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Level 5

5AACAR15 Icons and Idols: The Image of Christ and the Classical Origins of Early Christian Art

Credit value: 15
Module convenor/tutor: Dr Michael Squire
Teaching pattern: 10 x 2-hour seminar (weekly)
Availability: Please see module list  for relevant year
Assessment: 1 x essay of 5,000 words (100%)

The modules offered in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand, there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary between years.

This interdisciplinary module surveys different attempts to figure – and figure out – the image of Christ in late antiquity. In doing so, it explores a fundamental tension within both Christianity and early Christian art: on the one hand, the Judaic stricture against image-making (enshrined in the Second Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image’); on the other, Christianity’s Graeco-Roman inheritance, which saw images as central to knowing, understanding and experiencing the divine. As we shall see, the ‘idolatrous’ forms of ‘pagan’ antiquity provided both a paradigm and a problem within the cultural landscapes of Christianity. What is more, the various attempts to square the ‘Classical’ with the ‘Christian’ has directed the course of western art ever since.

This module will be structured around a variety of material case studies. Each week, we will explore how early artists navigated the issue of Christ’s image, thereby negotiating its relation to not only Judaism, but also Classical art, culture and intellectual thought. Although keeping one eye on variables of chronology (focusing on the period between the third and sixth centuries AD) and medium (painting, sculpture, mosaics, gems, ‘illustrated’ manuscripts), we will also concentrate on the different ways in which ‘Christian’ images were understood. Our artistic case studies will therefore be contextualized alongside a variety of literary sources, and from across a wide geographical and chronological spectrum.

This course is designed for all students interested in the rise of Christianity, late antiquity, the enduring legacy of Classical art, or indeed the thorny issues of representing the divine. Our intention is to bring together students from a miscellany of different degree programmes (among them Classics, Classical Studies, Ancient History, Classical Archaeology, as well as e.g. History and Theology), and with a variety of different academic interests (artistic, archaeological historical, theological, literary). No prior knowledge of the subject will be assumed, and students will be introduced to a plethora or different approaches. All ancient texts will be provided both in the original and in translation.

Provisional teaching plan

  1. On gods made men made images

    Introduction to the key themes of the course, surveying the Judaic restrictions of the image on the one hand, and anthropomorphism of Graeco-Roman art and religion on the other; introduction to key writers, especially Clement of Alexandria; a brief sketch of the early history of Christianity.

  2. In search of Jesus: The earliest images of Christ

    The quest for the earliest ‘Christian’ images: what makes a Christian image, how do we recognize it, and what kind of viewers does it cater for?

  3. Dying to see: Catacombs and sarcophagi

    ‘Christian’ images from the grave, focusing on the representation of Old and New Testament themes in both painting and sculpture. Particular focus in the second half of the class on the Vatican Necropolis and the ‘Tomb of St Peter’, introducing also the architectural type of the basilica.

  4. ‘Feeding the empty soul’: St Neilos and the adornment of the Church

    The decoration of basilicas across the Roman Empire, combining literary evidence with a close analysis of the mosaics of St Maria Maggiore; the ‘ecphrastic’ poems of Paulinus of Nola will also be used as a case study.

  5. Gods in pieces: Approaching the mosaics of Ravenna

    The rise of Ravenna and the forging of a new Christian visual tradition out of various ‘pagan’ paradigms.

  6. Figuring the crucifixion

    A cross-medial examination of the origins of the crucifixion as visual topos – from the infamous Palatine graffito, the significance of symbolic emblems, through to the wooden doors of Santa Sabina in Rome.

  7. The word made flesh? The Biblical visions of books

    Images as ‘illustrations’ of texts, focusing on a handful of particular case studies. What can words do that images can’t? How do both artists and writers respond to the different capabilities of each medium?

  8. Making an impression: Rethinking early Christian gems

    Gems as one of the favourite – and long overlooked – media of Christian art. But what is so special about the ‘replications’ of gems as opposed to other media? How is this reflected in the choice of subjects?

  9. Icons: Coming face to face with God

    The rise of the ‘icon’ and its ideological (and ‘ontological’  )origins in the ‘cult-statues’ of Greece and Rome. What is so special about this image type, and what are its formal features?

  10. Iconoclasts and iconophiles: The ideological debates of Byzantium

    What are the Christian and Christological objections to ‘icons’ – and to images at large? Why are images so problematic? Why did these issues explode in the ‘Iconoclastic’ debates of the eighth and ninth centuries? Why did they raise their head once more in the Reformation of the sixteenth century? How (and why) do these debates continue to affect us even in the twenty-first century?

Suggested introductory reading

This is suggested reading and purchase of these books is not mandatory.

  • J. Elsner (1994) Art and the Roman Viewer, esp. pp. 88–124, 249–287.

  • J. Elsner (1998) Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph, esp. pp. 199–259.

  • J. Elsner (2007) Roman Eyes: Vision and Subjectivity in Art and Text

  • J. Engemann (1997) Deutung und Bedeutung frühchristlicher Bildwerke

  • P. C. Finney (1994) The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art

  • A. Grabar (1968) Christian Iconography: A Study of its Origins

  • H. Maguire (1996) The Icons of their Bodies: Saints and their Images in Byzantium

  • T. Matthews (1993) The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art

  • J. Lowden (1997) Early Christian and Byzantine Art (London, 1997), esp. pp. 4–100;

  • E. S. Malbon (1990) The Iconography of the Junius Bassus Sarcophagus (Princeton, 1990)

  • Y. Suzawa (2008) The Genesis of Early Christian Art: Syncretic Juxtaposition in the Roman World

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