1, 2. Two details from “The Triumph of Faith” by Filippino Lippi, painted in the 1480S for the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. The great Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas upholds the true faith, while below him the works of heretics lie discarded. The figures below Aquinas include the fourth-century combatants in the dispute, among them Arius and Sabellius, as well as contemporaries of the donor of the fresco, Cardinal Oliviero Carafa (1430–1511), the cardinal protector of the Dominicans.
Note Constantine’s church of St. John Lateran in the view to the left of Aquinas (top) with the famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, then believed to be of Constantine, which is now on the Capitoline Hill. For further discussion of the fresco, see chapter 1. (Credit: Scala)
3, 4. “There is one race of men, one race of gods, both have breath of life from a single mother . . . so we have some likeness, in great intelligence and strength to the immortals.” The poet Pindar, writing in the fifth century B.C., notes the contrasts and similarities between men and the gods in the Greek world. The Riace warrior (above), which forms part of an Athenian victory monument at Delphi (470s B.C.), represents man at his most heroic, almost a god in his own right, as the similarity to a portrayal of Zeus in a bronze of the same date (right) makes clear. This was the human world at its most confident, although the Greeks always warned of the impropriety of a mortal attempting to behave as if he were a god. (Credit: Ancient Art and Architecture Collection)
5, 6. By the fourth century A.D., such confidence has faded and human beings have become overwhelmed by forces over which they have little control. The gulf between God and man is now immense. On earth, the ascetic Anthony, here shown on the Isenheim Altar (above), painted for a monastery dedicated to St. Anthony in Alsace by Matthias Grünewald (1515), fights off a host of demons which threaten to overcome him (credit: Bridgeman Art Library). In the afterlife (left), devils drag unlucky souls down into hell from the ladder on which they are making the arduous ascent towards heaven (a twelfth-century icon from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai; credit: Ancient Art and Architecture Collection). It was perhaps inevitable in such a climate that creative thinking about the natural world would be stifled.
7. Marcus Aurelius (emperor A.D. 161–80) displays himself as one among his fellow humans. Here, in a contemporary panel (C. 176–80 A.D.) in Rome, he grants clemency to two kneeling barbarians (credit: Corbis). In his Meditations, much influenced by Stoicism, Marcus Aurelius stresses his optimism about the natural order of things. “Everything bears fruit: man, God, the whole universe, each in its proper season. Reason, too, yields fruit, both for itself and for the world; since from it comes a harvest of other good things, themselves all bearing the stamp of reason.”
8, 9, 10. By the fourth century the emperor has become quasi-divine, as the monumental idealized head of Constantine (above left), from his basilica in Rome, suggests (credit: Scala). Recent studies of Constantine doubt that he was ever fully converted to Christianity, but aimed instead to bring Christianity, alongside paganism, into the service of the state. His Arch in Rome (315) (top) shows no Christian influence, but one can see in the third line of the inscription the words INSTINCTU DIVINITAS, “by divine inspiration,” a use of terminology acceptable to both Christian and pagan (credit: Scala). In a coin of about 330 (above right), Constantine stands between two of his sons (credit: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). He receives a circlet directly from God, a symbol of divine approval of his rule, while Constantius is crowned by Virtus (virtue) and Constantine II by Victoria (victory). In Christian terms, Constantine sees himself as the “thirteenth apostle” and is buried as such.
11, 12, 13. By 390 Christ, here “in majesty” in the church of Santa Pudenziana in Rome (top), has been transformed from an outcast of the empire to one who is represented by its most traditional imperial images, fully frontal on a throne (credit: Scala). The setting echoes the portrayal of Constantine distributing largesse on his Arch (315) (above; credit: Alinari) and of the emperor Theodosius I on a silver commemorative dish of 388 (right; credit: Ancient Art and Architecture Collection). Note Christ’s adoption of a halo, hitherto a symbol of monarchy (while his beard echoes representations of Jupiter). On Christ’s left, Paul is introduced as an apostle, an indication of his growing status in the empire of the late fourth century.
14. According to the Gospels, Jesus was executed by Roman soldiers and offered no resistance to them. In imperial Christianity, by contrast, he himself has become a Roman soldier, “the leader of the legions,” as Ambrose of Milan put it. With no supporting evidence for this role from the Gospels, the Old Testament Psalm 91, which portrays a protective God trampling on lion and adder, is drawn on to provide the imagery. (A mosaic from Ravenna, c. 500; credit: Scala)
15. Constantine’s use of a military victory as the platform from which to announce his toleration of Christianity was a radical departure which defined the relationship between Christianity and war for centuries to come. The Sala di Constantino was commissioned from Raphael by the Medici pope Leo X (pope 1513–21). The early popes are shown alongside Constantine’s vision. Leo associated himself with the victory by adding the palle (balls) from the Medici coat of arms to Constantine’s tent; lions, a reference to Leo’s name, are also found on the tent, with another depicted on a standard. (Credit: Scala)
16. “Alexamenos worships his god.” Early Christians were ridiculed for their worship of a “god” who had suffered the humiliation of crucifixion. In this graffito of c. 200 from Rome, one Alexamenos is mocked for worshipping a donkey on a cross. (Credit: Scala)
17. Even in the fifth century, Christians themselves had inhibitions about representing Christ on the cross, as can be seen in this representation of Christ from the door of the Roman church of Santa Sabina (c. 420). (Credit: Scala)
18. An increasing stress on the sinfulness of the human race led to graphic portrayals of the appalling agonies Christ had to go through to redeem humanity. (“The Crucifixion” from the Isenheim Altar, 1515; credit: Bridgeman Art Library)
19. A further development in the medieval iconography of Jesus was to differentiate him racially from his fellow Jews and to stress their responsibility for the crucifixion by caricaturing them. Note the same differentiation of Veronica, who has just wiped Christ’s face with her veil. (Christ Carrying the Cross by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1450–1516; credit: Bridgeman Art Library)
20. The motif of the Good Shepherd had been known in eastern and Greek art for over a thousand years before it was adopted for Christ, as here (c. 300; credit: Scala). Constantine is known to have erected emblems of the Good Shepherd on fountains in Constantinople, and in his Life Eusebius tells how his troops mourned him as their own “Good Shepherd.” This is yet another example of how Constantine manipulated images to sustain consensus between pagan and Christian.
