Scholars' Association News
Issue 22
May 2012


Show Images Hide Images

Next article
The Catalogue of the Exhibition "Transition to Christianity"

Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd‒7th Century AD, curated by Anastasia Lazaridou, New York: Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA), 2011, p. 191 ISBN: 9780981966625

On view from December 7, 2011 through May 14, 2012, Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd – 7th Century A.D. has brought together more than 170 exceptional objects on loan from Greek museums, as well as museums in Cyprus and the United States. Curators of the exhibition, which was jointly organized by the Onassis Foundation (USA) and the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens, are Dr. Eugenia Chalkia, Director at the Museum, and Dr. Anastasia Lazaridou, Vice Director.

Dr. Anastasia Lazaridou is also editor of the 191 pages long English colour catalogue accompanying the exhibition. Following the indispensable preface and introduction by E. Chalkia and A. Lazaridou, the catalogue includes brief texts written by distinguished academic archaeologists and historians, specializing in the study of the art of the said era: Peter Brown, Jaś Elsner, Averil Cameron, Helen Saradi-Mendelovici, Ioannis Touratsoglou, Henry Maguire, Aristotelis Mentzos, Kimberly Bowes, Fabrizio Bisconti, Katherine Marsengill, Slobodan Ćurčić. The texts have been incorporated in the catalogue in complete correspondence with the sections of the exhibition. They are followed by entries with pictures for 144 of the exhibits, some of which have been discovered very recently or are exhibited for the first time. The exhibition featured works from the whole spectrum of artistic creation (paintings, mosaics, sculptures, architectural elements, inscriptions, coins, liturgical objects, jewellery and domestic furnishings) which revealed to the visitors the creative ferment of the world of Late Antiquity, when a new society, religion and culture were gradually replacing the old. There is a comprehensive references list at the end of the catalogue.

Both the exhibition with the items that have been selected and the brilliant in terms of appearance and content catalogue fulfil the goal set initially by the organizers: to display the cultural and religious transition in art from antiquity to Christianity. The catalogue outlines the cosmopolitan character of Late Antiquity, where the East meets the West, as well as the lengthy transition from the old world to the new. At the age-long crossroads between the South and the North Mediterranean, where cultures and thoughts meet, and where new ideas and forms of art are born, a new world emerged after the 3rd century A.D. which stemmed from the fertile matching of the ancient world with the new dominant Christian religion. This world demonstrated a unique originality which is reflected, as expected, on all its creations. The art of this period of “dynamic transition” (as Prof. Peter Brown calls it) is unexpectedly creative.

The first of the seven thematic sections is entitled “The End of Antiquity? Cultural and Religious Interactions” and bears witness to the survival of the ancient Greek and Roman forms of worship in the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. and to the Christianity’s rise within this cultural milieu. Statues from house shrines document the continuation of paganism well into the 6th century, when it survived as part of the culture of the social elite. On the other hand, Christianity displayed flexibility and tolerance adapting and incorporating existing artistic forms and patterns from older artistic subjects, such as the image of the philosopher with his profound gaze and intense features, which became the model for the depiction of apostles.

The second section, “Christianity on the Rise: From Recognition to Authority”, surveys the effects of Emperor Constantine the Great’s recognition of Christianity and policy of building magnificent churches in the empire’s great urban centres. Images on coins testify to the merger of imperial and Christian imagery in one medium with a view to praising the Christian grandeur.

The third section, “Urban Realities”, focuses on the gradual changes in city life as the important centres of the Greco-Roman world became Christianized. Architectural inscriptions bear testament to the influence of bishops which were usually of high social status and to a great extent had received classical education. Portrait busts, carvings and mosaics reflect the status of a new class of officials and city dwellers. Hordes of coins, as the famous Mytilene Treasure, bear clear witness both to the wealth of cities and to the continual threat of invasion and looting.

The section “Daily Life” presents works relating to the public entertainments in the Hippodrome, which supplanted the banned Olympic Games. This section includes also wedding rings, which reflect the gradual Christianization of the institution of marriage. A variety of amulets and charms with magic apotropaic symbols confirms the prevalence of popular beliefs. The symbol of the cross and the image of a guardian saint became increasingly ubiquitous in ornamentation of jewellery.

The fifth section entitled “Early Christian Worship” exhibits architectural elements and examples of church furniture of the time, where the old forms and rythms serve the new religious needs and functions. The typical church of the time is based on the basilica and follows the Roman type. Similarly, other types of churches, like centrally planned churches, adopted the form of the late Roman mausoleums.

The sixth section of the exhibition, “Death and New Life”, reflects the profound inner change brought about by Christianity, as people began to think of earthly death as the beginning of an eternal heavenly existence. Besides examining Christian burial practices of this time, the exhibition also displays smaller objects that testify to the Christian belief in the miraculous powers of martyrs and saints.

Finally, the seventh and last section “The Genesis of Christian Art” examines the art of Late Antiquity in particular through burial exhibits and symbols that held exclusive meaning for the new religion, like the cross, the Christogram (ΧΡ) and the fish. Christianity’s ultimate triumph over paganism led to the art of the era appropriating more and more aspects of ancient art for its own purposes. This last section examines how certain pagan forms of art and ideas became integral in the new Christian art. For example, the portrait was gradually replaced by the icon (depicting apostles, martyrs and saints). Icons and relics – the Holy Face of Christ in Edessa, the icon of Virgin Mary in Constantinople- became the charms of the empire, as they were endowed with miraculous powers.

As highlighted by the texts of scientists, during Late Antiquity and until the 7th century, a major cultural change takes place in society. This change has rarely been given the importance it deserves in historical research and by art historians. Perhaps the most important feature of the ancient world, the rigid distinction between the aristocracy and folk culture, starts becoming extinct towards the late 6th century. It is the first time in the history of Christianity that the culture of the average Christian citizen in Byzantium identified with this of the higher class and clergy (bishops). Of course, there had already been many struggles by saints and people of the Church who sought more social justice and freedom. Later, the cultural and theological conflicts that took place in the 5th and 6th century manifest all the efforts made by the cosmopolitan society of the Byzantium to achieve a new balance.

Approaching the 6th and 7th century, the transformation processes that were obvious in the society and the field of ideas had spread to such an extent that became consciously absorbed by the whole population of the empire leading thus the Byzantium to consider itself not just as a society where Christianity dominated, but as an utterly Christian society. As it is only natural, this view led to other paths as well. The Byzantium assumed the role of the Christian strong-hold of the Middle-East; a role that it defended successfully many times.

Throughout the period in question, the administration of the empire had created a unified state with a civilization which, despite any dogmatic inconsistencies, displayed profound gaps. People, free as they were, moved from the periphery to the capital, Constantinople, without losing touch with their origins. Throughout the first Christian centuries, all the powers of the East Roman Empire converge to a pattern of centralization, homogeneity, financial and political solidarity. Art and its various expressions, typical samples of which are included in the exhibition, are in total harmony with the social processes of the time.

(Paschalis Androudis is a Professor in Byzantine Archaeology, architect and restorer. Recently, he was elected lecturer in Byzantine Archaeology and Art at the Faculty of Philosophy at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.)

‹ Previous  |  Next article ›