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Roman Sculpture (c.55 BCE onwards) History, Characteristics, Types
Augustus of Prima Porta
1st century CE statue now in
the Vatican Museums.
Equestrian statue of
Marcus Aurelius (175 CE)
EVOLUTION OF ART
See: History of Sculpture
Ancient Roman sculpture, unlike the more international Greek sculpture, is not noted for its beauty or decorative qualities. This is because Roman art was not made to be beautiful, it was made to impress. It was designed to awe and impress other nations with its gravitas and sense of power. Portrait busts showed serious-looking and determined Emperors reliefs showed historical events, such as Roman legions winning battles, or formal ceremonies equestrian statues showed Emperors in the saddle there were no female nudes and no statues of mythological figures. Roman plastic art was designed to promote the power and majesty of Rome, not to amuse the intelligentsia. However, the following qualifications should be borne in mind: first, nearly all the best sculptors working in Rome were Greek second, the Roman aristocracy found numerous domestic uses for sculpture of varying kinds - few of them "serious" third, the rise of Christianity stimulated demand for early Christian sculpture (from 150 CE). Thus although it's fair to say that Roman sculpture proper was serious and propagandist, most works created for domestic consumption or for use by Christians, were as decorative as Greek sculpture. Romans were noted more for their marble sculpture than their bronze sculpture, and produced a limited quantity of ivory carving - mostly for personal use. Also, terracotta reliefs became a common feature of Roman architecture. As we shall see, however, the most important type of sculpture produced in Ancient Rome was Roman Relief Sculpture, notably historical reliefs as exemplified by those on Trajan's Column.
Long before the Romans became the rulers of a world empire, Rome was a prosperous city, and the squares and public buildings were decorated with statues and reliefs. Our knowledge of early Roman sculpture depends almost entirely on history books on the art of classical antiquity, since comparatively few monuments of regal or republican Rome have been preserved. The most important are a few portraits of late republican date, which are carved, in general, in a decidedly realistic manner. From the literary notices, however, it is clear that the earliest sculpture was strongly influenced by Etruscan art - Etruscan artists were invited to Rome to decorate public buildings, such as the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, erected in the sixth century BCE - and that later, especially from the third century BCE onwards, Greek influences more and more prevailed, until in the Greco-Roman age (c.100 BCE - 100 CE), many Greek sculptors found profitable employment in catering to Roman demands.
Since many monuments of Etruscan sculpture have been preserved, we can gain some idea of the nature of the earliest statues and reliefs in Rome. The well-preserved terracotta Apollo found on the site of Veii in 1916, is a remarkable example of Etruscan sculpture from the last years of the sixth century. It is evident at a glance that the artist was familiar with contemporary Greek figures. In the almond-shaped eyes, the smiling mouth, the elaborate locks of hair, and the robe with its zigzag edge, the mannerisms of Archaic Greek Sculpture are readily recognized. Other Etruscan works show similar dependence on Greek models of different periods. Although Etruscan sculpture has certain traits of its own, especially a fondness for rather heavy figures, decided realism in portraiture and, usually, careless execution in details, it clearly owed much to Greek inspiration.
Greek art, therefore, appears to have exercised a double influence on Rome, at first indirectly through Etruria, and later directly, through the transportation to Rome of Greek originals and the production by Greek artists of copies and imitations for the Roman market. Throughout the period of the Empire, the Greek influence persisted. Most of the sculptors of this period appear to have been Greeks, and the making of copies and imitations of Greek statues and reliefs formed a considerable part of their activity. But alongside of these essentially Greco-Roman works, other monuments were created which expressed Roman ideas, and it is to these, rather than to the imitations of Greek models, that the term Roman sculpture is commonly applied. The most important classes of such monuments are historical reliefs, carved to decorate memorials of military triumphs or other important events, and portrait statues and busts. Many critics, to be sure, see little that is essentially Roman in these works, arguing that the innovations found in them are to be traced to Hellenistic Greek sculpture, to schools of sculpture in Asia Minor, Alexandria, and Antioch. But even if many of the characteristic traits of Roman sculpture are dependent on new ideas from the Hellenized East, it seems clear that the need of expressing the power and the grandeur of Rome led the sculptors to develop the new ideas more elaborately than before and that the monuments thus created may properly be called Roman.
[Note: For biographies of important Greek sculptors, see: Phidias (488-431 BCE), Myron (Active 480-444), Callimachus (Active 432-408), Skopas (Active 395-350), Lysippos (c.395-305), Praxiteles (Active 375-335), Leochares (Active 340-320).]
Augustan Sculpture (27 BCE - 14 CE)
The sculpture of the reign of Augustus shows the effect of that reaction against the exaggerations of Hellenistic art which appears in the sculpture of the Greco-Roman period. Augustan sculpture is characterized by academic correctness and dignity. Very Greek in many of its qualities, it nevertheless exhibits new tendencies that are essentially Roman.
Augustus of Prima Porta
One of the noblest monuments of the Augustan period is the portrait statue of the Emperor discovered at Prima Porta in 1863. Augustus is represented as a military commander haranguing his troops. Many details are obviously copied from life and reveal the realistic spirit that is found in the portraits of republican times. The reliefs on the breastplate, the fringes of the tunic, the folds of the military cloak are carefully imitated. But the bare feet and the similarity in pose and proportions to the statue known as Doryphorus (440 BCE), by Polykleitos, all show how strongly the sculptor was influenced by Greek ideas. The calm, self-contained expression of the face is very characteristic of the Augustan age, and is found in many other portraits of the time.
The finest examples of Augustan relief sculpture, are the numerous fragments that have been preserved from the decoration of the Ara Pacis Augustae - the so-called "Altar of Augustan Peace" which was voted by the Senate on the return of Augustus from Gaul and Spain in the year 13 BCE, and was dedicated not quite four years later, in the year 9. The actual altar was surrounded by a paved square and enclosed by a marble wall some twenty feet high, measuring about thirty-seven feet long on two sides and about thirty-five on the other two. The wall was elaborately decorated with reliefs both inside and out. Among the subjects were scenes of sacrifice, an allegorical figure of Tellus, Mother Earth, between personifications of the Air and the Water, elaborate garlands of fruit and flowers suspended from ox-skulls, scrolls of foliage with buds and flowers attached, and two long processions of dignitaries, presumably representing the ceremonies at the foundation of the altar. Some portions merely continue the Hellenistic tradition. (Please see, for instance, Hellenistic Statues and Reliefs c.323-27 BCE.) The scenes of sacrifice and the Tellus relief closely resemble the "pictorial" reliefs. The garlands and the scrolls have their prototypes in Hellenistic decoration, but are much more elaborate and more realistically treated than anything that we know of earlier date. In the garlands, the relief is very high at the centre and grows lower towards the sides, suggesting the form of an actual garland much more closely than the rather flat relief, with sharply defined edges, which is common in the simpler garlands of the Hellenistic age and in the scrolls of foliage, a growing vine is suggested not merely by the addition of buds and flowers, but also by the introduction of small birds and insects, which hover about the leaves or crawl upon them. In these novel features, we may reasonably see the influence of the Roman liking for what is real and tangible.
On the north side of the monument - opposite the procession of Augustus and members of his family, is the parallel, converging procession of members of the Roman priestly colleges, magistrates, senators, and representatives of the Roman people with their children. Both of these large processional scenes are typically Roman - slow, stately, and purposeful, yet with their casual and homely touches: a young couple chatting, officials with their attention wandering, one child obviously frightened, another child tired of walking and asking to be picked up. But the treatment of the main figures, with their rhythmic draperies and idealised hair and features, is thoroughly classical and there can be little doubt that the sculptors of the Ara Pacis Augustae were Greeks. The dress in all cases is that of daily life and the faces are clearly portraits, although modern attempts to identify individuals have not yet met with much success. The rather cold correctness and the dignity of Augustan sculpture are here very evident. It is noticeable, also, that the figures are not all carved in one plane, as is the normal method in Greek reliefs, but some are in considerably higher relief than others, so that there is an attempt to suggest actual depth in space by varying the depth of the relief. This attempt at "spatial," or "tri-dimensional" effects, which in recent years is often called "illusionism," is one of the striking innovations of the Roman age. It probably had its origin in experiments made by the artists of the Hellenistic period. In the reliefs of the Ara Pacis, we have a comparatively early stage of the development, with figures arranged in two distinct planes. Later, the principle was carried much further.
The reliefs of the Ara Pacis offer a superb example of the interweaving of the actual present with the legendary past, of concrete fact with symbol and allegory, of classical dignity and poise in the human figures with an uninhibited delight in all the details of Nature in the decorative friezes. In their own kind they remained unsurpassed throughout the history of Roman sculpture.
Note About Art Evaluation
In order to learn more about plastic art, see: How to Appreciate Sculpture.
Julio-Claudian Sculpture after Augustus (14 BCE - 68 CE)
From the reigns of the Julio-Claudian emperors from Tiberius to Nero, few remains of larger sculpture have been preserved. What we have consists mostly of small marble urns for the ashes of the dead and altars which were set up over graves. In these, the decoration usually consists of elaborate garlands, reminiscent of the garlands of the Ara Pacis, carved with the same fidelity to nature, and associated with birds and other animals. The so-called "mural reliefs," slabs of terracotta used for the decoration of houses and other buildings, sometimes exhibit similar qualities, but often their designs were copied directly from Greek models, and show the strength of Greek influence. In portraits, on the other hand, the calm, academic type of the Augustan age was gradually modified by an increasing realism, in which we may fairly see the Roman spirit once more asserting itself.
One of the best-preserved larger reliefs of this time is a long frieze ornamenting one side of what would appear to have been a large base or altar, the reliefs on its other sides being wholly lost, apart from tiny fragments indicating that they once existed. It was found in Rome beneath the Papal Chancellery and shows a procession of city magistrates (vicomagistri) accompanied by ministers (camilli) holding statuettes of the imperial Genius and Lares, sacrificial victims with attendants, musicians, and other male figures. The men and animals are ranged side by side along the field with little overlapping. In parts of the frieze there is a second row of figures carved in low relief on the background and of these the chief stylistic interest lies in the fact that their heads are slightly raised above those of the figures in the foreground, as though the spectator were viewing the procession from a somewhat elevated point of vantage. This device of vertical perspective reflected the general Roman passion for factual detail, which naturally expressed itself in attempting to display all the participants in an action, including those in the second plane, as fully as possible.
