Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph: The Art of the Roman Empire, AD 100-450.
It is Elsner's thesis in this deeply knowledgeable, readable text that "the dynamics that motivated the great cultural changes of late antiquity already existed within Roman culture, which had long been willing to redefine its present by freely reinterpreting its past" (3). He sets out his argument for continuity within changing circumstance in the context of the ongoing role of visual arts in Roman culture, starting with the second century C.E. The discussion is divided into three sections, the first two pertaining to images in relation to power: in state ceremonial and in society. The most emphasis is given to the larger macrocosm of the assertion of imperial power (chap. 3) and how it is mirrored in images of status in and out of the home. With the change in the locus of imperial power away from Rome beginning in the third century, the phenomenon of reinventing the past can be recognized in different regional and stylistic keys. Elsner's chapter on "Art and Death" (chap. 5) is a specific instance of the links he traces between peripheral variants and the traditional center on into the period when the empire turned Christian. The third section, entitled "Images and Transformation," begins with a discussion of a revival of classicism in the second sophistic period whereby a combination of Roman copies of Greek works and newly invented compositions in that style found new contexts and connotations in public and private collections. He contrasts their sophisticated paideia with the wholesale importing of Greek works no longer sacred to embellish late antique sites, Rome and Constantinople in particular, at the time when Christian imagery redirected nostalgia for the past to typological imagery from the Old Testament to express New Testament themes in classical guise. In his chapter on "Art and Religion," Elsner discusses the seemingly contradictory phenomena of differentiation and syncretism at work in the imagery of competing religions of the late empire--the traditional civic and imperial rituals as well as the more esoteric mystery cults. He emphasizes monotheism and sacred Scripture as the key elements, inherited from Judaism, that gave Christianity the capacity to triumph as the new state religion in the fourth century, this in the face of its new need to accommodate aspects of civic imperial rituals that it had long opposed and "to promulgate that [Christian] identity through the active process of conversion" throughout the empire (225). The most marked change in Christian imagery, stemming from its dependence on text, came in the development of the illuminated manuscript and related picture cycles on church walls. As Elsner describes the shift to relic worship in churches erected at sacred pilgrimage sites, he makes the further point that "the portrait icons of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints showed striking continuities with the polytheistic cult of images as palladia and idols" in the pre-Christian empire (251).
Elsner makes an unusual contribution on two particular scores. Rather than a straight chronological narrative (there is, however, a useful time line) or a series of independent essays, he presents a cohesive and tightly constructed text with interrelated theme-based chapters that support his groundbreaking central thesis. His approach allows him to return to well-chosen examples and to analyze them in fresh and insightful ways. Much of the vividness of his analysis comes from his judicious use of a variety of literary sources to fortify his arguments and to enliven an understanding of the contexts in which the visual material was experienced at the time. The second important feature of his presentation is his decision to cut across the commonly held divide between the late antique and early Christian periods. His is a deliberate choice to see the continuities rather than to stress the disjunctions that have often resulted in separating material from the same period into two distinctive fields (much as the study of Byzantine art has traditionally been considered as separate from Western medieval art). This book, with its solid references that include the current literature, has won the acclaim of Roman scholars and Byzantinists. As a Western medievalist, I find it an important resource not only for understanding the roots of early Christian art within the traditions of imperial Rome, but also for appreciating the source of themes that will recur in later medieval art as well--such issues as divine kingship, the reception of icons, and the ongoing penchant for using the past to validate the present.
Elizabeth C. Parker Fordham University