaks out in a discussion of the architecture of the dome in the light of the excavations which he himself had conducted in Alahan Dagh. Briefly, he tells us what there is to see in Early Christian art and how it got there. He tells less of what this art might have meant to Early Christians. To take one example: we have a page on Late Roman jewelry in general—but we have to turn to the Handbook of the Byzantine Collection to learn how to enjoy those gold wedding belts worn by Byzantine ladies of the sixth century—for example, no. 184, where Christ stands behind a couple joining their right hands in the old Roman manner, embraced by the inscription: “From God, two of a single mind.”

In a different way, Professor Mango’s anthology of contemporary texts helps to place Christian art firmly in its context at the time when Christianity became the public religion of the empire, after AD 312. In these texts, we seldom find ourselves in front of an isolated artifact; we are immersed in the bustle of an ancient town. It took all sorts to make that world. Sixth-century poems catch a richness now lost forever. All the activities of a great town open up before us: we have a poem “On an image of a professor at Pergamon set up for him on account of a civic embassy….” We would gladly have seen the portrait that inspired another: “I have been a courtesan in Byzantine Rome and offered my love for sale to all comers I am crafty Callirhoe. Smitten by passion, Thomas has set up this, my portrait, showing all the ardor he has in his breast.”

In Mango’s dossier we find a reason for the gulf between ourselves and contemporary witnesses of Early Christian art. The great churches arose in towns already heavy with public monuments. Now it is the fate of a public monument to be taken for granted: for such monuments were dependable reminders of surviving affluence and public generosity now channeled into the Christian church. The superb silver work of the sixth-century churches (Handbook on the Byzantine Collection, nos 63-70) shows this on a small scale.

Public monuments taken for granted in this way are the despair of the historian of art; and Byzantines, in particular, inherited a long tradition in describing public monuments which encouraged them to tell either too little or too much. It is the crowd beneath the mosaics that they address. This crowd does not want to be told what they can see in any case: they want to be told what it means to them at that particular moment. We would want to know precisely what the Nativity cycle in a sixth-century church in Gaza looked like. Not so the orator Choricius—himself a native of Gaza. He did not need to be a camera. Instead, when the angel appears to the shepherds announcing the birth of Christ, Choricius articulates for his audience what it was possible for them to feel about the participants in the events depicted, down to the last detail: “The sheep, because of their innate stupidity, do not turn towards the vision…. The dog, however, an animal hostile to strangers, appears to be looking intently at the extraordinary apparition.”

Yet in this rococo example we have part of the secret of Early Christian art in its environment. For we have moved from the mosaic itself to the capacity of the Byzantine audience to enter, by their own participation, into the events depicted on the mosaic with the same gusto as they entered into the same events as conjured up in the dramatic homilies of their bishops. In a word, the art of a church could be regarded as a backdrop to a world of ceremony and drama—as has recently been made plain in a perceptive juxtaposition of secular ceremonial and religious preaching by Dr. Sabine MacCormack in the English Historical Review, April 8, 1973, p. 366ff.

For without the Early Christians our photographs of much of Early Christian art are more than usually silent. It is an art that accompanies Early Christians in their performance of actions which meant more than the art itself. Only from the mid-sixth century do we find works of art such as icons used as a direct aid to religious contemplation. Like the other monuments of an ancient town, Early Christian monuments were the discreet witnesses of a noisy and tempestuous world. Professor Mathews shows this clearly. His study of the liturgy of Constantinople is the study of “the life of the ceremonial movement which the building was created to shelter. Colorful, vibrant and fascinating…”—very much, that is, part of the ceremonial rhythms of an ancient town.

In this, the liturgy of Early Christian Constantinople differed vastly from that of later centuries. It began with a solemn procession into the church; and in the church, the bishop, the Eucharist, the preacher were exposed as never later to the full participation of the “many-voiced” Christian populace. When we read in Paul the Silentiary how the sixth-century congregation would “strive to touch the sacred [Gospel] book with their lips and hands, the countless waves of the surging people break around,” we are in a world not so far from that which Henry James once sensed in the Roman amphitheater of Arles: “the murmurs and shudders, the thick voice of the crowd that died away some fifteen hundred years ago.”

So a final question remains. How important for the religious life of the Early Christians was Early Christian art? The answer that these books suggest is: far less than we think. The exception is Mount Sinai. Here we have a pilgrimage site and a monastery. Pilgrims traveled to it from all over the Mediterranean and the Near East, and hence there is no incongruity in a later Moslem mosque on the same site. Here was where God had appeared to Moses in a burning bush, and on the peak above He had given the Law to Moses. In the mosaic in the conch of the apse, Christ is shown blazing in the glory of His Transfiguration. Here we have a momentary vision of the other world caught in mosaic. The pilgrim had come for this. But the evidence for the search for a vision of the other world through art, which takes on such prominence in the literature of the Iconoclast controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries, is slight for the Early Christian period. When Augustine wept in the basilica of Milan, it was at the chanting of the psalms, not before the still face of an icon.

