Review of Graphic Signs of Identity, Faith, and Power in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

Here is a draft of a recent review I have written: enjoy!

This illuminating collection of essays surveys ‘visual media in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages (p. 5),’ from a variety of methodological angles and scholarly disciplines.

Larry Hurtado’s opening chapter reconsiders second and third-century Christians’ fondness for allegory and symbol. Birthed within the pagan Roman cultural system, early Christian symbols, such as the chi-ro and iota-chi, were adopted and adapted from earlier pre-Christian usage. The author concludes, that by utilising signs and emblems familiar to believers and non-believers, Christians could construct a community based on a unique, yet recognisable symbolic universe.

The fourth-century poems by Optatian—composed during the reign of the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine (r. 306-337)—serve as a pivot for chapter two’s look at the intimate connection between representational art and written texts. Optatian’s fondness for chi-ro emblems offered a newly converted Empire a symbol with a range of cosmological representations—Christian and non-Christian. Constantine indeed wielded christograms primarily as representations of imperial and military power. Yet, foreshadowing a more devout Christian Roman world to come, the authors observe a shift in Optatian’s later poems (according to some scholars, misattributed to Optatian) where the chi-ro functions to signify Christ’s, rather than the emperor’s, omnipotence.

Brent Brenk turns to the images found in the Notitia dignitatum, a unique Late Roman document, which provides an invaluable outline of the early fifth-century Roman administrative system. While some bemoan the text’s lack of focus on the individuals who operated within this organisation, as Brenk explains, ‘The document wanted to eternalize the institutions of the late Roman state, not its staff and servants (p.122).’

In an early Christian world, where the barriers between heaven and earth were more porous than today, David Ganz demonstrates that texts were more than just human ideas recorded with ink on parchment. Indeed, letters, words, and colours could act for their devout readers as conduits to the spiritual realm.

James Crow turns his eye to the use of graphic signs on late Roman megastructures, such as walls, bridges, gates, and aqueducts. While the use of Christian symbols on this infrastructure broadcast triumphal imperial and Christian ideologies, some symbols were positioned in places of structural weakness well outside of human eyesight. Therefore, as in the case of Constantinople’s main aqueduct, these hidden symbols of Christian power ensured ‘divine protection to the city’s vital lifeline (p. 165).’

Ine Jacobs stresses that we should not read cross ‘graffiti’, which adorns many pagan monuments and statues left over from late antiquity, as signs of Christian vandalism and intolerance, but as practical defensive devices. Feeling threatened by menacing spiritual forces, late antique Christians etched their symbols as protection against these pagan objects, which they believed were imbued with hostile spirits.

Following Jacobs’ pathway, Henry Maguire explains that late antique designs and decorative patterns displayed on a wide range of objects, which to the modern eye seem to be merely ornamental, instead offered their ancient owners’ articles ‘invested with supernatural powers (p 223).’

Caroline Goodson narrows her focus to Christian symbols found on mass-produced oil lamps. While some specialised lamps were designed for use by Christian elites in ceremonies, the bulk of lamps adorned with christograms were purchased by members of the regular population interested in being part of a wider pious community.

Christopher Eger scrutinises objects bearing Christian symbols with more specific links to imperial power: amulets, clothing, swords, cross-bows, and belts. Since these official badges of rank were worn by high-ranking members of the bureaucracy and military, one is not surprised to learn that they offered a reminder to their ancient audience that these individuals served under the auspices of Divine and imperial authority. Yet, the author offers a caveat, concluding that competing symbols, without specific Christian significance, remained a powerful alternative throughout Late Antiquity.

Unsurprisingly, it was during the reign of the monk-like emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-50) that we see the first use of Christian imperial monograms on Roman coinage. Ildar Garipzanov supposes that some may find it more surprising that this trend continued during the reigns of the line of soldier-emperors who followed the Theodosians. However, as Garipzanov explains, appropriating these powerful Christian symbols offered these mostly unpolished soldiers-emperors a means to accentuate their civilized Christian Romanitas.

The final chapter by Anna Muthesius inspects a wide-range of Hellenistic, imperial, and Christian images and motifs on Byzantine silks from the sixth to the eleventh centuries. Luxury items eagerly sought out by elites from inside and outside of Byzantium, silks offered a perfect medium to broadcast Byzantium’s long history and sense of cultural superiority. In an empire that cherished its Hellenistic, Roman, and Christian heritage, it should not surprise that a mixture of Christian and non-Christian images and symbolic metaphors spoke to this historic memory.

To close, as each chapter in this cohesive study reveals so vividly, to understand graphic signs in late antiquity and the early middle ages, one must first grasp the mentalities beneath.



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