Art of Late Antiquity

“Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd–7th Century ad,” at the Onassis Cultural Center in New york City, is a scholarly show of small works. The 170 objects on display are, however, remarkably resonant, illuminating an extraordinary period of history, as the nascent religion of Christianity threat- ened the long-established hegemony of classical paganism. Organized by the Onassis Foundation and the byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, with support from the Hellenic Studies Program at Princeton University, the exhi- bition focuses on the eastern Mediterranean, a logical as well as a pragmatic choice, given that the artifacts are drawn from Greek museums and that, dur- ing this period, the power center of the empire had shifted to Constantinople. The 191-page, full-color catalogue (paperback $30) provides a solid introduction to this complex era.

Plate with marriage of David to MichalHave now come to see these transitional centuries in terms of continuity and overlap, rather than an abrupt break, as Gibbon did in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776). Historian Peter brown, in his eloquent catalogue essay, draws attention to the persistent vibrancy of late-antique cul- ture, “the resources of an entire civilization as it entered a new phase of life: its link with the past, its capacity to survive, and its ability to adapt creatively to altered circumstances.” In his essay, Jás Elsner remarks that the old regime “as late as the 6th century preserved its ancient amenities and the capacity for producing superb sculpture.” A number of portrait heads in the exhibition illustrate this point, with an intriguing range of variations. A marble head of Aphrodite (first century) is elegantly carved, especially in the crisp waves of the hair, but it has been deliberately damaged: the eyes chipped away by “Christian fanatics,” seeking to blind the deity, a cross carved into the forehead in an effort to Christianize the image. The authors acknowledge that violence and intolerance, on both sides, emerged from the clash of world views, but such antagonisms were not the whole story. A marble bust from a herm (late second–mid-third century), with the calm features of a Neoplatonist, survives largely intact. With the minor reworking of a third-century original, an early fifth-century marble portrait bust of a philosopher passes for an Apostle. Many Christian artists appropriated classical forms, often with considerable sophistication. The basilica church design descends from Roman judicial buildings. In Santa Pudenziana in Rome, in a magnificent apse mosaic (c. 390), the Apostles—dressed in togas—gather around a mature, bearded, imposing Christ, very much in the mode of a late Roman emperor.

The iconography of paganism lingered on. Another fourth-century Roman church, Santa Constanza, built as a mausoleum for the emperor Constantine’s daughters, features a lively mosaic of wine-harvesting putti. It’s possible to connect the subject to Eucharistic imagery, but the celebration of the seasons and the pleasures of the vine are their own justification. In the Onassis exhibition, there are several examples of seasonal figures, which would persist into the middle ages in iconographic programs such as the Labors of the Months. A fragment of a pavement mosaic with depiction of Autumn (fourth century), found in Argos, features an elegant woman as the personification of the season, dressed in gold and carrying a harvest basket full of fruit. Part of a mosaic pavement with the personification of the month of April (early sixth century), from Thebes, combines Christian inscriptions with decorative interlace borders and a toga-clad classical figure, holding a lamb and rushing forward in a dynamic and natural way. 

A number of objects suggest that many people in late antiquity were hedging their bets when it came to competing religions. Pagan pluralism did not disappear overnight, as the medieval cult of the saints and preoccupations with astrology demonstrate. The Onassis exhibition offers a fine example of this eclectic attitude, a marble two-sided closure slab with a gorgon mask and cross (sixth century), from Corinth, probably from a sacred fountain. The cross seems to serve an apotropaic function similar to that of the Gorgon mask, a striking bas-relief with crisp snake tresses and an elegantly intense stare. The nine silver David plates (c. 628–30), found in Cyprus, combine classical and Judeo-Christian iconography, while reflecting elements of the imperial court. In the marriage of David to Michal, King Saul presides over the ceremony in a stately, symmetrical composition. David fighting a bear is indistinguishable from a depiction of Herakles conquering the lion of Nemea, as the Old Testament figure slips easily into the role of heroic pagan demi-god. David summoned by messenger to Saul picks up another ancient archetype, the shepherd-poet. David, seated with his lyre and accompanied by two sheep, greets the tunic-clad messenger. The authors speculate that the stylized sun and moon in the sky are reminders that this incident belongs to divine history.

Small objects become very interesting in the context of this show, evidence that life went on, albeit with some modifications. The dour Church Father Clement of Alexandria scolded women about luxury and self-adornment: “and let not their ears be pierced, contrary to nature.” Yet earrings have survived in considerable numbers. A gold earring (sixth–seventh century) combines design motifs including a cross, vines, associated with Dionysos, and Juno’s peacock. The fine selection of jewelry here includes armlets, amulets and a marvelous opus interrasile necklace (c. 330–50), set with emeralds, garnets and pearls. Coins are another way of tracking cultural shifts. A gold hexagonal pendant with double solidus of Constantine (late fourth century), shows the emperor in military garb and wearing a radiating crown, like the god Sol. A gold solidus of Justinian II (685–95 and 705–11) gives an image of Christ pride of place, on the obverse of the coin, with the emperor—identified as the “Servant of Christ”— depicted on the reverse. With the rise of iconoclasm, the religious image would be abstracted to a small cross. Paying attention to such small objects, especially with the background detail of the catalogue in mind, is worthwhile. 

Familiar images take on new resonance as well, as in a trio of the haunting encaustic paintings associated with Faiyum, Egypt. A mummy portrait of a woman (c. 110) documents the refined personal style of an upper-class beauty. A mummy portrait of a bearded man (c. 170) shows the curly hair and beard typical in the era of the emperors Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius. A portrait of a young woman in red is decorated in gold, for her earrings and the wreath in her dark hair. Naturalistically painted, with large, dark eyes, they all engage the viewer as real individuals from the past. They seem more realistic than the hieratic icons that would dominate religious art over the next few centuries. Yet, as the catalogue authors note, that sense of the dead communicating with the living would make the funerary portrait genre a source for the icon. “Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd–7th Century ad.” is on view December 7, 2011–May 14, 2012, at the Onassis Cultural Center, Olympic Tower, 645 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10022. Telephone (212) 486-4448. On the web at 

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2012, Volume 29, Number 1