Flavian Era Sculpture (69-96 CE)
The reigns of the Flavian emperors, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, produced the most impressive examples that we have of the illusionist manner. These are the famous reliefs on the arch of Titus in Rome. Erected to commemorate the Jewish War of 71 CE, this arch was dedicated in the year 81. In its large reliefs, one on either side of the central passageway, are represented two scenes from the triumphal procession. In one, we see the Emperor in his chariot, accompanied by lictors and Roman citizens, much as he doubtless appeared in the actual procession. Other figures, however, are clearly allegorical: Victory crowns the Emperor, the goddess Roma leads the horses, and in front of the chariot is the Genius Populi Romani. All of these are ideal figures, which are frequently inserted into reliefs commemorating historical events. In the second relief, another part of the triumphal procession is shown, with soldiers carrying the spoils from the temple at Jerusalem, the long trumpets which summoned the people to prayer, the table of the shewbread, and the seven-branched candlestick, as well as tablets on which were inscribed, originally, the names of the conquered cities of Judea. The principle of varying the height of the relief to suggest distance is here carried very far. There is no longer any question of two or three different planes such as we noted in the processional reliefs of the Ara Pacis. Some figures are almost in the round, others are sketched in low relief on the background, and between these extremes, many different heights are employed. The result is that light and air play among the figures, creating the illusion of beings actually moving in space, in a way that had not been so successfully attempted before. The reliefs imply an original and very skilful sculptor. His failure to make his moving crowds absolutely convincing is due to his ignorance of the laws of perspective, which were not discovered until many centuries later. The modern spectator cannot fail to be disturbed by the false lines of the horses and the chariot, and by the slewing of the archway through which the soldiers are supposed to pass. But in spite of such faults in these and similar reliefs, it still remains true that the artists of the Flavian age introduced new ideas and realized new possibilities in sculpture.
Flavian Portrait Busts
Similar experiments with effects of light and shadow appear in the portraits of the Flavian age, in which a combination of illusionist principles together with a return to the realism of earlier days, produced some of the most successful portrait busts ever created. The suggestion of character in these heads is no less remarkable than the skilful modelling, so that it is the portraits, quite as much as the reliefs of the time, that lead many critics to regard the Flavian period as the golden age of Roman sculpture.
Trajan Era Sculpture (98-117 CE)
The monuments from the reign of Trajan are similar, in many ways, to those of the Flavian age. Most conspicuous among them is the famous Trajan's Column (100 Roman feet in height, constructed of Parian marble), erected as part of the decoration of the forum that the Emperor completed and dedicated about 113 CE. It is world famous for its unique historical relief sculpture, which is carried in a spiral band about the shaft of the column and exemplifies most completely another innovation that plays a great part in the sculpture of the Roman age, namely, the elaborate working out of the continuous method of narration. In these reliefs, the attempt is made to record the whole history of Trajan's two campaigns against the Dacians (101-2 and 105-6) from the crossing of the Danube to the final victory. The single episodes are of many kinds - the sacrifice at the beginning of the campaign, the building of bridges and fortified camps, the Emperor reviewing or exhorting his troops, battles and sieges, the bringing in of prisoners, the reception of delegates to sue for peace - and these are so combined that one scene passes into the next without any sharp dividing line. Everywhere the Emperor is prominent he appears some ninety times in the 660 feet of the sculptured band. The result of this insistence on the imperial figure is that instead of the unity of time and place which the Greek sculptors regularly observed, we have a kind of unity of idea - the idea of the power of the Roman Empire, symbolized by the figure of its ruler. One other feature of the column of Trajan suggests oriental rather than Greek models. This is the elaborate background of trees and buildings and even whole towns and fortified camps, carved on a much smaller scale than the human figures, to give the setting of the various events. In these portions of the relief and also in the careful rendering of the armor, the standards of the legionaries, the facial traits, and the dress of the barbarians, the Roman love of realistic detail is everywhere evident.
The designer of the spiral reliefs on Trajan's Column did not invent the Roman documentary method of historical narration in art. Nor did he invent the continuous style of composition, according to which successive episodes in a story are unfolded in one unbroken series. This style is found in a limited form on fifth century BCE Attic red-figure cups painted with the labours of Theseus, and in the Telephus frieze from the Altar of Zeus at Pergamon (c.166-156 BCE). See also: Pergamene School of Hellenistic Sculpture (c.200-150 BCE). What the Trajanic artist did was to produce the most complete, extensive, and novel example of both the documentary method and the continuous narrative style that had yet been seen.
Historically, the reliefs are highly impressive. They portray certain particular events and places in the Dacian campaigns that are outstanding and unique - the initial crossing of the Danube by the Roman army, the emperor's voyage up the Danube, the submission of the Dacians at the end of the first war, Trajan's embarkation at Ancona for the second war, the great sacrifice by the Danube bridge, the storming of the Dacian capital, the death of the Dacian king Decabalus and these things must have happened, for the most part, in the particular order in which they are recorded on the Column. If not photographically true, the reliefs almost certainly provide a faithful outline of the story combined with a most minute and circumstantial description of the sort of problems that the Roman troops had to face in Dacia. The accuracy of the rendering on the Column of Roman military details and of Dacian physiognomy, arms, dress, fortifications, etc. can be established from archeological material and there can be little doubt that behind these reliefs lie sketches made at the 'front' by eyewitnesses, namely army draftsmen who accompanied the troops to war. It is likely that such sketches would have been originally made for the imperial archives, without the Column in view. But when it was decided that the Dacian wars should be depicted in relief on its shaft, a master artist, commissioned to prepare measured drawings or cartoons for the sculptors, would have made a selection from the army draftsmen's work, elaborated their sketches, and fused them together within a single framework, using vertical perspective so as to fill each band from top to bottom with an 'all,over', tapestry-like design and to display the maximum amount of detail. A striking instance of this urge to omit nothing and to present everything in its greatest extent is the scene of a legionary wading a river and carrying his shield, piled with his equipment, on his head. Here vertical perspective for the river, which is shown spread out as on a map, is illogically combined with the horizontal viewpoint for the man, who is seen from behind. This combination of viewpoints must have been a deliberate part of the design, not just due to naivety on the pact of the carver, whose modelling of the soldier's back and arms reveals him as a very skilful artist. Similarly, the illogical disproportion in scale, throughout the reliefs, between the human figures and the architectural and landscape accessories was due, not to childishness, but to the necessity of making the human actors, whose activities were, after all, of primary importance, stand out and be distinguishable from a distance.
Who designed the cartoons for the relief bands has not been recorded. We know that Trajan's Syrian-Greek architect, Apollodotus of Damascus, was responsible for the whole complex of forum, basilica, and Greek and Latin libraries, of which the Column was the central and dominating feature. So if he did not draw the cartoons himself, he must have supervised and approved them. But whoever he was, this master draftsman produced the classic example of the developed continuous narrative style in Roman sculpture, converting what had probably been isolated pictures into a single, unified, running frieze of closely interlocking scenes - a space-time continuum. (NOTE: For Roman buildings in Ancient Egypt, such as Trajan's Pavilion (c.164 CE), see: Ancient Egyptian Architecture up to 200 CE.)
Trajanic Reliefs on the Arch of Constantine
Nothing as exciting as the frieze on Trajan's Column has survived from Trajan's reign. The nearest thing to it in content and style - so near, in fact, that it must have been designed by the same hand or in the same workshop - is a large, long frieze on a flat, straight surface, four substantial portions of which are re-used on the walls of the central passageway of the Arch of Constantine in Rome, erected in 315. When casts were taken of each of the four sections on the Arch, it was found that all fitted together. On the left, the Emperor enters Rome in triumph, escorted by Victory and the goddess Roma on the right, the Roman cavalry led by Trajan charge the Dacians, two actions widely separated in time and place. Meeting this battle scene in a leftward direction is a group of Roman soldiers presenting to the charging emperor Dacian prisoners and the severed heads of dead Dacians (a very similar presentation of severed heads to the emperor appears on the Column) and further to the right is a group of Roman horsemen charging over the prostrate bodies of their foes. Thus, whereas on the Column the main stream of the story flows consecutively from left to right, here, at least in the portions that we have, it ebbs and flows alternately to left and right and the scenes are grouped together with a total disregard of spatial and temporal logic. Moreover, whereas on the Column the emperor is never involved in the actual conflict and the Roman troops wear battle-dress, here Trajan leads the charge and the soldiers wear 'parade' uniforms with plumed and decorated helmets. These are, in fact, scenes of 'ideal' or dramatised war, such as we find on battle sarcophagi of later periods and it is not impossible that this great Trajanic frieze was designed after Trajan's death to adorn the temple dedicated by Hadrian to his adoptive parents and erected to the north/west of the forum and basilica that bore Trajan's name. The triumph of the emperor on this frieze is not terrestrial only, but also celestial - his victory over death by apotheosis. As compared with that on the Column, the relief on the frieze is high and the main figures have a relatively statuesque and richly plastic quality. Landscape accessories are very few but there is the same urge here as there to fill the whole field by means of the more restrained use of vertical perspective that the scheme of the design allowed.
The well-known Arch of Trajan at Beneventum in southern Italy bears the date 114 CE and was certainly decreed by the Senate, possibly already built and dedicated as a structure, before the emperor's death. Its fourteen large, rectangular reliefs present an epitome of Trajan's achievements at home and abroad - his recruiting of troops, his founding of colonies in Italy and in the provinces, his establishment of new ports in Italy, his social policy, his pacification of the Danube lands (in the person of their patron deities), his friendly relations with Spanish and Germanic tribesmen, and his eastern conquests. One of the most appealing of these sculptured pictures is the passageway relief that depicts the alimenta, the emperor's charitable foundation for the poor children of Italy, who appear in person to receive his bounty, along with their fathers and personifications of their native cities. All these reliefs form isolated, self-contained pictures, apart from the two in the lower tiers of the pylons on the side of the Arch that faces Beneventum, which constitute the single scene of Trajan's solemn welcome by the citizens of Rome in the Roman Forum, and those on the attic on the same side, again forming a single scene in which Trajan is greeted on the Capitol by the Triad and other divinities and receives from Jupiter the latter's thunderbolt, the symbol of his vocation to govern the world as the god's vice-regent. In this picture Hadrian is shown in imperial dress next to the emperor, while Italia lays a hand upon his shoulder as though to point him out as Trajan's heir. These sculptures are wholly different from that of the Column reliefs. The compositions are crowded, but the main monumental figures stand out boldly in even higher relief against the massed company behind them. Background architectural and landscape elements are either absent or reduced to a minimum and the use of vertical perspective is very limited. Gods, personifications, and human beings mingle freely. Some of the heads are badly weathered but there still remain several striking likenesses of Trajan, and in the emperor's entourage are persons with arresting, portrait-like features.
NOTE: For the impact of classical sculpture of ancient Rome, see: Classicism in Art (800 onwards).
Hadrian Era Sculpture (117-138)
In the sculpture of the reign of Hadrian, the most noticeable change is a reaction from the elaboration of Flavian and Trajanic art towards a simpler and more idealistic treatment. Portraits lose something of their intense realism, and in reliefs there is less attempt at spatial effects and less crowding of the figures. It is natural to attribute these changes to a new wave of Greek influence. Since Hadrian himself was a lover of Greek art and lived for some time in Athens, it is generally assumed that they were due largely to his personal taste and influence, and the new movement is conveniently called the "Hadrianic revival".
An excellent example of the new tendencies is a relief found in 1908 not far from Rome, in which Antinous is represented as the God Silvanus. Antinous was a favorite of Hadrian's, who, after his mysterious death in Egypt, where he is said to have killed himself to avert some danger from the Emperor, was deified and worshipped throughout the empire. He was frequently identified with one of the youthful divinities, as he is here with Silvanus. The simple, standing figure, holding a pruning-hook and accompanied by a dog, is reminiscent of the Attic grave reliefs of the fourth century, while the altar and the grapevine suggest comparison with the Hellenistic "pictorial" reliefs. On the altar is the signature of the sculptor, Antonianus of Aphrodisias, a town in Caria. There are several other works of the early second century signed by artists from Aphrodisias, so that it seems clear that at this time a "school of Aphrodisias" must have established a considerable reputation.
