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Journal of the Bible and its Reception

Managing Editor: Kraemer, David / Marsengill, Katherine

Ed. by Black, Fiona C. / Oekland, Jorunn / MacDonald, Nathan / Ocker, Christopher

Together with Strawbridge, Jennifer R.

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The Christian Reception of Sculpture in Late Antiquity and the Historical Reception of Late Antique Christian Sculpture

Katherine Marsengill
Published Online: 2014-06-06 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jbr-2014-0005

Abstract

This article examines the place of sculpture in late antique Christianity. It shows how Christians regarded existing sculpture and proposes reasons why they produced their own. History tells us that Christians abandoned the production of sculpture by the 7th century. Scholars have proposed many theories about why this is so, from a decline in artistic ability to the use of two-dimensional painting to better convey certain conceptions about spirituality or to guard against the influence of pagan idolatry. This article argues that the latter theory should be reassessed with greater interpretive nuance. Rather than suggesting that one medium replaced another, we should instead allow each its unique niche and context within Christian cult practices. Ultimately, this article proposes that Christians also used statuettes in home shrines and participated in public pagan cults. Moreover, a few examples suggest they may even have produced statuettes of saints and of Christ for private veneration.

Keywords: Christianity; Early Middle Ages; Middle East; paganism; visual arts

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About the article

Corresponding author: Katherine Marsengill, Brooklyn, New York, USA, e-mail:


Published Online: 2014-06-06

Published in Print: 2014-06-01


Most all studies of late antique sculpture and Christianity address how Christians responded to pagan statues. The following is by no means an exhaustive survey of bibliography. The seminal article, well before its time in terms of considering reception, is Cyril Mango, “Antique Statuary and the Byzantine Beholder,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 17 (1963), 55–75, who divides contemporary responses into intellectual and popular (i.e., educated and superstitious). It was not until twenty years later that the discussion was taken up again by Robert Grigg, “Byzantine Credulity as an Impediment to Antiquarianism,” Gesta 26 no. 1 (1987), 3–9, who added that the Byzantines were unable to make clear assessments of their own art; Helen Sarandi-Mendelovici, “Christian Attitudes toward Pagan Monuments in Late Antiquity and Their Legacy in Later Byzantine Centuries,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 44 (1990), 47–61, demonstrates there was less division between the classes when it came to superstitious attitudes about pagan sculptures and also discusses instances when pagan monuments were incorporated, admired, or left abandoned rather than actively destroyed; Liz James, ““Pray Not to Fall into Temptation and Be on Your Guard’, Pagan Statues in Christian Constantinople,” Gesta 1, no. 35 (1996), 12–20, criticizes the modern tendency to view these reactions in terms of intellectual/aesthetical or superstitious/credulous, and argues that texts reveal the contemporary investment in the power of images and bespeak cultural perceptions, which change over time, rather than elucidate issues of rationalism or superstition; Niels Hannestad, “How did rising Christianity cope with Pagan Sculpture?” East and West: Modes of Communication. Proceedings of the First Plenary Conference at Merida, eds. Evangelos Chrysos and Ian Wood (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 173–204, argues that sculpture did not witness a sudden rupture with the past, and its gradual disappearance had little to do with Christianity; for how pagan statues were understood and treated, see Peter Stewart, “The Destruction of Statues in Late Antiquity,” in Constructing Identities in Late Antiquity, ed. Richard Miles (London: Routledge, 1999), 159–189; similarly, ibid., “Continuity and Tradition in Late Antique Perceptions of Portrait Statuary,” in Statuen in der Spätantike, eds. Franz Alto Bauer and Christian Witschel (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2007), 27–43; Troels Myrup Kristensen, “Embodied Images: Christian Response and Destruction in Late Antique Egypt,” Journal of Late Antiquity 2 no. 2 (2009), 224–250, provides a study of the response to pagan images in Egypt; ibid., “Religious Conflict in Late Antique Alexandria: Christian Responses to “Pagan” Statues in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries CE,” in Alexandria: A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot, eds. George Hinge and Jens A. Krasilnikoff (Aarhus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 2009), 158–175; Laura Salah Nasrallah, Christian Responses to Roman Art and Architecture: The Second Century Church Amid the Spaces of the Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), sets the textual evidence of second-century Christian apologists writing against pagan temples and statues within an archaeological context in order to propose the visual environment and objects these writers confronted. For studies on late antique sculptural production, see André Grabar, Sculptures byzantines de Constantinople (IVe-Xe siècles) (Paris: Maisonneuve, 1963); Jale İnan; Elisabeth Alföldi-Rosenbaum, Roman and Early Byzantine Portrait Sculpture in Asia Minor (London: Oxford University Press, 1966); Bente Kiilerich, Late Fourth Century Classicism in the Plastic Arts, Studies in the So-called Theodosian Renaissance (Odense: Odense University Press, 1993); ibid., “Sculpture in the Round in the Early Byzantine Period. Constantinople and the East,” in Aspects of Late Antiquity and Early Byzantium. Papers Read at a Colloquium Held at the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul 31 May–5 June 1992, eds. Lennart Ryden and Jan Olof Rosenqvist (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1993), 85–97; Niels Hannestad, Tradition in Late Antique Sculpture: Conservation, Modernization, Production (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1994).

