An insightful art exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York City is providing answers to one of the central mysteries of Western civilization. How did Christianity evolve from a persecuted religious sect under the Roman Empire into a global faith and one of the world’s greatest patrons of the arts?
Transition to Christianity presents 170 rare artifacts from the third to the seventh centuries AD, many never seen before in the United States. These paintings, mosaics, sculptures, coins and sacred objects are the evidence for a great cultural awakening during an era often dismissed as the “Dark Ages.” Scholars now prefer the term “Late Antiquity” to show the continuity, rather than the breakdown, of civilization in this era. During this period, the early Christians borrowed and absorbed artistic motifs from the “pagan” religions around them to create a visual language for expressing their spiritual beliefs.
The earlier, negative assessment of this epoch chiefly derives from Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, dating to 1776. A landmark of English literature, as well as history, Gibbon’s “thick, square books” reflected the Age of Enlightenment’s low opinion of organized religion. Gibbon traveled to Italy as a young man, falling under the spell of the art and authors of the Classical, pre-Christian, period of antiquity. To Gibbon, the loss of this halcyon age could only be recounted in the terms of “decline and fall.”
Transition to Christianity tells a different story. Among the first works of art on display in the exhibition are large-scale mosaics which show how themes from pre-Christian art evolved into now-familiar depictions of Christ, the Virgin Mary and Christian saints.
This is readily apparent in the Personification of the Month of April, which formed part of a mosaic floor from Thebes in Greece. Ancient Greece and Rome extolled the virtues of “country living” much as modern societies do. Paintings and mosaics, like this exquisite work uncovered during the 1960’s, show the bounty of the harvest or the care of shepherds for their flocks. For Christianity, this image of a shepherd carrying a lamb had a different connation altogether.
Jesus of Nazareth, executed by the Romans around 30 AD, was venerated as the “Good Shepherd” who had sacrificed his life for the spiritual redemption of humankind. But the memory of Christ’s crucifixion was still a painful one to Christians for decades, indeed centuries, afterward. A more comforting portrayal of Jesus, as a boy or young man caring for a sheep that symbolized the community of Christian believers, was encouraged.
The motif of the Good Shepherd provided the first popular images of Christian art, dating to the middle of the second century. Appearing first as paintings or wall carvings in the Catacombs in Rome or other secluded places of Christian worship, these allegorical images of God’s care for humanity incorporated a hallowed incident from Greek mythology. According to a very ancient tradition, Hermes or Mercury had raced to the aid of the city of Tanagra to prevent a plague. On his shoulders, Hermes carried a sacrificial ram, earning him the title of Kriophoros or “Ram Bearer.” Frequently depicted in Greek and Roman art, Hermes Kriophoros was easily recruited for service under Christianity.
Images of the Good Shepherd, aka. Hermes Kriophoros, appeared in often surprising and disingenuous forms. The marble table leg, on view in the exhibition, shows a “Ram Bearer” figure who could be explained as Hermes Kriophoros to Roman authorities on the prowl for Christians during campaigns of persecution. Once the Roman officials had departed, the true identity of the figure, the Good Shepherd, could be appreciated with renewed vigor. It could also have served to represent the Good Shepherd to confuse Christian zealots seeking to deface or destroy examples of “pagan” art like Hermes Kriophoros!
After Christianity was recognized as the official state religion of the Roman Empire in 380, a number of Christian groups, notably monks in Egypt, changed roles from martyrs to persecutors. A magnificent head of Aphrodite, dating to first century Athens, bears the marks of Christian vandalism. The eyes and lips have been chipped to “blind” and “silence” the deity. A cross was then inscribed on the forehead of Aphrodite. Once part of a full length statue, the decapitated head may have served as a trophy for the victory of Christianity over the dethroned gods and goddesses of Olympus.
Another fascinating object on view in the exhibition is a copper plaque inscribed with the names of victors in the Olympic Games. Found during excavations in Athens in 1994, the date of the last champion to be recorded on the plaque was 385. Eight years later, Emperor Theodosius I, a tough Christian soldier from Spain, outlawed the Olympic Games.
The banning of the Olympic Games, like the later closing of the Platonic Academy in Athens by Emperor Justinian I in 529 have contributed to the scorn of later historians for the Christian Roman Empire. The eastern part of the Roman Empire, based at its capital of Constantinople, survived the downfall of the western half during the fifth century. Gibbon categorized the story of the Eastern Roman Empire as “a tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery.” Following in Gibbon’s footsteps, most Western historians have maintained a deep-seated prejudice against Byzantium, as the Eastern Empire is now almost universally known.