Antonine Dynasty Sculpture (138-192 CE)
The effects of the Hadrianic revival lasted for many years. They are evident in most of the reliefs from the reigns of the Antonine emperors, Antoninus Pius (138-161), Marcus Aurelius (161-180), and Commodus (180-192). In these, in general, there is little crowding of the figures, and attempts at spatial effects are not pronounced. The "Relief of Marcus Aurelius" (Capitoline Museum, Rome) in which Marcus Aurelius is represented sacrificing before the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, is a good example. The careful representation of actual buildings to show the setting of an action is very common in Roman reliefs throughout the period of the Empire and is another bit of evidence of the Roman love of what is real and tangible, in contrast to the idealistic tendency of most Greek reliefs.
Column of Marcus Aurelius
The most impressive relic of the Antonine period is the column of Marcus Aurelius, in which the triumphs of that emperor over the Germans and the Sarmatians are celebrated. This monument is clearly an imitation of the column of Trajan, with a spiral band of reliefs worked out in the continuous method. The transitions, however, are not quite so cleverly managed as in the earlier monument, and the workmanship, on the whole, is rather less skilful.
In the portraits of the period, a number of interesting changes appear. Hadrian had introduced the fashion of wearing a short beard. Under the Antonines, longer beards and longer hair were worn, and the sculptors of the time were quick to realize the possibilities of contrast between the masses of hair and the flesh of the face. Hair and beard were rendered in flowing locks, deeply undercut with the drill so as to produce shadows, whereas for the face the marble was carefully smoothed and sometimes polished. At the same time, the practice of suggesting the eye more definitely by outlining the iris and introducing one or two drill holes for the pupil - a method occasionally used in earlier times - became general.
Severan, Diocletian, Constantine Sculpture (192-330 CE)
After the death of Commodus, the decline in the sculptor's art appears to have been rapid. Even on the arch of Septimius Severus (dedicated in 203), the small and carelessly carved figures offer a striking contrast to the dignified and carefully studied compositions of the public monuments of the preceding centuries and from the greater part of the third century, no historical reliefs have survived. The brief and troubled reigns of the many emperors of this time were naturally unfavorable to the production of elaborately decorated monuments. Our knowledge of the period, therefore, depends largely on the marble sarcophagi which were carved to receive the bodies of the dead. Such monuments are not unknown from the earlier centuries, but their use became more general during the third century, and great numbers of them have been preserved. Since they were made to be placed against a wall in underground tombs, only three sides, ordinarily, were decorated with reliefs. The subjects were taken almost exclusively from Greek mythology, an interesting proof of the persistence of Greek influence. Sometimes these subjects are such as have a possible reference to death - the carrying off of Persephone, Diana and Endymion, Cupid and Psyche, and many others. Often, however, they have no connection with the use of the sarcophagi - Dionysus and his train were constantly represented - and it is evident that the makers were simply reproducing traditional compositions for decorative effect. But though the subjects are largely Greek, the style, with rare exceptions, is that of the later Roman monuments. Figures are closely crowded, with deep undercutting to produce heavy shadows, though the relief, in general, is kept in one plane. Proportions are often incorrect, facial expression is exaggerated, and the work usually betrays haste and carelessness. In the composition, the continuous method is frequently employed.
In the portraits of the later Roman age, the decline is not so pronounced. Throughout the third century and even well into the fourth, the makers of portraits were still able to reproduce the features of their subjects and to suggest character with no little skill, in marked contrast to the cruder workmanship of the mass of the sarcophagi.
Reliefs on the Arch of Constantine
The condition of the sculptor's art towards the close of the period can best be seen on one of the most famous of Roman monuments, the Arch of Constantine. This arch, which probably was erected as early as the first century after Christ and afterwards dismantled, was rededicated by Constantine in the year 315, to commemorate his triumph over Maxentius and the firm establishment of his power. Much of the sculpture with which it is adorned was taken from earlier works, especially from monuments of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. The character of the parts that date from Constantine's reign is well illustrated in the scene in which the Emperor distributes gifts to the people. How different are the figures from those of earlier reliefs! Monotonously ranged side by side, they appear more like puppets than like participants in a common action. Each seems carved for itself, as a spot in a decorative design, and all details, such as the folds of the robes, are superficially and formally rendered. In the isolation of the individual figures, some critics' see yet another of those experiments with effects of light and shade which so engaged the attention of the sculptors of the Roman epoch. But even if this is admitted, the squat and dumpy figures bear witness to a marked decline from the work of the early empire. Interest in the human figure and interest in the grouping of figures to suggest action, which up to this time were the leading concerns of the sculptor, seem almost entirely lost, and it is clear that we stand on the threshold of a new period.
Roman Sculpture in the Provinces
Outside of Rome and Italy, where Roman sculpture naturally attained its fullest development, many monuments similar in character to those of the capital are preserved. In some cases, the workmanship is excellent, but for the most part, the authors of these monuments were decidedly less skilful than the sculptors of the capital, and Roman provincial sculpture is interesting primarily for its subjects and for the evidence it affords of the extent to which Roman ideas affected the many peoples whom the Romans conquered. Such monuments, in general, are more numerous in the western than in the eastern provinces of the empire. In the eastern provinces, monuments of distinctively Roman type are rare. In this region the traditions of Hellenistic Roman art persisted with undiminished vigour for many years, until, modified by new ideas from Persia and the near Orient, they gradually developed into Early Christian art (c.150-1100).
General Characteristics of Roman Sculpture
In a broad sense, it is true that Roman sculpture represents the last stage in the evolution of Greek sculpture. But it is a mistake to regard it, as many critics of the 19th century (such as John Ruskin) were inclined to do, as merely a late and degenerate phase of the Greek development. In some fields, notably in portrait sculpture and in the development of plant and foliage ornament, the sculptors of the Roman age advanced beyond their predecessors and introduced new ideas which profoundly influenced later generations. If, as seems probable, they did not invent the "illusionistic" style and the "continuous method of narration," they certainly developed them more completely and logically than earlier sculptors had done. The value of these innovations has been variously estimated. By some modern art critics, they are regarded as further evidence of the originality and genius of the artists of the Roman period, by others, as mistaken attempts to enlarge the possibilities of sculpture. The attempt to suggest depth, as well as height and width, is thought by many to be more appropriate to painting than to sculpture, and even when it is undertaken with full knowledge of the laws of perspective, is held to transgress the bounds of the sculptor's art. The continuous method has been characterized by one competent critic as a relic of primitive art "which the Greeks had almost civilized off the face of the earth." Whatever one may think of these conflicting opinions, the fact remains that the artists of the Roman age endeavored to realize possibilities in sculpture that the men of earlier times had for the most part neglected, and the "Roman episode," as it has sometimes been called, well deserves the more careful study that has been devoted to it in recent years. NOTE: For more about the influence of the Antique on 20th century artists, see: Classical Revival in modern art (1900-30).
Tomb of the Scipios and the sarcophagus of Scipio Barbatus
Even in death, great Roman families were concerned with reinforcing and projecting their status.
Plaster cast of the Tomb of Scipio Barbata in-situ, early 3rd century B.C.E. (original, Vatican Museums) (photo: Caterina A., by permission)
Veristic male portrait (similar to Head of a Roman Patrician), early 1st Century B.C.E., marble, life size (Vatican Museums, Rome) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Image and status
The latter days of the Roman Republican period witnessed socio-economic upheaval, and a long-established social order found itself threatened by newcomers who were wealthy but lacking in illustrious social pedigrees. Roman aristocrats in the patrician class (those threatened by this socio-economic upheaval) linked their ancestors to the founders of the Roman state, and projected an image of themselves as aged and wise as a measure of their experience and acumen (see Head of a Roman Patrician).
Since image and status are frequently linked, these aristocrats had long relied on display as part of cultivating their status. Whether this was the display of the images of illustrious family members in the atrium of their houses (so-called imagines), or the constructions of tombs or other patronage projects, material culture mattered in maintaining status. The Late Republican period (the late 2nd and 1st centuries B.C.E.) witnessed several significant examples of this attempt to maintain status in a changing world.
The family of the Cornelii Scipiones
The Cornelii Scipiones were among the most famous Romans of all. Their ancestors had won many victories—including those of Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus (who died c. 280 B.C.E.) and Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (who died c. 183 B.C.E.), the victor in the Second Punic War. The family tomb of the Cornelii Scipiones, located along the Via Appia leading south from the city of Rome, was first rediscovered in 1614. Its remains constitute one of the most important examples of Late Republican funerary culture at Rome and demonstrate how an illustrious family worked to maintain its image in a changing world.
Possible reconstruction of the Scipio’s tomb on the via Appia, Rome, third century B.C.E. – first century C.E.
The Tomb of the Scipios is a subterranean, rock-cut tomb (hypogeum) composed of irregular chambers and connecting corridors that provide niches for burials (see plan and interior view below).
Plan of the Tomb of the Scipios in Rome. 1) the old entrance 2) a “calcinara,” mediaeval lime kiln 3) the main entrance 4) entrance to the new room. The letters from A to I are the sarcophagi or loculi with inscriptions. The tomb is now empty except for facsimiles the remains were discarded or reinterred, while the sarcophagi fragments ultimately went to the Vatican (based on a plan by Filippo Coarelli, Coarelli, Il Sepolcro degli Scipioni a Roma. Itinerari d’arte e di cultura (Rome: Fratelli Palombi, 1988).
The tomb was begun in the early years of the third century B.C.E. and continued in use until the first century C.E. The family’s patriarch, Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus, who served as consul in 298 B.C.E. is the most prominent occupant of the tomb. Barbatus was buried in a monumental stone sarcophagus with a Latin inscription (see below). Other family members occupy other parts of the tomb, in many cases with inscriptions identifying the individuals and charting their public careers.
As the tomb faced an important roadway, it came to have an elaborate façade in its later phases. This façade likely dates to c. 150 B.C.E. or later when the family renovated and expanded the tomb. In addition to the architectural elements of the façade, a fresco depicting a processional scene—perhaps of famous members of the Cornelii Scipiones—adorned the tomb.
The Sarcophagus of Barbatus
Scipio Barbatus was deposited in an elaborately carved sarcophagus (today the original is in the Vatican Museums—image below, and a plaster cast is in situ—image here). The façade of the sarcophagus is decorated with a Doric frieze and volute scrolls adorn the lid (watch a video about the classical orders). It included an elaborate Latin epitaph that was modified in antiquity, with some earlier text being erased. The Scipios were always keen to maintain family ties and support their ancestry at any cost. The extant text of the Barbatus epitaph records civic career achievements (Barbatus served as consul, censor, and aedile) and military achievements. In the latter category Barbatus was famous in Rome’s third century B.C.E. wars with the Samnites the epitaph tells the reader that he captured Taurasia and Cisauna in Samnium, in addition to subduing the region of Lucania (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum VI, 1285).
