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Instances of Appropriation in Late Roman and Early Christian Art

From: Essays in Medieval Studies
Volume 28, 2012
pp. 1-22 | 10.1353/ems.2012.0005

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Instances of Appropriation in Late Roman and Early Christian Art Beyond a tacit agreement that appropriation is somehow important, the ten brief essays comprising these "Notes" do not coalesce. The reader searching for generalizations comes away with echoes: repeated indications that appropriation has to do with possession, ownership, making-one's-own; with authorship, authenticity, originality; with repetition, imitation, copying; with propriety, morality, ethics; with the dynamics of power, resistance, subversion. The authors differ in their perceptions of these relationships and on the utility of appropriation as a critical concept. While Cordula Grewe finds analogies between late twentieth-century Appropriation artists and nineteenth-century Nazarenes "vital . . . [for] build[ing] more sophisticated frameworks for understanding historicism's modern qualities," Saloni Mathur wonders if appropriation has limited application because it "[might] somehow belong to [the] discussions that emerged during the 1980s and 1990s, to postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, and deconstruction." Lisa Pon maps appropriation and originality onto sixteenth-century concepts of imitation and invention, while Kirk Ambrose rejects appropriation as a tool for understanding medieval art because of its association with modern notions of individual authorship and creativity.

The associations with authorship and originality were cemented by the so-called Appropriation artists of the late twentieth century, who practiced appropriation as a means of cultural critique. Sherrie Levine's photographs of reproductions of photographs ("rephotographs") by the canonical photographers Edward Weston and Walker Evans were greeted by postmodern critics as a bold deconstruction of the patriarchal myth of authorship. Appropriation does not necessarily entail modern notions of authorship, however. Robert Nelson's classic essay on appropriation as a "critical term" of art history speaks of agency and acquisition rather than authorship; of semiotic distortion and second orders of signification; of the objects of appropriation as signs and of appropriation itself as representation. Nelson's adaptation of Roland Barthes' concept of "myth" enables the discussion of appropriation in medieval art without imposing anachronistic associations. Yet I also agree with Grewe that anachronistic analogies can be useful to the historian who wishes to recapture the original impact of artworks or movements that have been naturalized by the passage of time and art historical analysis.

Maria Fabricius Hansen's book The Eloquence of Appropriation, focusing on the use of spolia in early Christian church colonnades, offers abundant testimony from Latin authors of the fourth through sixth centuries (Augustine, Jerome, Macrobius, Cassiodorus, etc.) that appropriation was a self-conscious and much discussed practice vis-à-vis the great "storehouse" of classical art and literature as well as the Old Testament. Her sources cite many of the same concepts and concerns as the work of postmodern appropriators and their critics: authorship, imitation, conversion, subversion, assimilation, legitimacy, and the "appropriative loop" in which the qualities of the appropriated object are transferred to the appropriator. The same authors continued to be read throughout the Middle Ages and awareness of these issues would have survived then as well, at least in literature.

Hansen associates appropriation with the historical term translatio (transferring). In her account appropriation ("taking over") was a strategy whereby translatio was accomplished: "The use of spolia was only one particularly explicit manifestation of a practice of appropriation current in a series of civilizations . . . a practice consisting of a transference of power from the past through a taking over of its cultural expressions and incorporating them into one's own." The purpose of appropriation was to convert (convertere) the object of appropriation to one's own purposes; it was preceded by finding (inventio) the most valuable expressions from the past. Two books of Macrobius' Saturnalia are devoted to Virgil's borrowings from earlier poets, especially Homer, whose words he is said to have taken over (in opus suum . . . transferendo) and made to appear his own (fecit ut sua esse credantur). In Christian circles Augustine of Hippo famously urged his readers to take the treasures of the Egyptians (the pagan liberal arts) in order to employ them in "their true function, that of preaching the Gospel."

Hansen's argument is quite compatible with Barthes' description of myth and can be restated in its terms...

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