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 and 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…

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