Sarcophagus of Scipio Barbatus, early 3rd century B.C.E. (Vatican Museums) (photo: Sailko, CC BY 3.0)
The Tomb of the Scipios is an important monument that demonstrates Roman methods of using images to reinforce and project status. The competition to maintain social rank and position was fierce, and latter day members of the Cornelian family (gens Cornelia) were indeed trading on the names and reputations of their more famous ancestors as they themselves struggled for traction in the tumultuous period at the end of the Roman Republic.
Below is a Google photosphere, showing a Late Republican columbarium (for storage of funerary urns), adjacent to the Tomb of the Scipios that was used for cremation burials and, together with the elite Tomb of the Scipios, was located within a large necropolis located along the Via Appia exiting the city of Rome from the south:
Filippo Coarelli, Il sepolcro degli Scipioni a Roma (Rome: Fratelli Palombi, 1988).
Filippo Coarelli, Rome and environs: an archaeological guide, trans. J. J. Clauss and D. Harmon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
Janos Fedak, Monumental tombs of the Hellenistic age: a study of selected tombs from the pre-classical to the early imperial era (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990).
Harriet Flower, Ancestor Masks and Aristocratic Power in Roman Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).
Peter J. Holliday, The origins of Roman historical commemoration in the visual arts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, “Housing the Dead: the tomb as house in Roman Italy”, in L. Brink and D. A. Green (eds.) Commemorating the Dead. Texts and Artifacts in Context (Berlin, New York: de Gruyter) 39-77.
This unprecedented interest in pearls gave rise to a rich trade with the four pearl-producing regions known in antiquity: the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, India and Sri Lanka, and some areas of China. The pearl trade in Rome began around the end of the first century B.C. and the beginning of the first century A.D., when the trade route with the East through Egypt was established. Trade brought pearls of varying qualities, sizes, and colors to Rome: small reddish pearls from the Black Sea, large marble-shaded pearls from Greece, and golden ones from Britain. But the most highly prized pearls, which were a brilliant, shiny white, came from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. (See also: The rise of eco-friendly pearl farming.)
The Romans referred to pearls by the Greek name margarita, and differentiated between various kinds. The largest and most beautiful were called unios pear-shaped pearls were called elenchi and when clustered together so that they gently jingled with movement—attracting attention with the noise—they were called crotalia, or castanets.
Under the emperors Claudius and Nero, the pearl trade focused on a few ports on the Arabian coast, which became intermediaries between India and the West. Goods were shipped from the Arabian ports to Egypt’s capital of Alexandria, where they were kept in warehouses and then redistributed throughout the Mediterranean. The pearl trade also benefited from the Roman Empire’s extensive network of well-kept roads.
Merchants who specialized in pearls were known in Rome as margaritarii, although this word also may have been used to describe anyone connected with the gem, from exporters, jewelers, and pearl-setters to pearl fishermen and guards who protected the precious stones. The margaritarii joined together to protect their interests in guilds or associations.
Eighteen inscriptions found in Rome mention the profession of margaritarius. Most of these historical markings have been discovered around the Via Sacra in the Roman Forum, the center of day-to-day life in ancient Rome. Such inscriptions suggest that a select group of margaritarii operated from one of Rome’s best known and busiest streets, which served as the city’s commerce nucleus for the luxury trade.
Early Christian Sculptures
Greek sculptures, starting in the mid-600’s BC, were mainly done in the white marble so available in Greece. The sculptors studied the human anatomy and became experts in turning out what we now know as Classical Sculptures.
Dionysos reclining on a rock (438–432 BC) from the east pediment of the Parthenon
In 146 BC Rome defeated Greece at the Battle of Corinth and started to become what would be the Roman Empire. But in reality Greece and all she stood for had conquered Rome. Horace (65–8 BC) was a Roman lyric poet. He was aware of his age and of the debt Romans owed to Greece. Horace had been educated in Athens and sent his son to Athens to learn the mind and art of the Greeks. Horace realized that Rome had physically conquered Greece, but in reality Greece had conquered Rome. In one of his letters he comments: “When Greece was taken, she took control of her rough invader and brought the arts to rustic Latium.” The Epistles 2.1.ll.156-57 Horace suggests a metaphor with Greece as the conquered, cultivated woman who took control of the crude Roman man. Horace was correct. Most of Roman civilization was founded on Greek principles, including their religion and their art.
Roman statue of the Greek Hercules (c. 125 AD) & Roman copy of Greek Leda and the Swan sculpture (c. 1-100 AD). The myth of Leda and the Swan is a Greek myth.
Early Christian sculptors followed the Greco-Roman example of their time in their works just as the Romans imitated the Greek sculptors. Rather than imitate Greek myths, the Christians sculptors took as their inspiration the Bible.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John 10:11
Christ as Good Shepherd, 300’s AD, Rome Christ as Good Shepherd, 200’s AD, Asia Minor
A Christian casket in the British Museum (below) is an example of how the Roman Christian sculptors followed the Greco-Roman manner but applied the beauty to Christian texts:
“When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’” Matthew 27:24
Ivory Plaque with Pilate Washing His Hands, Christ Bearing the Cross, and Peter Denying Christ— Rome, c. 420–30, from the “Maskell ivories.” The Trustees of the British Art Museum, London.
”Then Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified, and the soldiers took Him away. Carrying His own cross, He went out to The Place of the Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified Him, and with Him two others, one on each side, with Jesus in the middle.”John 19:16-18
“Then they seized him (Jesus) and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house, and Peter was following at a distance. And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down among them. Then a servant girl, seeing him as he sat in the light and looking closely at him, said, ‘This man also was with him.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.’ And a little later someone else saw him and said, ‘You also are one of them.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I am not.’ And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, ‘Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about.’ And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.” Luke 22:54-62
Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, c. 359-89 AD, Marble (side view)
The Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (above and below) is very famous in art circles and has been described as “probably the single most famous piece of early Christian relief sculpture.” Junius Bassus died in 359. He had been praefectus urbi, responsible for the administration of the city of Rome, and had served as an official under Constantine the Great’s son, Constantius II. He was from a senatorial family and came from the elite of Rome. He died at the age of 42 and an inscription on the sarcophagus (now in the Vatican) indicates he converted shortly before his death.
Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, c. 359-89 AD, Marble (front view)
Some of the members of his family were obviously Christian because they commissioned a great unknown sculptor to carve Junius’ elaborate and throughly beautiful sarcophagus filled with Old and New Testament stories. That sculptor ignored rules followed in official reliefs by mixing frontal and side sculptures of people plus the scenes are three-dimensional with depth and background. The heads/features of all the Testaments’ people are each one different. This ancient sarcophagus is in the manner of the Greco-Roman art of its time with an individual twist by the sculptor. The themes are Biblical rather than mythic.
A Young Christ with Peter & Paul Christ coming into Jerusalem on an ass Adam and Eve After Their Sin (Genesis 3)
The sarcophagus of Junius Bassus is the most beautiful and expertly carved of any Christian sculpture we have of Early Christian art.— Sandra Sweeny Silver
The J. Paul Getty Museum
This image is available for download, without charge, under the Getty's Open Content Program.
Sarcophagus with lid and 4 unjoined fragments
Unknown 134 × 211 × 147 cm (52 3/4 × 83 1/16 × 57 7/8 in.) 95.AA.80
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Currently on view at: Getty Villa, Gallery 213, Achilles Sarcophagus
Front, with lid
3/4 right front with lid
Back, with lid
Front center figures
Sarcophagus with lid and 4 unjoined fragments
Unknown maker, made in an Attic workshop
Athens, Greece (Place Created)
134 × 211 × 147 cm (52 3/4 × 83 1/16 × 57 7/8 in.)
Sarcophagus with the Life of Achilles (Display Title)
Four separate episodes from the life of the Greek hero Achilles decorate the sides of this Roman sarcophagus. The front shows Achilles desecrating the corpse of the fallen Trojan hero Hektor by dragging it behind his chariot. One short end shows Achilles putting on his armor, and the other shows Odysseus discovering Achilles hiding among the daughters of King Lykomedes on Skyros. The unfinished back of the sarcophagus shows a battle of Greeks and centaurs. This scene probably also refers to the life of Achilles, since he was educated by the centaur Chiron. The life of Achilles was a popular subject for the decoration of Roman sarcophagi.
On the lid, a man and a woman recline on an upholstered couch. The heads of the figures have been left unfinished. If they were intended to be portraits of the deceased, this work was, for reasons now unknown, never completed.
Burial in a sarcophagus was a popular custom during the period from about 150 to 250 A.D. Sarcophagi were mass produced in a few centers, one of which was Athens. Athenian sarcophagi were carved on all four sides and often surmounted with reclining figures.
By 1993 - 1995
Robert Haber & Associates (New York, New York), sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1995.
"Acquisitions/1995." The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal 24 (1996), p. 88, no. 3.
The J. Paul Getty Museum Handbook of the Collections. 4th ed. (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1997), p. 27.
True, Marion. "Refining policy to promote partnership." In Antichità senza provenienza II. Supl. Bollettino d'Arte n. 101-102. Pelagatti, Paola and Pier Giovanni Guzzo, eds. (Rome: Libreria dello Stato, 2000), pp. 141-2, fig. 9.
The J. Paul Getty Museum Handbook of the Collections. 6th ed. (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001), p. 27.
The J. Paul Getty Museum Handbook of the Antiquities Collection (Los Angeles: 2002), p. 168.
Spivey, Nigel and Squire, Michael. Panorama of the Classical World (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2004), p. 114, fig. 188.
The J. Paul Getty Museum Handbook of the Collections. 7th ed. (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007), p. 10, ill.
The J. Paul Getty Museum Handbook of the Antiquities Collection. Rev. ed. (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010), p. 168.
Oakley, John. Die attischen Sarkophage. Faszikel 3. Andere Mythen (Gebr. Mann Verlag. Berlin, 2011), p. 29-31, 60, 81, cat. no. 37, pl. 30.2.
Russel, Ben. The Economics of the Roman Stone Trade. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 302, fig. 7.26.
Oakley, J. H. "The Achilles Sarcophagus in the J. Paul Getty Museum." In Koch, G (ed.), Römische Sarkophage. Akten des Symposiums. Marburger Beiträge zur Archäologie, band 3 (Marburg 2016), p.103-107.
Medieval Sculpture (c.300-1000) From Late Antiquity to Romanesque
"Medieval" and "Middle Ages" are rather imprecise terms which refer to the period of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West (c.400 CE) to the fall of Constantinople (1453). This article on medieval sculpture broadly covers the first 600 years of this era, including the work of sculptors from the final period of Late Antiquity until the emergence of the European style known as Romanesque Art (1000-1200). See also our article on Medieval Christian Art (600-1200) as well as our biographies of outstanding medieval artists such as Gislebertus (12th century), Master Mateo (12th century) and the Master of Cabestany (c.1130-1180).
Statue of Saint Faith (c.870)
Sainte-Foy Abbey Church, Conques.
A divine example of plastic art
by Ottonian artists.