Which prohibits the making of images, of “any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,” (Exod 20:4; Deut 5:8).

Ancient Jewish art is described in the HB/OT in terms of the cherubim decorating the Ark of the Covenant and the adornment of the Temple.

Kurt Weitzmann and Herbert Kessler, The Frescoes of the Dura Synagogue and Christian Art (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1990); Carl H. Kraeling, The Excavation at Dura Europos: Final Report VIII.1: The Synagogue (New Haven, 1956). For a discussion of Jewish art and the political and theological debates regarding its influence on early Christian art, see Jas Elnser, “Archaeologies and Agendas: Reflections on Late Ancient Jewish Art and Early Christian Art,” Journal of Roman Studies 93 (2003), 114–24; see further Steven Fine, Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Sister Charles Murray first took on the historians who had classified early Christians as anti-image in her Rebirth and Afterlife. A study of the transmutation of some pagan imagery early Christian funerary art (Oxford: B.A.R., 1981); see also Paul Corbey Finney, The Invisible God; The Earliest Christians on Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Stéphane Bigham, Early Christian Attitudes Toward Images (Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute, 2004) (first published in 1992 as Les chrétiens et les images: Les attitudes envers l’art dans l’Église ancienne).

Though some evidence is disputed, the general argument that it was the 6th century that saw the beginning of icon veneration was proposed in Ernst Kitzinger, “The Cult of Icons in the Age Before Iconoclasm,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 8 (1954), 83–150; for a dispute, see Katherine Marsengill, Portraits and Icons: Between Reality and Spirituality in Byzantine Art (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013); ibid., “Portrait and Icon in Late Antiquity,” in Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd–7th Century AD, ed. Anastasia Lazaridou (New York: Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, 2011), 55–60.

Kiilerich, “Sculpture in the Round,” 96–97.

For example, Kiilerich, “Sculpture in the Round,” 95, notes that sculpture was already on its way out when Christianity became dominant, and thus the two events – the demise of sculpture and the rise of Christianity – are parallel and not causal. All best evidence points to a cessation of Christian subject sculpture after 450, and a sudden decline of imperial and civic sculpture after 450. Still, she concludes that, even though there was economic and political turmoil, the fact that these did not affect the production of other kinds of art suggests that the reason for the end of three-dimensional sculpture most likely lies with religion and the dangers of idolatry (95–97).

For issues related to late antique style, in general, see Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli, Rome: The Late Empire, Roman Art A.D. 200–400, trans. P. Green. (New York: G. Braziller, 1971), who sees the late antique as irrational, abstract, and characterized by a breakdown of forms. For the influence of the orient on Roman art, see Ernst Kitzinger, Byzantine art in the Making: Main Lines of Stylistic Development in Mediterranean Art, 3rd to 7th century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), where he provides the term “sub-antique” to describe stylistic changes that occurred and influenced the production of Christian art during the first few centuries of the Christian Roman Empire. For the earlier arguments about the eastern influence on Roman art, see Dmitrii Ainalov, The Hellenistic Origins of Byzantine Art, trans. from the Russian by Elizabeth Sobolevitch and Serge Sobolevitch, ed. Cyril Mango (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1961) (first published 1901); Josef Strzygowski, Orient oder Rom: Beiträge zur geschichte der spätantiken und frühchristlichen Kunst (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1901).

For example, Bernard Berensen, Arch of Constantine or the Decline of Form (London: Chapman & Hall, 1954); see also Jas Elsner, “Berenson’s Decline or his ‘Arch of Constantine’ Reconsidered,” Apollo 148 (1998), 20–22.

Hans Peter L’Orange, “The Antique Origin of Medieval Portraiture,” in Likeness and Icon: Select Studies in Classical and Early Medieval Art, ed. Hans Peter L’Orange (Odense, 1973), 91–102, esp. 92–93, argues that the 3rd-century crisis brought about the portrayal of nervous faces indicating instability, characterized by asymmetry, furrowed brows, etc.