Often indeed, the holy was a focus of spiritual “power” as faceless as a modern car battery—a silver casket in which the relics of the saint were enshrined. The piety that crystallized around these was not concerned with anything as subdued as visual contemplation of a work of art. It was a piety of physical gestures and of physical contact with a holy object. The traveler who stands in some great Moslem shrine, watching the crowds surging up to the silver grill above the grave of an imam and rubbing their faces passionately against the hard metal, is more likely to see, on the border of Central Asia, the authentic continuation of the basic styles of Early Christian piety than he will see in any church in Europe.

If Early Christian art has a religious message, it is very different from that of later centuries. To find out what this might be it is not enough to ask what a specific scene “meant” in terms of what Biblical episode it represented or what Christian rite it symbolized. Rather we have to enter into what religious attitudes were conveyed as a total visual impression on the beholder. In many ways the books under review give only a partial answer to this problem. If these authors have failed in any way it is because they have not considered the aesthetic value of the representations they have studied. Professor Mango, for instance, is abrupt with “contemporary scholars” who have “expressed some subtle views concerning the aesthetic value of Byzantine art.” One may agree that there is no royal road to entering into the aesthetic values of the Early Christians, but, difficult though it may be, it is a road along which not only the historian of religious experience but also the historian of art must be encouraged to stumble.

For Mango’s judgment omits a factor of which Lucas in his fine Treasures of Ireland is constantly aware: human beings have eyes, and artists, we assume, have trained eyes. A work of Early Christian art—and the art of Ireland may stand for the rest—has to be looked at carefully and long before we can see what it conveys: as Lucas says, “What appears to the lazy eye as a repetitive mosaic of broken symmetry appears to the alert one a perpetual motion running in endless circles.” By constant attention to the aesthetic values of otherwise opaque works of art, Lucas inserts these into their social and cultural context more convincingly than would any more strictly “functional” explanation of their meaning and presence. Of the “Petrie crown” of the La Tène age he can write: “It is this disengagement from all appeal to the sensuous life which gives the object so much of its cold and esoteric beauty.” With a judgment like this in mind we can read his pages, appreciate his illustrations, and find ourselves in the world of the Early Irish poets:

God be praised who ne’er forgets me
In my art so high and cold
And still sheds upon my verses
All the magic of red gold.

The difference between the “lazy eye” and the “alert one” has something to do with aesthetics. For this reason alone, Professor Mango’s admirable collection of documents is best read in conjunction with, not instead of, the short book of an Old Master—Gervase Mathew’s Byzantine Aesthetics; for here is an attempt to find the “alert eye” and the intellectual universe behind the Byzantine texts published by Professor Mango.

Early Christian art needs this “alert eye” to grasp its specific religious message. For unlike that of later, medieval, art this message is alive to us precisely because it is so unobtrusively ever-present. Here we have an art which expresses, with all the poignancy of centuries of Mediterranean imagery, a deep religious preoccupation with rest, with the good life, with the miracle of a sheltered garden imagined in the broiling summers of a Mediterranean city. “Fear no more the heat of the sun.” Early Christianity was about Paradise. So was Islam: hence the direct continuity that links Greco-Roman garden paintings, through Byzantium, to the first great surviving mosque at Damascus. By Early Christian standards, this building conveyed a deeply religious message.

The Early Christian paradise was not yet a court of Heaven. Human faces did not crowd out its airy landscapes. It is here that the “alert eye” must wake up to see, behind the solemn, well-documented “meaning” of each scene, the subtle message of the total visual impression. Any textbook will tell you which scene in the mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore represents the blessing of Jacob by Isaac; many scholars will show the exact meaning of such a scene for a man of the fifth century AD: but the eye pierces beyond the figures that can be explained in this way to a light green hill crowned with cypresses and a curtain floating in the breeze. The whole scene is a glimpse of rest provided in the sheltered space of an urban basilica. Around the corner, in Santa Prassede, martyrs tread on poppies as red as they still grow every spring in the Roman Campagna.

It is only because we look instinctively at the history of the Christian art of the Middle Ages—an art consisting predominantly of human faces and of statues in the round—that the quiet insistent message of mosaics such as these tends to be explained away as so many “relics” or as so many “influences” from a pagan, classical past. In fact, it is such mosaics that are central, and the future development of Christian medieval art that was deeply irrelevant, to the men of the Early Christian world. “Naked Erotes, embroiled in the vines, stood there smiling sweetly and making fun from on high of those who walk below.” The description refers to a secular building in Constantinople. But we meet our Erotes in Christian churches also. Such a scene is neither secular nor religious, pagan nor Christian: it is an image of happiness and rest. Early Christian art—like some of Early Christian literature—has given us some of the most enchanting of such images. It is only later centuries of Christian thought and art that make such human scenes so strangely inaccessible to modern men.

  • Email
  • Print