Forming the link between Christianity and the classical heritage, the civilization of Late Antiquity occupied a place between the Late Roman Empire and the Middle Ages. This period began with the long reigns of Diocletian (284-305) and Constantine (307-337) and lasted for two or three centuries, its duration varying from region to region. After Diocletian had established a tetrarchic government with two "Augusti" and two "Caesars", the system became a diarchy in 313 and then, in 324, Constantine, the conqueror of Licinius, united the Empire under Christianity. This religious liberty was soon expressed in monumental Christian art with the construction of the oldest Christian basilicas and the introduction of the first monumental decorations. In the towns, the municipal elites and the big proprietors, who often owned country residences, decorated their houses sumptuously. Public architecture strove to surpass the models of the past. The Basilica Nova in Rome was begun by Maxentius in 308 and completed by Constantine. Its three monumental aisles stood at the summit of a wide platform and were crowned by a vast western apse containing a colossal statue of the emperor.
TYPES OF SCULPTURE
For forms of carving, see:
For sculptures in wood,
see: Wood Carving.
For a list of the world's finest
works of three-dimensional art
see: Greatest Sculptures Ever
HISTORY OF SCULPTURE
For a guide to the origins and
development of 3-D art, including
major achitectural movements,
see: Sculpture History.
A manifestation of the city's pomp, the triumphal arch of Constantine built by the Senate and the people of Rome in 315 stands near the Palatine Hill. The monument comprises three openings with freestanding columns outside and a group of sculptures, including reused features from earlier famous monuments, as if to contirm the imperial heritage. The historical frieze, in a conspicuous position halfway up, illustrates both the imperial ideology and the style of the Constantinian period. In addition to depictions of speeches to the citizens and the distribution of subsidies, a particularly noticeable feature is the setting of a hieratic court ritual in which the emperor occupies a strictly frontal position. This arrangement, emphasized by the acclaiming figures shown in profile, was adopted by consuls on ivory diptychs, by villa owners on mosaics, and even for the representation of Christ among the apostles in the semidomes of church apses.
A style common to sculpture and the arts of colour emerges during the first half of the fourth century. That is why the extremely linear and graphic rendering of the figures in the frieze on the Arch of Constantine and on contemporary sarcophagi is close to that of the figures on the mosaics of Piazza Armerina in Sicily, Santa Costanza in Rome, Aquileia in North Italy and Centcelles near Tarragona in Catalonia. The basic elements of the portrait, with wide open eyes and short hair accentuating the roundness of the head, are already observable in works produced under the Tetrarchy, the most famous of which is the porphyry group of the four sovereigns, reused in the Middle Ages on the lateral facade of the basilica of St Mark's in Venice.
Early Christian Sculpture
During the Roman Imperial period, the Christianization of society steadily increased, but we have to wait until Late Antiquity, in particular the fourth century, to see the public expression of the early Christian sculpture - at least in Rome. The first Christian images appeared in the Roman catacombs, those underground cemeteries with evocative names (Calixtus, Priscilla, Peter and Marcellinus), which, situated outside the city of the living. were the Roman equivalent of the surface necropolises located close to the entrances of the Empire's towns. We know those early Christian images, as well as the tastes and culture of the urban elites, from the sculptured decoration of the sarcophagi which were placed in mausoleums or private enclosures inside cemeteries. (See also: Christian Roman Art.)
When they were carved out of marble or porphyry, sarcophagi were ornamented with a sculptured decoration comparable in every way to the friezes of the great public monuments. These characteristic objects of Late Antiquity were sometimes "mass produced" and could be bought as standardized products by anyone who wanted to perpetuate his own memory in his lifetime or that of a close relation who had just died, as an inscription at Arles testifies: "The 17 of the Calends of April, here rests in peace Marcia Romania Celsa, a most illustrious lady, who lived 38 years, 2 months and 11 days. Havius Januarius, a most illustrious man, former consul ordinary, placed (this epitaph) to his meritorious wife." It was also possible to have sarcophagi decorated to meet individual requirements. In the second quarter of the 4th century Flavius Januarius ordered that his defunct wife should be portrayed as the praying figure situated in the centre of the main face of the sarcophagus between two apostles and Gospel scenes.
The sarcophagus relief sculpture comprises several different types: with spiral flutings, with a continuous frieze, on two registers, with colonnettes, etc. Pictorially, the large bucolic and pastoral scenes were soon followed by Old Testament scenes (Jonas, Daniel) in typological opposition to those from the New Testament such as the public life of Christ and the early events of his Passion. The death of Christ is never represented on the other hand, emphasis is laid on his resurrection, his victory over death and the promise of his return at the end of time.
Among the most significant examples, we may mention the porphyry sarcophagi of Helen and Constantine (Vatican Museum) which, between 320 and 340, display themes peculiar to the imperial iconography or the decoration of the richest villas, such as the sarcophagus decorated with hunting scenes discovered in the Trinquetaille necropolis at Arles in 1974. Of the same provenance, a sarcophagus with two registers depicting an illustrious couple is very similar to the so-called Dogmatic Sarcophagus (Vatican Museum). In addition to Old Testament episodes (Adam and Eve), it displays scenes from the New Testament, ranging from the Epiphany to Christ's miracles. These vehicles of private propaganda tell us about the very early conversion of certain elites and also about their tastes, because the Aries sarcophagus was undoubtedly bought in Rome at great expense. The sarcophagus of Junius Bassus is a particularly good illustration of the monumental quality of these works and the concentration of Christian thought they convey.
Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate religious medieval sculpture, see: How to Appreciate Sculpture. For later works, please see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.
Barbarian Sculpture & Metalwork
From the early 5th century, the arrival in the West of different Germanic peoples and their settlement in the territories of the ancient Roman empire brought in their train the introduction of an original culture with a Roman and a Germanic component. The first inroad took place in 401, when the Visigoths led by Alaric poured into Italy. After their arrival at the gates of Rome, this people, led by Athaulf, withdrew to southern Gaul in 412. A little earlier, at the end of 406, the Vandals, Alani and Suevi crossed the Rhine at Mainz or Worms and took the road to the Iberian peninsula. The history of these peoples' movements, their conquests and progressive sedentarization covered the whole of the 5th century. Their final settlement in specific regions constituted the first adumbration of medieval historical geography. The Franks in Gaul, the Visigoths in the Iberian peninsula and the Ostrogoths in Italy produced original works of art confined almost exclusively to metalwork and goldsmithery. Architecturally, they appreciated what they found in the Romanized countries. This is why, while necropolises yield funerary furnishings of Germanic origin, the villas excavated by archeologists reveal architecture and mosaic art in the purest Roman tradition, some of which are even later than the 7th century. The symbiosis between these different artistic cultures laid the basis of the new medieval civilization.
The goldsmith's works of the period of the barbarian invasions were numerous. They consisted of liturgical objects, tableware, weapons and personal ornaments. Well known is the work of St Eligius, goldsmith of the Merovingian court and maker of liturgical objects, such as the Cross of Saint-Denis. But the goldsmithing of this period is mainly studied with the help of burial finds. The Sutton Hoo treasure is the most famous of the royal or princely burials of the early Anglo-Saxon period discovered in England. Its contents, now in the British Museum, were exhumed from the interior of a buried ship in 1939. The objects composing this treasure included imports from the eastern Mediterranean (silver and bronze dishes), Sweden (shield), Merovingian Gaul (coins) and the Rhineland (armour). The date of interment is established by Byzantine objects made of silver on which the inspection stamps of Emperor Anastasius have been identified.
The Anglo-Saxon artifacts in the treasure from the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial consist mainly of arms, jewels and objects of everyday use. Gold is abundant and the enamelling - mostly cloisonné - is distributed in small differently coloured cells which articulate the surface. But while emphasizing technique, we should not neglect the decorative repertory that appears on contemporary products. Geometric forms and figurative decoration are closely fused in a tangle of curves which often describe continuous interlaces. These motifs then spread over western Europe through the circulation of artifacts and manuscripts.
In Merovingian Gaul these goldsmith's works were found in the tombs of the wealthiest individuals. Some of them still preferred burial in sarcophagi in the classical tradition. Sometimes these were local products, carved in the stone of the country, at others imports brought by way of the large rivers (Seine, Loire). Often trapezoid in shape, these sarcophagi, which went out of use during the 8th century, were adorned with crosses or geometric motifs. The plaster sarcophagi found in great quantities in the Paris region made up a special group and their area of diffusion extended from Rouen to the Yonne and from the Loiret to the Marne. In the south of France the production of marble sarcophagi was prolonged until the 5th century, if not later, while in Aquitaine in particular a group of sarcophagi with saddleback covers and an all-over decoration of foliage scrolls certainly continued in production until the end of the Merovingian period. These prestigious objects travelled but their carving was probably executed in the urban workshops of Aquitaine in connection with the exploitation of quarries. They met the demands of the great landowners of southwestem Gaul for whom hunting was still a favourite activity, as the sacrophagus in the Musee des Augustins at Toulouse demonstrates.
Among the privileged tombs is the funerary chapel discovered to the south-east of the town of Poitiers in 1878, the sculptured decuration of which is especially important. This hypogeum, know as the Hypogee des Dunes, consisted of a "memorial chamber" provided with cult installations and it stood in a necropolis. The monument, which can be dated to the late 7th or the first third of the 8th century, was a sort of family vault containing several tombs a lengthy inscription in the righthand door jamb states: "Here Mellebaudis, debtor and servant of Christ, I have set up for myself this little cavern in which my unworthy tomb reposes. I did this in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ whom I have loved, in whom I have believed . "
Access to the vault is by a staircase with about ten steps. The monument consists of a room enlarged by two lateral arcosolia. In addition to the colonnettes and capitals framing the entrance, the architectural sculpture extends over three steps of the staircase, the two door jambs and the step which raises the altar platform. This decoration in very shallow relief consists of omamental foliage, fish and a four-stranded plait with snakes' heads at the extremities. The monument also preserves elements of carved furniture which prove the existence of well-organized workshops. Winged figures adorn the slabs reused to close the sarcophagi standing near the altar. One of them bears the symbols of the evangelists Matthew and John and the archangels Raphael and Rachel. Near the altar was the sculpted base of a pillar adorned with two figures nailed to crosses who could be interpreted as the two thieves framing the crucifixion of Christ, now missing. Another sculptured fragment represents the lower part of a stylite identified as Simeon by an inscription.
Stylistically these sculptures resemble 7th century Visigothic works and monuments in northern Italy. Sociologically, the Hypogeum of the Dunes at Poitiers illustrates the phenomenon of the "aristocratization" of a section of a necropolis: a privileged ecclesiastical tomb which may have been a chapel originally and in any case was in private use. Indeed, a fragment of the lintel bears the following inscription: "The memory of Mellebaudis (memoria), Abbot, debtor of Christ, is here. The devout come from all sides to Him (Christ) for the offerings, and they return every year." The sculptured decoration in the Poitiers hypogeum shows, as do the lettering of the inscriptions and the vestiges of painting, that the Merovingian elites had a hybrid culture combining classical culture fostered by eastern elements and the art of interlaces which so clearly defines the plastic innovations of the early Middle Ages in the West.
Carolingian Art: Ivory and Goldsmithery
The Carolingian cultural renaissance was not produced suddenly, neither with Charlemagne's coming to power nor with his coronation by the Pope in the year 800. It had been prepared from the late 7th century in Italy, Gaul and the British Isles. From this period onward the monastic renewal of the West was under way. Corbie, Laon, Tours, Fleury-sur-Loire and Saint-Denis were cultural centres long before the Carolingian renaissance, famous for their scriptoria and their libraries, as were the Germanic abbeys of Echternach, St Gall and Fulda. (See: German Medieval Art c.800-1250.) The reigns of Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious (from 768 to 855) saw the construction of hundreds of monasteries, nearly thirty new cathedrals and close to a hundred royal residences. See Carolingian Art (c.750-900).
