Peter Brown is the Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton. His books include Augustine of Hippo: A Biography and, most recently, Treasure in Heaven: The Holy Poor in Early Christianity. (October 2017)

IN THE REVIEW

Dialogue With God

Confessions

by Augustine, translated from the Latin by Sarah Ruden
What is the correct reaction when we open the Confessions? It should, perhaps, be one of acute embarrassment. For we have stumbled upon a human being at a primal moment—standing in prayer before God. Having intruded on Augustine at his prayers, we are expected to find ourselves pulled into them, as we listen to a flow of words spoken, as if on the edge of an abyss, to a God on the far side—to a being, to all appearances, vertiginously separate from ourselves. The measure of the success of Sarah Ruden’s translation is that she has managed to give as rich and as diverse a profile to the God on the far side as she does to the irrepressible and magnetically articulate Latin author who cries across the abyss to Him.

At the Center of a Roiling World

Mark the Evangelist; illustration from the Garima Gospels, late fifth or sixth century CE. As Peter Brown writes, the discovery of the gospels at the Ethiopian monastery of Abba Garima confirms G.W. Bowersock’s emphasis in The Crucible of Islam on the importance of the kingdom of Axum, to which early Muslims fled for protection in about 615.

The Crucible of Islam

by G.W. Bowersock

The Garima Gospels: Early Illuminated Gospel Books from Ethiopia

by Judith S. McKenzie and Francis Watson
To write about the Arabian background of the Prophet Muhammad, about the origin of Islam in Mecca and Medina, and about the first conquests that led to the formation of the Arab empire (roughly between 560 and 690 AD) is to attempt to describe the first moments of a supernova—the …

Recapturing Jerusalem at the Met

‘Icon with Saint George and the Young Boy of Mytilene’; Holy Land, mid-thirteenth century. According to the ‘Jerusalem’ exhibition catalog, ‘The jug and wineglass held by the youth connect the image to a popular miracle account in which a boy captured by Saracens is made to serve as cupbearer for an amir and pressured to convert to Islam.’

Jerusalem, 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, September 26, 2016–January 8, 2017
The exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art “Jerusalem, 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven” has risen to the challenge of portraying a remarkable period in the history of a most unusual city. Between 1000 and 1400 Jerusalem lived many lives. In 1000, it was a provincial city, governed from Cairo …

Splendors of the Seljuqs in New York

‘Bowl with Couple in a Garden’; stonepaste plate, Iran, late twelfth–early thirteenth century

Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, April 27–July 24, 2016
We have every reason to be grateful to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the way its curators have been presenting major exhibitions on hitherto neglected periods and societies. They do not only put Golden Ages on show. They also give careful attention to baffling moments of transformation—such as the …

The Glow of Byzantium

A reliquary medallion from the court of Charles V of France, who reigned from 1364 to 1380. According to Cynthia Hahn in Saints and Sacred Matter, ‘on the front of the object we see what looks like the back of a ring brooch. The thorn [from Christ’s crown of thorns], identified in inscriptions as enclosed in the brooch’s “pin,” is encircled by a tubular ring that also holds Passion relics and reinforces the idea of the Crown.’

Saints and Sacred Matter: The Cult of Relics in Byzantium and Beyond

edited by Cynthia Hahn and Holger A. Klein

Allegories of the Iliad

by John Tzetzes, translated from the Greek by Adam J. Goldwyn and Dimitra Kokkini
At their best, the yearly symposia of the Dumbarton Oaks center for Byzantine studies delineate the high-water mark of scholarship in the particular field to which they are devoted. The collection Saints and Sacred Matter (which emerged from the symposium of 2011) lives up magnificently to this expectation. Most notably, …

Empress Theodora, Who Transformed the World

Empress Theodora; mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy, sixth century

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint

by David Potter
In the year 500 CE, the Roman Empire was still alive and strong in its eastern territories. It spanned the Balkans, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East. It was almost as large as the Ottoman Empire at the height of its power. At Constantinople (later the Turkish Istanbul), under …

The Purple Stone of Emperors

‘Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs’; detail of a porphyry statue from about 300 AD of Diocletian and three other emperors who ruled the Roman Empire, now at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice

Porphyry: Red Imperial Porphyry: Power and Religion

by Dario Del Bufalo, translated from the Italian by David Graham and Lara Cox

Porphyre: La Pierre Pourpre des Ptolémées à Bonaparte [Porphyry: The Purple Stone from the Ptolemies to Bonaparte]

by Philippe Malgouyres and Clément Blanc-Riehl
Big empires, it appears, like big stones. The moment that the mines of the Urals and the Altai opened up, in the early years of the nineteenth century, the tsars of Russia reached out to fill their palaces with jasper and malachite. Time and distance meant nothing. A single block …

NYR DAILY