- The Art of Empire: Christian Art in Its Imperial Context ed. by Robin M. Jensen and Lee M. Jefferson
The Art of Empire brings together nine scholars to reconsider the relationship between Roman imperial and Christian art during the fourth and fifth centuries. Grabar and Kitzinger once argued that in the wake of Constantine’s conversion Christians abandoned the popular funerary representations of Jesus as a peaceful miracle worker and humble shepherd in favor of images that rendered Jesus as a powerful king. No longer dressed in plain robes and carrying a simple wand or scraggly sheep, this post-Constantinian Christ donned royal purple and golden garments and sat confidently upon a jewel-encrusted throne. With the imperial adoption of Christianity, these scholars argue, came Christianity’s adoption of imperial art, language, and ritual. Mathews was among the first to critique this widely accepted narrative. In his provocative study, The Clash of Gods (1993), Mathews argued against what he refers to as the “Emperor Mystique,” that is, the thesis that post-Constantinian Christian art adopted wholesale the style and iconography of Roman imperial art. He proposed instead that Christians sought to depict Jesus as superior to the most powerful pagan gods. While Mathews’s central thesis remains controversial, his work succeeded in sparking debate about the nature of imperial influence on Christian art.
The essays in The Art of Empire build upon Mathews’s work, offering critiques of his thesis while also seeking to extend his efforts to nuance our understanding of late antique Christian art within the context of the Roman Empire. After a brief introduction that situates the volume in relation to this past scholarship, Jensen’s opening chapter explores the relationship between imperial images of tribute, adventus, and apotheosis and Christian representations of the adoration of the magi, the entry into Jerusalem, and the [End Page 287] ascension. Jensen critiques both the traditional assumption that the Christian motifs simply adopted imperial iconography and Mathews’s argument that Christians looked to secular motifs such as the gentleman’s homecoming. Drawing on the writings of Tertullian and Leo the Great, Jensen argues instead that Christians presented Jesus as a foil to the emperor; they appropriated but subverted the iconography of imperial power, proclaiming that the reign of Jesus was “different from that of any secular ruler” (33).
Jefferson also explores the subversive possibilities of early Christian art, arguing that the traditio legis motif popular in the fourth century was a proclamation of ecclesiastical authority and not, as sometimes argued, an attempt to present Christ as an emperor. Jefferson argues that the motif highlights Peter more than Christ, emphasizing the apostle’s role as a new Moses and leader of the universal church. While Jefferson draws on a wide range of material, he does not allow for variant interpretations. This reader wonders, for example, if the traditio legis on the sarcophagi of aristocratic converts really had the same connotations of ecclesiastical authority as images commissioned for basilicas and viewed within the context of the liturgy.
Boin’s essay likewise focuses on Peter, suggesting that memories of Peter were used in the fourth century to excuse the integration of Christians into Roman society and, conversely, to argue for their rigid separation. Boin contends that the integration of Christian and mythological scenes in such mausolea as Rome’s Tor de’Schiavi reveals that the more flexible approach to religious identity persisted well into the fourth century, much to the consternation of bishops. Boin’s essay deals less with Christian art than the other contributions but his conclusion adds further nuance to the study of Christian identities in Late Antiquity.
Harley-McGowan’s essay defends Grabar against Mathews’s harsh critique, arguing that Grabar’s approach emphasizes the creativity of artisans who appropriated and transformed imperial motifs to fit Christian theological contexts. She demonstrates, for example, that early depictions of Christ’s victory over death relied upon the subtle alteration of imperial...