The desire to vie with the prestige of Rome and Byzantium was behind Charlemagne's decision to choose a permanent residence in which to install his court, treasury and library. The palace of Charlemagne at Aachen and the palatine chapel built there on the Ravennate model at the very end of the 8th and beginning of the 9th century formed a centre for religious art and for the study of letters which welcomed celebrated masters such as Alcuin. The court workshops produced illuminated manuscripts which were one of the most effective aids to the preservation of antique culture and the diffusion of contemporary artistic tastes. Among the first books illuminated at the court before the end of the 8th century was the Gospel Book of Godescalc, which reveals the growing importance of Italian and Byzantine models. The manuscripts of the Ada school, from the name of an abbess alleged to be Charlemagne's natural sister, marked a moment of diversification in the Palatine schools corresponding to Alcuin's succession by Eginhard.
Among the new artistic tendencies under Louis the Pious, the Coronation Gospels (Old Imperial Treasury, Vienna) introduced a Hellenistic or Alexandrian style. At Reims, under Archbishop Ebbo, manuscripts were illustrated in a style dominated by a movement which seems to shake the figures and their clothes. The Utrecht Psalter, written and illustrated at the abbey of Hautvilliers at the end of the first third of the 9th century, particularly characterizes this Carolingian renaissance and the school of Reims by its rapid, incisive, vibrant and nervous pen. After the death of Charlemagne and the fall of Ebbo at Reims, several artists revived the school of Saint-Martin of Tours characterized under Abbot Vivian (843-851) by the illustration of Bibles with narrative scenes arranged in superimposed registers.
The production of manuscripts created in the various specialized workshops a demand for work by the goldsmiths and craftsmen specialized in ivory carving, mainly to ornament precious bindings. This explains the close stylistic relation between illustrated manuscripts and ivory carvings. It has even been suggested that workshops were equipped to produce both genres. Thus the ivories of the Ada school are closely akin to manuscripts from the same circle. The Lorsch Gospel covers executed at the very end of the 8th century derive from Byzantine models from the period of Justinian, whereas the covers of Dagulfs Psalter find their source in Western Early Christian works. This wealth of sources also proves the role fulfilled by these workshops in the transmission of models from Late Antiquity. At Metz, under the episcopate of Drogo (825-855), ivory panels (Drago Sacramentary) reflected the movement animating the manuscripts of the same school in which contrasts with the school of Reims can be seen.
Under Charles the Bald, the workshops of Corbie, Reims and Saint-Denis were particularly active and had more stylistic affinity with the Reims manuscripts. The cover of the Psalter of Charles the Bald (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) is especially reminiscent of the interpretation the ivory-carvers made of the manuscript illustrations. In this case, the model is the Utrecht Psalter. The Munich Crucifixion, with its representation of the Resurrection beneath personifications of the sun and moon, and its antique references to Oceanus and Roma, may well be the masterpiece of this period. This ivory cover is luxuriously framed by a setting of goldwork, precious stones and enamels which invite us once again to speculate about the collaboration between ivory carvers and goldsmiths in these outstanding workshops. (For more, see also: Celtic Metalwork art.)
The development of the cult of relics and the increasing size of the main churches were the source of the luxurious output of goldsmith's work in the Carolingian period: urns, various types of statue, reliquaries of all kinds, book covers and other objects for liturgical use made up the essential part of a production destined to play an important role in the development of monumental sculpture. We find a good example of this in the reliquary called the Triumphal Arch of Eginhard known only from a drawing. It undoubtedly served as the foot of a cross and its rich decoration finds its inspiration in Roman and Early Christian triumphal programs, while at the same time heralding the monumental iconographic display of the great Romanesque church portals.
Carolingian gold work benefited by the progress made in the Merovingian period and combined the ancient practice of cloisonne with that of chasing and inlays. Among the most famous works are the binding of the Codex Aureus of Munich, with a decoration divided into five fields, and the ciborium of King Arnulf. Also outstanding for size, prestige and influence on sculpture is the gold and silver altar frontal of Milan, commissioned from the goldsmith Volvinius under the episcopate of Angilbert II. It has christological scenes on the front, while the back is reserved for the life of Ambrose, the Milanese saint. The differences in style observable between the two sides exactly match the situation of Carolingian art torn between a dazzling Antiquity and a new aesthetic. The bronze sculpture or statuette "Charlemagne" (Louvre, Paris) clearly suggests this double dimension affirming the imperial idea. It is a reflection of the activity of the bronze-founders' workshops which have left other famous works in the Aachen chapel. such as the grilles of the galleries and the doors. See also: Ottonian Art (c.900-1050).
For another influential but later school of medieval art in Western Europe, which was greatly influenced by Carolingian culture, please see Mosan Art which emerged around Liege, exemplified by the metalwork and goldsmithing of Nicholas of Verdun (1156-1232) and Godefroid de Claire (1100-1173).
We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from the seminal work on European Sculpture from Late Antiquity to the pre-Renaissance era, namely Sculpture: From Antiquity to the Middle Ages, Edited by G. Duby and J-L Daval (1989-91) (published by Taschen GmbH), a publication we strongly recommend for any serious students of Medieval sculpture and architecture.
Art, Propaganda and Death in Ancient Rome
ROME — “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus,” Edward Gibbon wrote in “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”
In so declaring, the English historian was following the lead of a number of Roman and Renaissance authors, who took an equally rosy view of the state of the empire and humanity during the second century.
At first glance, by its very title “The Age of Equilibrium, 98-180 A.D.: Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius,” the third in a series of exhibitions on art and society in ancient Rome at the Capitoline Museums, seems to be endorsing this traditional historical assessment that stretches from Pliny the Younger through Machiavelli and Gibbon into modern times.
But a strength of this latest show, curated by Eugenio La Rocca and Claudio Parisi Presicce with Annalisa Monaco, and especially of its catalog, is that, while achievements are recognized, darker aspects are not whitewashed and the dominant role played by propaganda in public art of the era is highlighted.
The reputation the second century won as a golden age was substantially based on the unusual stability of the political establishment during this period and on the economic prosperity that helped to nurture.
That stability was largely the result of the abandonment of the direct hereditary principle in the imperial succession in favor of the practice of adopting suitably talented candidates. Thus Nerva adopted Trajan in 97 A.D. Trajan’s second cousin Hadrian succeeded him in 117 Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius in 138, who adopted his son-in-law Marcus Aurelius as his own successor.
In a return to the old system, Marcus Aurelius was succeeded in 180 by his son Commodus, whose behavior became increasingly deranged. As everyone who has seen “Gladiator” now knows, Commodus developed a penchant for taking a personal part in gladiatorial displays (yet in reality met his end not in the arena but when he was strangled in his bath).
The first room of the show, “The Leading Actors,” introduces us to the stars of the epoch in the form of more than 40 portrait statues and busts of the emperors, their wives, daughters and favorites.
What is immediately striking in the representation of the male players is that they are so often depicted in some form of military dress.
This introduces one of the central paradoxes of this notional age of peace and harmony. For while the Emperor Augustus, a victorious general and founder of the imperial system, was seldom represented as a warrior, the emperors of the second century relentlessly emphasized this role.
The empire reached its greatest extent — an area of 3.5 million square kilometers, or 1.35 million square miles, with an estimated population of 55 million — during the reign of Trajan. Much of what he did to transform Rome is still visible from the Capitoline Museums or within a few minutes’ walk. The Trajan Forum was the largest and grandest of all the forums and the so-called Trajan Markets on the hillside above are well preserved. Nearby are the remains of the huge Trajan Baths on the Oppian Hill — the first to include a library, park and cultural complex — which was to serve as the model for all subsequent monumental baths. Vast infrastructure projects included a new port at Ostia, canals, quays, aqueducts and sewers.
But these improvements were mainly financed by war booty, especially what was gained from 101 to 106 during the conquest of Dacia — a kingdom centered on present-day Romania and Moldova.
These wars were celebrated in the spiraling friezes of Trajan’s Column on the edge of the Trajan Forum, the first column of its kind and the first depictions of an emperor on campaign. The Trajan Forum itself was adorned with multiple images of the Dacian Wars in the form of statues, reliefs and decorative elements of the victorious emperor and of defeated Dacians.
Hadrian, who had fought in the Dacian Wars, abandoned his predecessor’s policy of expansion and concentrated on consolidating the empire’s existing borders. But despite his image as a peacemaker, he put down the Jewish revolt led by the self-declared messiah Bar Kokhba (132-135) with resolute savagery, refounding Jerusalem as a pagan military colony. Hadrian, too, left his monumental mark on Rome, most prominently in the Pantheon and his mausoleum, now Castel Sant’Angelo.
Of all these emperors, Marcus Aurelius, thanks to his “Meditations,” has gone down in history as the ideal Roman philosopher-emperor. Yet his contemporary public image in art remained that of the warrior, as can be seen in the busts and reliefs in a subsequent section of the exhibition of “Historical Reliefs,” which continues the theme of this art as propaganda.
The reliefs lead on to the circular hall that is now the home of the magnificent gilded bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, as the armor-clad victor over the German tribes. The victory is also celebrated on the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Piazza Colonna, which shows him leading his troops and includes scenes of the massacre of prisoners and of violence being inflicted on women and children.
This bellicose imagery, so ubiquitous in the Trajan Forum as to turn it into a kind of Dacian War theme park, was not confined to the official depiction of emperors and their deeds, as is illustrated in a parallel section in the first room of the exhibition on “The Language of Art.”
Tumultuous battle scenes became popular on sarcophagi during this period. There are three examples here, all revolving around the crushing of mythical and actual barbarian tribes.
The second century saw a progressive shift away from cremation in favor of burial (and interment in sarcophagi for those who could afford it), perhaps in imitation of Hellenistic practices. As the last section of the exhibition, entitled “Tombs,” demonstrates, this is a trend that encouraged more elaborate sepulchers and also had the fortuitous effect of enriching posterity’s knowledge of various aspects of Roman everyday life.
This section opens with the famous sarcophagus, remains and grave goods of the teenage girl Crepereia Tryphaena, unearthed close to the Tiber in 1889. She was not only buried with her own jewelry, including a precious brooch with an engraved amethyst cameo, a gold necklace with beryl pendants, pearl earrings and a gold engagement or wedding ring, but also an exquisitely fashioned ivory doll with articulated limbs.
Crepereia’s body was placed on her side, with her head inclined toward the doll. Along with this lovely plaything were buried the doll’s miniature clothes, necklace, earrings and other jewelry as well as tiny combs, mirrors and a little jewel case, faced in ivory and bone. The doll’s minutely carved hairstyle is a meticulously realized version of one made fashionable by the Emperor Antoninus Pius’s wife Faustina Major and their daughter Faustina Minor.
Crepereia’s family name indicates that they were freed slaves, perhaps originally from Syria or Egypt, but they had clearly risen in the ranks and were likely attached in some way to the emperor since the tomb was within the estate of an imperial villa. The luxury doll (probably made in Alexandria) and expensive jewelry also indicate the family’s prosperity.