Stewart (2007) 27.

L’Orange 91.

For example, by L’Orange 101; Kitzinger (1977) where Eutropius features on the cover.

By contrast, R. R. R. Smith, in his “Late antique portraits in a public context: Honorific statuary at Aphrodisias in Caria, AD 300-600,” Journal of Roman Studies 99 (1999), 155-189, esp. 187–189, argues that abstraction does not always indicate spiritualism. In the examples of civic statuary from Aphrodisias, the style that we associate with spiritualism is used to reflect admirable virtues relating to dignity and austerity, and cautions against the previous interpretation of religious or spiritual concerns determining late antique portrait style.

100–101.

See Stewart (2007), which is particularly conscientious of contemporary reception versus modern interpretations based on style.

First discussed by Mango (1963) 65–67, who provides textual sources of ekphrases that described Byzantine art as naturalistic, but offered the assessment that it was likely due to their limited visual repertoire. The issue of what the Byzantines considered naturalistic often arises, especially in introductions to books about icons; see, for example, the introduction in Henry Maguire, The Icons of their Bodies: Saints and their Images in Byzantium (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

For the hypothesis that an icon represents a transfigured countenance that reflected contemporary conceptions and ways of seeing, see Marsengill (2013), esp. Chapter 4.

Mango (1963) 66.

“Early Christian Sculptures at Cleveland,” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 54, no. 3 (Mar. 1967), 67–88; Ernst Kitzinger, “The Cleveland Marbles,” in Atti del IX Congresso di Archeologia Cristiana, Roma, 21–27 Settembre 1975 (Vatican, 1978), 652–75.

As recorded in the 6th-century Liber Pontificalis 34, 9; English Raymond Davis, ed., The Book of Pontiffs (Liber Pontificalis): The Ancient Biographies of the First Ninety Roman Bishops to AD 715 (Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press, 2000). Likewise, silver figures of Christ and the apostles were set up at the basilica of St. Paul by Pope Symmachus, 120 pounds each (Liber Pontificalis 53; Davis 47). Since Symmachus held the office in the early 6th century, this would be a late instance of Christian statuary, though it is possible that these were not made new, but refurbished.

Liber Pontificalis 34, 13; Davis 18. The angels are mentioned in the Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai Chapt. 16; critical edition by Averil Cameron and Judith Herrin, Constantinople in the Early Eighth Century: The Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai (Leiden: Brill, 1984), 78–79.

Eusebius, Vita Constantini 3, 49; Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall, Eusebius, Life of Constantine. Introduction, Translation and Commentary (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 140.

The Patria Constantinopolis (see below n. 40) records a statue of Christ that once stood in front of the Chalke gate and had healed a woman with an issue of blood. “In the so-called Chalke a bronze statue of our Lord Jesus Christ was set up by Constantine the Great…From which both a woman with an issue of blood was healed and many other marvels (thaumata) were carried in the name of Christ.” Scriptores originum Constantinopolitarum, 2 vols., ed. Theodor Praeger (Leipzig, 1901, 1907; reprint New York, 1975), vol. 2, 219–20.

Liber Pontificalis 46, 4; Davis 37.

Hist. Eccl. 7, 18; The statue of Christ at Chalke (above n. 25) may be a confusion or conflation with a statue at Paneas and there was no statue of Christ at Chalke. Or, perhaps there was a statue at Chalke though the miraculous plant at Paneas is misattributed.

Stewart (2007) 32.

Sozomen, Hist. Eccl. 7, 3.

Sozomen, Hist. Eccl. 5, 21.

Mango (1961) 63. For Asclepius, see Sarah G. Bassett, The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople (Cambridge 2004), 148–49; for Joshua, ibid. 209–11.

George P. Majeska, Russian Travelers to Constantinople in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1984), 247.

Leo Grammaticus, Chronographia, ed. Immanuel Bekker (Bonn, 1842), 257–58; see also Bassett (2004) 155–56. Majeska (249) posits that one of these two was interpreted as Christ by Anthony instead of there being three statues.

Malalas, Chronographia 4, 13; crit. ed. Ioannis Thurn, Ioannis Malalae Chronographia (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2000), 59.

Katerina Tzanavari, “Portrait Bust of a Philosopher,” exh. cat. Transition to Christianity, op. cit., cat. 11, pp. 84–85.