A number of the artifacts on display in Transition to Christianity reveal the reasons for the often high-handed actions of the Byzantine emperors. Surrounded by Germanic, Slavic and Persian enemies and beset by deep doctrinal divisions among Christian communities throughout the empire, rulers like Justinian I sought to enforce unity throughout an empire under almost constant siege. On view is a stash of gold coins from the sixth century, along with the ceramic jar that they were buried in to prevent them from being seized by invaders. Also displayed is a fragment of an inscription invoking God’s protection for the city of Amphipolis, located in northern Greece and a frequent target of barbarian attacks.
Under the Orthodox form of Christianity, which prevailed in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, the emperor was expected to play a major role in religious affairs. Constantine, the first emperor to embrace Christianity in 313, was revered as isapostolos or the “equal-to the-apostles.” His successors, especially Justinian, lavished huge sums on building churches like Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and for creating sacred objects to be used in these great basilicas.
On view is a surviving example of early Christian art from the fourth century, a glass bowl with gold leaf portraits of the Christian saints, Peter and Paul. This precious work of art is especially significant because such images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Christian saints were later depicted in portraits known as eikones. Created in a number of different media, including enamel and ceramics, mosaics, ivory carvings and textiles, as well as painting, icons assumed a central importance in Christian worship in the Eastern Roman Empire.
This image of Saints Peter and Paul, from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, allows scholars to study the origins of icon painting. Several of the famous painted portraits on mummy caskets at Faiyum in Egypt during the first through third centuries are also displayed in the exhibition. These portraits, painted in the encaustic wax technique, contributed to the development of icons. From these unlikely sources evolved the tradition of icon painting, the quintessential Byzantine art form and one still practiced to this day.
Icons are spiritual portraits, revered as ways to commune with God. Only one – and a fragment of an icon at that – is on view in this exhibit. If icons were cherished as portals to heaven, they were also denounced as objects of superstition. During a campaign of destruction by the puritanical military emperor, Leo III, 726 – 730, most of the early icons of Byzantium were consigned to the flames.
The icon on display was created in Egypt, most likely in the sixth century, and thus shows the link to the Faiyum mummy portraits. We know that is it a head of Christ because the expression “Emmanuel with us” appears in Greek on the left. An invocation in the Coptic language of Egypt is written on the right, “Brother Timotheos remember him before God twofold.”
Transition to Christianity is noteworthy for providing insight into the everyday lives of the people who experienced this spiritual transformation. Numerous objects from daily life, as well as religious ritual, appear in the exhibition. One of the most beautiful is the Marriage Ring of Aristophanes and Vigilantia, from the late fourth to early fifth century. A married couple appears in profile, with a cross above their heads. It was created by the intaglio process with the letters of their names in reverse. This ring thus had a practical purpose, enabling it to be used to create a seal on legal documents, perhaps the very marriage contract of the pair.
Pragmatism also extended to the creation of items like the ornate fourth century necklace from Cyprus included in the exhibition. Emeralds, garnets and pearls were set in six golden rectangles, making this an eye-catching symbol of opulence. Although this particular necklace no doubt graced a noble woman of the empire, many found their way onto foreign necks as well. Such lavish items were frequently bestowed by the diplomats of Byzantium on barbarian warlords, gifts to those willing to fight as mercenaries or bribes to keep them from invading the empire.
Small-scale art objects like the Marriage Ring of Aristophanes and Vigilantia are often difficult to display in art exhibitions. Inadequate lighting or the effect of displaying them side-by-side with a dozen or so similar coins or rings dulls the effect of their presentation. Not so in the Onassis Cultural Center exhibit.
The gallery of the Onassis Cultural Center is one of the most beautiful – and effective – exhibition spaces that I have every visited. The ground floor art galleries of the Onassis Cultural Center flank an atrium that is open to natural and artificial light pouring in from the first floor above. A cascading water feature and a fountain in the atrium complete the peace-enhancing effect. Some of the art objects are displayed in glass window settings, enabling viewers to appreciate the intricate workmanship of these small, precious treasures. The curators of the exhibition, Eugenia Chalkia and Anastasia Lazaridou, have enhanced this effect by displaying the art works in easily understood thematic groups.
Viewing these rare and often hauntingly beautiful works of art makes one wonder how the misconceptions about early Christian art and the role of Byzantium could ever have arisen. In the case of Edward Gibbon, he was unable to travel to Greece, still languishing under Turkish rule during the 1700’s. Later historians who did go were so overcome by “the pleasure of ruins” of the golden age of Classical Greece that they ignored the Byzantine era.