But as some of the subsequent sarcophagi and funerary panels show, monuments also preserved information about more humble classes. One panel here has a vivid relief of a Roman butcher shop. Another pair of reliefs gives two scenes of a deceased artisan’s life: one of him at his anvil and another in an apron behind the counter of his shop, proudly displaying for sale an array of the metal tools he had manufactured.
Roman Season Sarcophagus with Portrait - History
Christ among His Apostles, Catacomb of Domitilla, early fourth century.
Christ and the Apostles in the Heavenly Jerusalem, apse mosaic, early fifth century, Rome, Santa Pudenziana.
Two important moments played a critical role in the development of early Christianity. The first was the decision of the Apostle Paul to spread Christianity beyond the Jewish communities of Palestine into the Greco-Roman world, and the second was the moment when the Emperor Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century accepted Christianity and became its patron. The creation and nature of Christian art were directly impacted by these moments.
As implicit in the names of his Epistles, Paul spread Christianity to the Greek and Roman cities of the ancient Mediterranean world. In cities like Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, and Rome, Paul encountered the religious and cultural experience of the Greco Roman world. This encounter played a major role in the formation of Christianity. Christianity in its first three centuries was one of a large number of mystery religions that flourished in the Roman world. Religion in the Roman world was divided between the public, inclusive cults of civic religions and the secretive, exclusive mystery cults. The emphasis in the civic cults was on the customary practices especially of sacrifices. Since the early history of the polis or city state in Greek culture, the public cults played an important role in defining civic identity. Rome as it expanded and assimilated more peoples continued to use the public religious experience to define the identity of being a citizen in the Roman world. The polytheism of the Romans allowed it to assimilate the Gods of the people it conquered. Thus for the Emperor Hadrian when he created the Pantheon in the early second century, the building's dedication to all the gods signified the Roman ambition of bringing cosmos or order to the gods just as the peoples are brought into political order through the spread of Roman imperial authority. The order of Roman authority on earth is a reflection of the divine cosmos.
For most adherents of mystery cults there was no contradiction in participating in both the public cults and a mystery cult. The different religious experiences appealed to different aspects of life. In contrast to the civic identity which was at the focus of the public cults, the mystery religions appealed to the participant's concerns for personal salvation. The mystery cults focused on a central mystery that would only be known by those who had become initiated into the teachings of the cult. These are characteristics Christianity shares with numerous other mystery cults. In early Christianity emphasis is placed on Baptism which marked the initiation of the convert into the secrets or mysteries of the faith. The Christian emphasis on the belief in salvation and an after life is consistent with the other mystery cults. The monotheism of Christianity, though, was a crucial difference from the other cults. The refusal of the early Christians to participate in the civic cults due to their monotheistic beliefs lead to their persecution. Christians were seen as anti-social.
The beginnings of an identifiable Christian art can be traced to the end of the second century and the beginning of the third century. Considering the Old Testament prohibitions against graven images, it is important to consider why Christian art developed in the first place. The use of images will be a continuing issue in the history of Christianity. The best explanation for the emergence of Christian art in the early church is due to the important role images played in Greco-Roman culture. As Christianity gained converts, these new Christians had been brought up on the value of images in their previous cultural experience and they wanted to continue this in their Christian experience. For example, there was a change in burial practices in the Roman world away from cremation to inhumation. Outside the city walls of Rome, adjacent to major roads, catacombs were dug into the ground to bury the dead. Families would have chambers or cubicula dug to bury their members. Wealthy Romans would also have sarcophagi or marble tombs carved for their burial. The Christian converts wanted the same things. Christian catacombs were dug frequently adjacent to non-Christian ones, and sarcophagi with Christian imagery were apparently popular with the richer Christians.
Jonah Vomited from the Whale, Third century, Rome, Catacomb of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter.
Three Hebrews in the Furnace, mid-third century, Rome, Catacomb of Priscilla.
Moses Striking the Rock in the Desert and the Curing of the Paralytic.
A striking aspect of the Christian art of the third century is the absence of the imagery that will dominate later Christian art. We do not find in this early period images of the Nativity, Crucifixion, or Resurrection of Christ for example. This absence of direct images of the life of Christ is best explained by the status of Christianity as a mystery religion. The story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection would be part of the secrets of the cult. While not directly representing these central Christian images, the theme of death and resurrection was represented through a series of images many of which were derived from the Old Testament that echoed the themes. For example the story of Jonah being swallowed by a great fish and then after spending three days and three nights in the belly of the beast is vomitted out on dry ground was seen by early Christians as an anticipation or prefiguration of the story of Christ's own death and resurrection. Images of Jonah along with those of Daniel in the Lion's Den, the Three Hebrews in the Firey Furnace, Moses Striking the Rock, among others are widely popular in the Christian art of the third century both in paintings and on sarcophagi. All of them can be seen to allegorically allude to the principal narratives of the life of Christ. The common subject of salvation echoes the major emphasis in the mystery religions on personal salvation. The appearance of these subjects frequently adjacent to each other in the catacombs and sarcophagi can be read as a visual litany: save me Lord as you have saved Jonah from the belly of the great fish, save me Lord as you have saved the Hebrews in the desert, save me Lord as you have saved Daniel in the Lion's den, etc. One can imagine how early Christians who were rallying around the nascent religious authority of the Church against the regular threats of persecution by imperial authority would find meaning in the story of Moses of striking the rock to provide water for the Israelites fleeing the authority of the Pharaoh on their exodus to the Promissed Land.
One of the major differences between Christianity and the public cults was the central role faith plays in Christianity and the importance orthodox beliefs. The history of the early Church is marked by the struggle to establish a canonical set of texts and the establishment of orthodox doctrine. Questions about the nature of the Trinity and Christ would continue to challenge religious authority. Within the civic cults there were no central texts and there were no orthodox doctrinal positions. The emphasis was on maintaining customary traditions. One accepted the existence of the gods, but there was no emphasis on belief in the gods. The Christian emphasis on orthodox doctrine has its closest parallels in the Greek and Roman world to the role of philosophy. Schools of philosophy centered around the teachings or doctrines of a particular teacher. The schools of philosophy proposed specific conceptions of reality. Ancient philosophy was influential in the formation of Christian theology. For example the opening of the Gospel of John, which begins "In the beginning was the word and the word was with God. " is unmistakeably based on the idea of the "logos"going back to the philosophy of Heraclitus (ca. 535-475 BCE). Christian apologists like Justin Martyr writing in the second century understood Christ as the Logos or the Word of God who served as an intermediary between God and the World.
Christ among His Apostles, Catacomb of Domitilla, early fourth century.
An early representation of Christ found in the Catacomb of Domitilla shows the figure of Christ flanked by a group of his disciples or students. Those experienced with later Christian imagery might mistake this for an image of the Last Supper, but instead this image does not tell any story. It conveys rather the idea that Christ is the true teacher. Christ draped in classical garb holds a scroll in his left hand while his right hand is outstretched in the so-called ad locutio gesture, or the gesture of the orator. The dress, scroll, and gesture all establish the authority of Christ placed in the center of his disciples. Christ is thus treated like the philosopher surrounded by his students or disciples.
Comparably an early representation of the apostle Paul, identifiable with his characteristic pointed beard and high forehead, is based on the convention of the philosopher as exemplified by a Roman copy of a late fourth century BCE portrait of the fifth century BCE playwrite Sophocles.
Sarcophagus, c. 270, Rome, Santa Maria Antiqua.
A third century sarcophagus in the Roman church of Santa Maria Antiqua was undoubtedly made to serve as the tomb of relative prosperous third century Christian. At the center appears a seated, bearded male figure holding a scroll and a standing female figure. The male philosopher type is easily identifiable with the same type in another third century sarcophagus, but in this case a non-Christian one:
Asiatic Sarcophagus from Sidamara, c. 250 A.D., Istanbul Archaelogical Museum.
The female figure who holds her arms outstretched combines two different conventions. The outstretched hands in Early Christian art represent the so-called "orant" or praying figure. This is the same gesture found in the catacomb paintings of Jonah being vomited from the great fish, the Hebrews in the Furnace, and Daniel in the Lions den. While the juxtaposition of this female figure with the philosopher figure associates her with the convention of the muse or source of inspiration for the philosopher as illustrated in an early sixth century miniature showing the figure of Dioscurides, an ancient Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist:
Orans and Philosopher, center part of the Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus.
Heuresis and Dioscurides, from Dioscurides, De materia medica, before 512, Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, co. med. gr. 1, fol. 4v,
A curious detail about the male and female figures at the center of the Santa Maria Antiqua sarcophagus is that their faces are unfinished. This suggests the possibility that this tomb was not made with a specific patron in mind, but rather it was made on a speculative basis with the expectation that a patron would buy the sarcophagus and have his and presumably his wife's likenesses added. If this is true, it says a lot about the nature of the art industry and the status of Christianity at this period. To produce a sarcophagus like this meant a serious commitment on the part of the maker. The expense of the stone and the time taken to carve it were considerable. A craftsman would not have made a commitment like this without a sense of certainty that someone would purchase it.
Jonah under the vine, left side of the Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus.
Sarcophagus with myth of Endymion, second century, New York, Metropolitan Museum.
On the left hand side is represented Jonah sleeping under the ivy after being vomited from the great fish shown on the left. The pose of the reclining Jonah with his arm over his head is based on the figure of the sleeping figure conventional in Greek and Roman art. A popular subject of non-Christian sarcophagi was the sleeping figure of Endymion being approached by Selene. Endymion's wish to sleep for ever and thus ageless and immortal explains the popularity of this subject on non Christian sarcophagi. A third century sarcophagus in the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows Endymion in the same pose as Jonah on the Santa Maria Antiqua sarcophagus.
Good Shepherd and Baptism of Christ, right side of the Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus.
On the right hand side of the Santa Maria Antiqua sarcophagus appears another popular Early Christian image, the Good Shepherd. While echoing the New Testament parable of the Good Shepherd and the Psalms of David, the motif had clear parallels in Greek and Roman art, going back at least to Archaic Greek art as exemplified by the so-called Moschophoros, or calf-bearer, from the early sixth century BCE.
On the very right appears an image of the Baptism of Christ. This relatively rare representation of Christ is included probably to refer to the importance of the sacrament of Baptism which signified death and rebirth into a new Christian life.
By the beginning of the fourth century Christianity was a growing mystery religion in the cities of the Roman world. It was attracting converts from different social levels. Christian theology and art was enriched through the cultural interaction with the Greco-Roman world. But Christianity would be radically transformed through the actions of a single man. In 312, the Emperor Constantine defeated his principal rival Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Accounts of the battle, describe how Constantine had seen a sign in the heavens portending his victory. Eusebius, Constantine's principal biographer, describes the sign as the Chi Rho, the first two letters in the Greek spelling of the name Christos. After that victory Constantine became the principal patron of Christianity. In 313 he issued the Edict of Milan which granted religious toleration. Although Christianity would not become the official religion of Rome until the end of the fourth century, Constantine's imperial sanction of Christianity transformed its status and nature. Neither imperial Rome or Christianity would be the same after this moment. Rome would become Christian, and Christianity would take on the aura of imperial Rome.