An illuminating book on this topic centered on the city of Corinth is Richard M. Rothaus, Corinth, the First City of Greece: An Urban History of Late Antique Cult and Religion (Leiden: Brill, 2000). See also the collected essays covering a variety of topics from pagan statuary to the destruction of temples, eds. Luke Lavan and Michael Mulryan, The Archaeology of Late Antique ‘Paganism’ (Leiden: Brill, 2005).

Ramsey MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997); Saradi-Mendelovici 49–50.

Mango (1961) 56.

Peter Brown, “Late antiquity: anomaly and order between a pagan and a Christian world,” in exh. cat. Transition to Christianity, op. cit., 24.

The primary texts that let us know about the subjects and locations of antique statues in Constantinople is the Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai, written in the 8th century as a kind of guidebook to the attractions of the city, and the larger body of loosely grouped descriptions into which the Parastaseis was incorporated in the 10th century, known as the Patria Constantinopolis. These are found in Praeger (above n. 25). The more recent critical edition and translation of the Parastaseis is by Cameron and Herrin (above n. 23). Discussion of the sources and analysis of their contents is available in Gilbert Dagron, Constantinople imaginaire (Paris: Institut Français d’ Études Byzantines, 1984). See also Sarah Guberti Basset, “The Antiquities in the Hippodrome of Constantinople,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 45 (1991), 87–96.

Bassett (2004), in addition to her in-depth discussion of Constantine’s city, provides a catalogue of the sculptures that were there along with the primary sources describing them.

The statues, eighty in all, are enumerated in a long poem by Christodorus in Book II of the Palatine Anthology. The baths burned in 532 and the statues were destroyed. Mango (1961) 57–58; Sarah Guberti Bassett, “Tradition in the Baths of Zeuxippos,” American Journal of Archaeology 100, no. 3 (1996), 491–506.

Mango (1961) 58.

Zosimus, New History v, 24, 8; Eng. trans. Ronald Thomas Ridley (Melbourne, 1982), 112. Crit. ed. avail.: ed. François Paschoud, Zosime: Histoire Nouvelle vol. 1 (Paris, 1971).

For example, Athanasius, Oratio III, 5, Contra Arianos; PG 26, 332.

MacMullen 34–35.

Allan Chester Johnson, Paul Robinson Coleman-Norton, Frank Card Bourne, Ancient Roman Statutes: A Translation with Introduction, Commentary, Glossary and Index (Clark, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, 2009), 241.

Zonaras, Chronicon Paschale I, 527–30; trans. from Cyril Mango, Art of the Byzantine Empire 3121453: Sources and Documents (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), 10. Recent discussion of the procession can be found in Jonathan Bardill, Constantine, Divine Emperor of the Christian Golden Age (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 151–58.

John Malalas, Chronographia 13, 7; Thurn 246. For further primary sources, graphic evidence, and discussion, see Bassett (2004) 192–204.

See Photius, Historia ecclesiastica II, 17, who compiled the history by Philostorgius (b. 368) in the mid-9th century; trans. from Edward Walford (London, 1855), 442.

John Malalas, Chronographia 18, 77.

Archer St. Clair, “Imperial Virtue: Questions of Form and Function in the Case of Four Late Antique Statuettes.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 50 (1996), 147–62, esp. 157.

The Temple of Hadrian was given a relief sculpture with Theodosius, his wife, and Arcadius represented with Artemis, Athena, and Selene. See F. Miltner, Ephesos, Stadt der Artemis und des Johannes (Vienna, 1958), 104–06; G. Fowden “Bishops and Temples in the Eastern. Roman Empire, A.D. 820–435,” Journal of Theological Studies 29, no. 1 (1978), 63–78, esp. 62; MacMullen 35.

St. Clair 157.

Sozomon, Hist. eccles. 8, 20; Engl. NPNF2 vol. 2, 412. See also St. Clair 158.

On the imperial images (De imagines imperialibus) delivered 5 May, 425. The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions, ed. Clyde Pharr (Union, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, 2001), 432.

Mango (1961) 57.

Zosimus, New History 2, 31; Ridley 38; also Bassett (2004) 155.

Vasiliki Limberis, Divine Heiress: The Virgin Mary and the Creation of Christian Constantinople (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), 17–19.

Dagron 372; Limberis 127.

Warwick William Wroth, Catalogue of the Imperial Byzantine Coins in the British Museum, Vol. 1 (London, 1908), Pl. XI, 1.

According to Theophylactus Simocatta, Historiae 8, 12, 13 (ed. Carl De Boor [Leipzig, 1887], 309–10); trans. Michael and Mary Whitby, The History of Theophylact Simocatta (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 232. See also Mango (1961) 59.