Significantly, it was a great British travel writer, Robert Byron, who first voiced a dissent to this Western bias toward Byzantium. Byron traveled to Greece during the 1920’s, the Greeks being impressed that he was a descendent of Lord Byron. He poured his close study of the archeological remains and surviving art of Byzantium into a number of thoughtful books, notably The Birth of Western Painting, published in 1930. But Byron was killed in a U-Boat attack early in World War II and his books on Byzantium went out-of-print. Little further progress was made during the post-war period, despite brilliant scholarship by Peter Brown of Princeton University and others, in correcting the ignorance in the popular mind of Byzantium’s cultural achievements.
Two dramatic events changed this deplorable situation to a remarkable degree. In 1977, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art showcased the art of Byzantium’s first centuries. The Age of Spirituality assembled art covering the same period as Transition to Christianity, but coming for the most part from the Metropolitan’s own collection along with loans from the British Museum, the Louvre and other Western institutions. Bryon’s views on the vitality and lasting significance of Byzantine art were triumphantly vindicated.
A decade later, the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe opened important holdings of Byzantine art to the inspection of Western art lovers. Russia, the Ukraine, Bulgaria and other Slavic nations had embraced the Orthodox form of Christianity thanks to the efforts of Christian missionaries sent from Constantinople during the Middle Ages. Byzantine culture had decisively influenced the rise of civilization in the Slavic realms and the art of Eastern Europe continues to reflect this heritage. Important works of Byzantine art from Eastern Europe were highlighted at major exhibitions such as The Glory of Byzantium presented by the Metropolitan Museum in 1997, followed by Byzantium: Faith and Power in 2003.
A related exhibition, currently at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, is providing a fascinating look at one of the major archeological sites of Late Antiquity, the fortress city of Dura-Europos in Syria. Edge of Empires: Pagans, Jews and Christians at Roman Dura-Europos is on view until January 8, 2012.
Transition to Christianity, 3rd to 7th Century AD at the Onassis Cultural Center helps fill in new details uncovered about Byzantium since the earlier exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum. Like these previous displays of Byzantine art, it is playing a major role in the ongoing rediscovery of this misunderstood ancient culture. The Onassis Foundation was established to commemorate the memory of Alexander Onassis, the son of famed shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis, and to promote the appreciation of Greek culture. Transition to Christianity succeeds brilliantly.
The final objects on view in Transition to Christianity also provide a link to a new exhibition on Byzantium being prepared at the Metropolitan Museum for the spring of 2012, Byzantium and Islam. They also provide a poignant epilogue for the efforts by the early Christians and the emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire to create a unified, harmonious doctrine for the Christian religion.
In 1902, a set of nine silver plates were discovered on the island of Cyprus. These silver-cast plates depict episodes from the life of the young biblical hero, David, later the King of Israel. The control stamps on the back of these plates date them to the early years of the reign of Emperor Herakleios (610-41). Herakleios was the tragic hero of the Byzantine Empire. His daring military campaigns saved the empire from a massive two-pronged Persian and barbarian invasion. In one battle, Herakleios killed the Persian commander in hand-to-hand combat, a deed that is symbolized by David fighting a bear on one of the silver plates.
After the Persians were defeated, Herakleios tried to be a peace-maker among the contending Christian factions. But his last years, ironically like those of King David, were marked by incredible reversals of fortune. His attempt to resolve the doctrinal disputes within the Christian Church failed dismally. Then, he was blind-sided by the sudden invasion of the armies of Islam. A hastily-organized force sent to oppose the zealous warriors of the Prophet was massacred in 636 and Jerusalem had to be abandoned. Herakleios made the fateful decision to save what could be saved, rather than risk a further defeat leading to the fall of Constantinople. He died heart-broken in 641, but thanks to him the Byzantine Empire survived for centuries to come.
Three of the David Plates honoring Herakleios appear in the Onassis Cultural Center exhibition. These exquisite works of art, particularly the one featuring the marriage of David to Michal, daughter of King Saul, reveal the extent of the amazing cultural synthesis that took place in Byzantium between the third and seventh centuries. Christian and Jewish theology merge with the artistic forms of Greece and Rome on the David Plates. In these scenes, we see powerfully expressed the spiritual aspirations and resilience in the face of adversity that were the true hallmarks of the Christian Roman Empire.
Appearing at the Onassis Cultural Center, 645 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10022:
Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd – 7th Century AD, December 7, 2011 through May 14, 2012
The Onassis Cultural Center is located in Olympic Tower in the heart of midtown Manhattan, at 645 Fifth Avenue, entrances on 51st and 52nd Streets, between Madison and Fifth Avenues. It is open to the public Monday through Saturday, 10 am to 6 pm, except Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission is free.