The transformation of Christianity is dramatically evident in a comparison between the architecture of the pre-Constantinian church and that of the Constantinian and post-Constantinian church. During the pre-Constantinian period, there was not much that distinguished the Christian churches from typical domestic architecture. A striking example of this is presented by a Christian community house, from the Syrian town of Dura-Europos. Here a typical has been adapted to the needs of the congregation. A wall was taken down to combine two rooms. This was undoubtedly the room for services. It is significant that the most elaborate aspect of the house is the room designed as a baptistry. This reflects the importance of the sacrament of Baptism to initiate new members into the mysteries of the faith. Otherwise this building would not stand out from the other houses. This domestic architecture obviously would not meet the needs of Constantine's architects.
Emperors for centuries had been responsible for the construction of temples throughout the Roman Empire. We have already observed the role of the public cults in defining one's civic identity, and Emperors understood the construction of temples as testament to their pietas, or respect for the customary religious practices and traditions. So it was natural for Constantine to want to construct edifices in honor of Christianity. He built churches in Rome including the Church of St. Peter he built churches in the Holy Land, most notably the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and he built churches in his newly constructed capital of Constantinople.
In creating these churches, Constantine and his architects confronted a major challenge: what should be the physical form of the church? Clearly the traditional form of the Roman temple would be inappropriate both from associations with pagan cults but also from the difference in function. Temples served as treasuries and dwellings for the cult sacrifices occurred on outdoor altars with the temple as a backdrop. This meant that Roman temple architecture was largely an architecture of the exterior. Since Christianity was a mystery religion that demanded initiation to participate in religious practices, Christian architecture put greater emphasis on the interior. The Christian churches needed large interior spaces to house the growing congregations and to mark the clear separation of the faithful from the unfaithful. At the same time, the new Christian churches needed to be visually meaningful. The buildings needed to convey the new authority of Christianity. These factors were instrumental in the formulation during the Constantinian period of an architectural form that would become the core of Christian architecture to our own time: the Christian Basilica.
The basilica was not a new architectural form. The Romans had been building basilicas in their cities and as part of palace complexes for centuries. A particularly lavish one was the so-called Basilica Ulpia constructed as part of the Forum of the Emperor Trajan in the early second century, but most Roman cities would have one. Basilicas had diverse functions but essentially they served as formal public meeting places. One of the major functions of the basilicas was as a site for law courts. These were housed in an architectural form known as the apse. In the Basilica Ulpia, these semi-circular forms project from either end of the building, but in some cases, the apses would project off of the length of the building. The magistrate who served as the representative of the authority of the Emperor would sit in a formal throne in the apse and issue his judgments. This function gave to the basilicas an aura of political authority.
Interior of the Palace Basilica, ca. 305-310, Trier.
Basilicas also served as audience halls as a part of imperial palaces. A well-preserved example is found in the northern German town of Trier. Constantine built a basilica as part of a palace complex in Trier which served as his northern capital. Although a fairly simple architectural form and now stripped of its original interior decoration, the basilica must have been an imposing stage for the emperor. Imagine the emperor dressed in imperial regalia marching up the central axis as he makes his dramatic adventus or entrance along with other members of his court. This space would have humbled an emissary who approached the enthroned emperor seated in the apse.
Interior of the Church of Santa Sabina, fifth century, Rome.
It is this category of building that Constantine's architects adapted to serve as the basis for the new churches. The original Constantinian buildings are now known only in plan, but an examination of a still extant early fifth century Roman basilica, the Church of Santa Sabina, helps us to understand the essential characteristics of the early Christian basilica. Like the Trier basilica, the Church of Santa Sabina has a dominant central axis that leads from the entrance to the apse, the site of the altar. This central space is known as the nave, and is flanked on either side by side aisles. The architecture is relatively simple with a wooden, truss roof. The wall of the nave is broken by clerestory windows that provide direct lighting in the nave. The wall does not contain the traditional classical orders articulated by columns and entablatures. Now plain, the walls apparently originally were decorated with mosaics. This interior would have had a dramatically different effect than the classical building. As exemplified by the interior of the Pantheon constructed in the second century by the Emperor Hadrian, the wall in the classical building was broken up into different levels by the horizontals of the entablatures. The columns and pilasters form verticals that tie together the different levels. Although this decor does not physically support the load of the building, the effect is to visualize the weight of the building. The thickness of the classical decor adds solidity to the building. In marked contrast, the nave wall of Santa Sabina has little sense of weight. The architect was particularly aware of the light effects in an interior space like this. The glass tiles of the mosaics would create a shimmering effect and the walls would appear to float. Light would have been understood as a symbol of divinity. Light was a symbol for Christ. The emphasis in this architecture is on the spiritual effect and not the physical. The opulent effect of the interior of the original Constantinian basilicas is brought out in a Spanish pilgrims description of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem:
The decorations are too marvelous for words. All you can see is gold, jewels and silk. You simply cannot imagine the number and sheer weight of the candles, tapers, lamps and everything else they use for the services. They are beyond description, and so is the magnificent building itself. It was built by Constantine and. was decorated with gold, mosaic, and precious marble, as much as his empire could provide.
Exterior of the Church of Santa Sabina, fifth century, Rome.
Another striking contrast to the traditional classical building is evident in looking at the exterior of Santa Sabina. The classical temple going back to Greek architecture had been an architecture of the exterior articulated by the classical orders, while the exterior of the church of Santa Sabina is a simple, unarticulated, brick wall. This reflects the shift to an architecture of the interior.
Christ and the Apostles in the Heavenly Jerusalem, apse mosaic, early fifth century, Rome, Santa Pudenziana.
Missorium of Theodosius, 388, Madrid, Academia de la Historia.
The opulent interior of the Constantinian basilicas would have created an effective space for increasingly elaborate rituals. Influenced by splendor of the rituals associated with the emperor, the liturgy placed emphasis on the dramatic entrances and the stages of the rituals. The introit or entrance of the priest into the church was influenced by the adventus or arrival of the emperor. The culmination of the entrance and the focal point of the architecture was the apse. It was here that the sacraments would be performed, and it would be here that the priest would proclaim the word. In Roman civic and imperial basilicas, the apse had been the seat of authority. In the civic basilicas this is where the magistrate would sit adjacent to an imperial image and dispense judgment. In the imperial basilicas, the emperor would be enthroned. These associations with authority made the apse a suitable stage for the Christian rituals. The priest would be like the magistrate proclaiming the word of a higher authority. A late fourth century mosaic in the apse of the Roman church of Santa Pudenziana visualizes this. We see in this image a dramatic transformation in the conception of Christ from the pre-Constantinian period. In the Santa Pudenziana mosaic, Christ is shown in the center seated on a jewel encrusted throne. He wears a gold toga with purple trim, both colors associated with imperial authority. His right hand is extended in the ad locutio gesture conventional in imperial representations. Holding a book in his right hand, Christ is shown proclaiming the word. This is dependent on another convention of Roman imperial art of the so-called traditio legis, or the handing down of the law. A silver plate made for the Emperor Theodosius in 388 to mark the tenth anniversary of his accession to power shows the Emperor in the center handing down the scroll of the law. Notably the Emperor Theodosius is shown with a halo much like the figure of Christ. While the halo would become a standard convention in Christian art to demarcate sacred figures, the origins of this convention can be found in imperial representations like the image of Theodosius. Behind the figure of Christ appears an elaborate city. In the center appears a hill surmounted by a jewel encrusted Cross. This identifies the city as Jerusalem and the hill as Golgotha, but this is not the earthly city but rather the heavenly Jerusalem. This is made clear by the four figures seen hovering in the sky around the cross. These are identifiable as the four beasts that are described as accompanying the lamb in the Book of Revelation. The winged man, the winged lion, the winged ox, and the eagle became in Christian art symbols for the Four Evangelists, but in the context of the Santa Pudenziana mosaic, they define the realm as outside earthly time and space or as the heavenly realm. Christ is thus represented as the ruler of the heavenly city. The cross has become a sign the triumph of Christ. This mosaic finds a clear echo in the following excerpt from the writings of the early Christian theologian, St. John Chrysostom:
You will see the king, seated on the throne of that unutterable glory, together with the angels and archangels standing beside him, as well as the countless legions of the ranks of the saints. This is how the Holy City appears. In this city is towering the wonderful and glorious sign of victory, the cross, the victory booty of Christ, the first fruit of our human kind, the spoils of war of our king.
The language of this passage shows the unmistakable influence of the Roman emphasis on triumph. The Cross is characterized as a trophy or victory monument. Christ is conceived of as a warrior king. The order of the heavenly realm is characterized as like the Roman army divided up into legions. Both the text and mosaic reflect the transformation in the conception of Christ. These document the merging of Christianity with Roman imperial authority.
It is this aura of imperial authority that distinguishes the Santa Pudenziana mosaic from the painting of Christ and his disciples from the Catacomb of Domitilla, Christ in the catacomb painting is simply a teacher, while in the mosaic Christ has been transformed into the ruler of heaven. Even his long flowing beard and hair construct Christ as being like Zeus or Jupiter. The mosaic makes clear that all authority comes from Christ. He delegates that authority to his flanking apostles. It is significant that in the Santa Pudenziana mosaic the figure of Christ is flanked by the figure of St. Paul on the left and the figure of St. Peter on the right. These are the principal apostles. By the fourth century, it was already established that the Bishop of Rome, or the Pope, was the successor of St. Peter, the founder of the Church of Rome. Just as power descends from Christ through the apostles, so at the end of time that power will be returned to Christ. The standing female figures can be identified as personifications of the major division of Christianity between church of the Jews and that of the Gentiles. They can be seen as offering up their crowns to Christ like the 24 Elders are described as returning their crowns in the Book of Revelation. The meaning is clear that all authority comes from Christ just as in the Missorium of Theodosius which shows the transmission of authority from the Emperor to his co-emperors. This emphasis on authority should be understood in the context of the religious debates of the period. When Constantine accepted Christianity, there was not one Christianity but a wide diversity of different versions. A central concern for Constantine was the establishment of Christian orthodoxy in order to unify the church. In 325, Constantine called the First Council of Nicaea. The Christian Bishops were charged with coming up with a consensus as to the nature of Christian doctrine. This ecumenical, or worldwide, council promulgated the so-called
Christianity underwent a fundamental transformation with its acceptance by Constantine. The imagery of Christian art before Constantine appealed to the believer's desires for personal salvation, while the dominant themes of Christian art after Constantine emphasized the authority of Christ and His church in the world. Just as Rome became Christian, Christianity and Christ took on the aura of Imperial Rome. A dramatic example of this is presented by a mosaic of Christ in the Archepiscopal palace in Ravenna. Here Christ is shown wearing the cuirass, or the breastplate, regularly depicted in images of Roman Emperors and generals. The staff of imperial authority has been transformed into the cross.
Augustus of Primaporta, 13 BCE to 15 AD,
Christ Treading on the Lion and Asp, mosaic from the Archepiscopal Palace in Ravenna, late fifth century.
APA citation. Hassett, M. (1911). Portraits of the Apostles. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12294b.htm
MLA citation. Hassett, Maurice. "Portraits of the Apostles." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12294b.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Judy Levandoski.