As described by Niketas Choniates in his Historia; ed. Harry J. Magoulias, O City of Byzantium: Annals of Niketas Choniates (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984), 306. See also Mango, “Antique Statuary,” 62–63; R. J. H. Jenkins, “The Bronze Athena at Byzantium,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 67 (1947), 31–33.

The arguments provided by Saradi-Mendelovici and James, respectively (see above n. 1).

Philostorgius, Chronographia I, 530: “He had another statue made of himself in gilded wood, bearing in its right hand the Tyche of the city, itself gilded, which he called Anthousa.” Eng. trans. from C. Mango, The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312–1453: Sources and Documents, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997 (reprint), 8.

Metropolitan Museum Inv. 1947, 47.100.40; see the exh. cat. Spätantike und frühes Christentum: Ausstellung im Liebieghaus Museum alter Plastik Frankfurt am Main, eds. Herbert Beck and Peter C. Bol (Frankfurt am Main, 1983), cat. 85, pp. 483–84.

Above n. 67.

An exceptional group of marble statuettes was discovered outside of Corinth, remarkable because they have survived as a group that once belonged to a single shrine in a family home. Included are two statues of the healing god Asclepius as well as Aphrodite and Dionysios, which bespeak the concerns about the health and happiness of the family. The largest of the group is the goddess Roma, the personification of the city and Empire. See exh. cat. Guy Sanders, in Transition to Christianity, cat. no. 2a-g, pp. 75–78, with bibl.

MacMullen 61.

According to Gregory the Great, a priest in Reggio, Italy, worshiped idols and kept one in his own home. Registri Epistolarum 10.2; ed. John R. C. Martyn, The Letters of Gregory the Great Books 10–14, Vol. 3 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), 714; MacMullen 61 and n. 99.

British Museum Inv. P&EE 1910 6-25 1. Found in Spoonley Wood, Gloucestershire. Late Roman period.

Hannestad (175) suggests that this statuette was suited for private use. For textual evidence of Christians venerating philosophers and biblical figures, see Irenaeus of Lyon, Adversus haereses I.25.6.

The location of one of the statuettes of St. Peter is unknown, while the second is in the Staatliche Museen (see Weitzmann, Age of Spirituality, no. 509, p. 571), St. Paul’s statuette (possibly once part of a bronze lamp, though not at all certain) was found in the tomb of Cornus in Sardegna and is in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Calgiari (Stella Patitucci Uggeri, San Paolo nell’arte paleocristiana [Vatican City: Libreria editrice vaticana, 2010], 30; a seated figure, with only a tentative identification as Christian apostle, is in the British Museum (Dericksen M. Brinkerhoff calls it simply “teacher”: A Collection of Sculpture in Classical and Early Christian Antioch [New York: New York University Press, 1970], 67, fig. 78); the saint is in a private collection. Besides the bronze statuettes, there is a terracotta figurine that may be Maria lactans or more likely Isis, dating from the 4th or 5th century (exh. cat. Age of Spirituality, cat. 167, p. 189).

Constantine as Sol: National Museum, Copenhagen; see Bassett (2004) 203 and pl. 21; Beck and Bol cat. 114, pp. 507–08. Equestrian Statuette: Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum Inv. VI 199; see Beck and Bol cat. 236, pp. 259–60.

See St. Clair, op. cit., who concludes that many of the early Christian statuettes that have survived may have been cult objects and provides a reference list in her footnote (p. 161, n. 85); for some reason, perhaps oversight, she omits the bronze statuette of St. Peter from Berlin. For the cultic role of imperial portraits from the 1st through 3rd centuries, see B. Schneider, Studien zu den kleinformatigen Kaiserporträts von dem Anfangen der Kaiserzeit bis ins dritte Jahrhundert (Munich, 1976).

Lampridius, Historia Augusta, Severus Alexander 29.2; ed. David Magie, Scriptores Historiae Augustae Vol. 2 (London and Cambridge: Heinemann, 1953), 235.

As Salah Nasrallah has illustrated (op. cit.) Chapt. 4, Christians seem to have detected an insurmountable flaw with sculpture, in that they perceived it to be a medium that distorted truth. Such Figural representations misdirected, hyperbolized, and aggrandized. This, too, may have been a factor in its decline as Christians opted for painted portraits.


Citation Information: Journal of the Bible and its Reception, Volume 1, Issue 1, Pages 67–101, ISSN (Online) 2329-4434, ISSN (Print) 2329-440X, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jbr-2014-0005.

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