21. Traditional imperial iconography was also adopted as a setting for Christ’s life. On the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (359) in Rome, Christ is shown in the two central panels; in the upper panel, he appears in divine majesty ruling over the cosmos (in the same pose as an emperor is shown in a relief of 310), and, in the lower, entering Jerusalem, in a format also traditionally used for the arrival of emperors (credit: Scala). There were debates in this period over the relationship between the divine and human aspects of the emperor; here they appear to have been transferred into Christian theology, a forerunner of the great theological disputes over Christ’s nature in the decades to come.
22. While Christian art often drew on pagan imagery, it also developed distinctive themes of its own. In this sixth-century ivory from Ravenna, the emphasis is on Christ as miracle worker. The four major miracles shown are (reading counter-clockwise from top left): the Cure of the Blind Man, the Cure of the Possessed Man, the Cure of the Paralytic Man and the Raising of Lazarus. Below Christ are the Three Young Men in the Burning Fiery Furnace from the Old Testament. By the fifth century miracles had become the primary way in which a Christian “holy man” could show authenticity as one favoured by God; stories of miracles pervade the lives of the saints. (Credit: Ancient Art and Architecture Collection)
23. We also find an increasing adulation of sacred objects, icons and the relics of saints. Here the bones of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, are borne into Constantinople by the patriarch of the city and welcomed by Senate, emperor, Theodosius II, and, probably, his pious sister Pulcheria, in 421. By now Constantinople is a Christian city. An icon of Christ appears at the gate into the imperial palace (upper left) and spectators in the top row of windows of the palace swing incense burners. (Credit: Bridgeman Art Library)
24, 25, 26. Goddesses had been prominent in Mediterranean religion, and the Egyptian Isis, here shown with her son Horus (above left; credit: Bridgeman Art Library) in a fourth-century A.D. limestone statue, was one of the most popular. As Christianity developed the role and status of Mary, she absorbed many of the attributes and iconographies of these goddesses. By the sixth century the Virgin and child, often accompanied by saints and angels, as in this example from St. Catherine’s, Sinai (above right; credit: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin /Preussicher Kulturbesitz / Museum für Spatantlike und Byzantinische Kunst), is an integral part of Christianity. No one depicts the femininity, and motherhood, of Mary more exquisitely than Caravaggio (1571–1610), here in his Rest on the Flight into Egypt (detail, below; Ancient Art and Architecture Collection).
27, 28. However rigid the theological definitions of the church, the boundaries between paganism and Christianity remained fluid. In this mosaic from Cyprus (first half of the fourth century), the god Dionysus is presented to on-looking nymphs as “a divine child” (above; credit: Scala). Perhaps more astonishing are the representations of the Virgin Mary produced by the medieval Italian confraternities. Here the confraternity of St. Francis in Perugia shows her protecting the people from the wrath of her son, who is shooting arrows of plague to earth (left; credit: Ancient Art and Architecture Collection). In Homer’s Iliad, Apollo also spreads plague with his arrows, and the goddesses Hera and Athena intervene to calm his wrath.
29, 30. One of the major developments of fourth-century Christianity was the adoption of the pagan custom of celebrating God through magnificent buildings, many of them of great beauty, as the simple basilica of Santa Sabina (top) in Rome (c. 420) suggests (credit: Scala). In a lovely seventh-century mosaic in her church outside Rome (above), Saint Agnes has been transformed by her martyrdom into a Byzantine princess and set against a background of gold (credit: Scala). Two of the popes responsible for building her church (one of the most atmospheric in Rome) surround her.
31, 32, 33. Among the most prominent church builders was the emperor Justinian (527–65), here shown with his entourage in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna (top; credit: Scala). His most majestic creation was Santa Sophia in Constantinople, here (above left) in a watercolour by Gaspard Fossati (1852, by which time it had become a mosque; credit: Scala). The massive transfer of resources into buildings was justified by Christians on the Platonic grounds that they provided an image on earth of the splendours of heaven. Any sacred object could be encased in gold and jewels, as this ninth-century gospel cover shows (above right; credit: Ancient Art and Architecture Collection). Well might Jerome complain that “parchments are dyed purple, gold is melted into lettering, manuscripts are dressed up in jewels, while Christ lies at the door naked and dying.” These underlying tensions erupted, centuries later, during the Reformation, when vast quantities of Christian art were destroyed by the reformers.
34, 35. This diptych may well have been issued by the Symmachus and Nicomachus families as a memorial to the pagan senator Praetextatus, who died in 384. “He alone,” it was said, “knew the secrets of the nature of the godhead, he alone had the intelligence to apprehend the divine and the ability to expound it.” Here a wealth of traditional imagery suggests the resilience of paganism in the late fourth century. See chapter 15 for detailed discussion of the diptych. (Credit: Hirmer)
36. The death of Symmachus, the upholder of freedom of thought against Ambrose of Milan, is commemorated in traditional style in this depiction of his apotheosis (c. 402). He ascends in heroic nudity from the funeral pyre in a four-horse chariot and is then received into heaven. (Credit: Ancient Art and Architecture Collection)