Sunday, February 8, 2009


Ann Terry and Henry Maguire, Dynamic Splendor. The Wall Mosaics in the Cathedral of Eufrasius at Porec. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2007. Pp. 416; ills. 301. ISBN 978-0-271-02873-6. $95.00.
Reviewed by Benjamin Anderson, Bryn Mawr College (

In the middle of the sixth century, one Eufrasius, bishop of Istrian Parentium, undertook the renovation of the local episcopal complex, which included a basilica, a baptistery, and a residence. His most prominent contribution was a magnificent ensemble of wall mosaics decorating the basilica's three apses. The complex remains today, remarkably well preserved, in the town now known as Porec. It has always been known to specialists in late antique art, in particular on account of the mosaics, even if its fame is exceeded by the contemporary monuments of Ravenna.

The two-volume set under review, handsomely produced and furnished with a slipcase, is devoted to the Eufrasian mosaics, which the authors, Ann Terry and Henry Maguire, have examined thoroughly from scaffolding. Their primary aim is to present a more complete documentation of the mosaics' physical state than has previously been available, and to determine the extent and impact of two nineteenth-century campaigns of restoration. They furthermore advance a new interpretation of the mosaics' significance in their sixth-century context.

Many readers will be tempted to turn to the volume of illustrations first. The color plates include 196 interior views of the mosaics (photographs together with a few nineteenth-century watercolors). These are followed by exterior views, maps and plans, archival drawings and photographs, and comparanda. While enough general views of the interior have been included to convey a sense of the mosaics as a unity, there are a number of extreme close-ups that present themselves either as fragments (e.g. 118, "left foot of angel") or completely non-figural compositions (114, "lower portion of tunic of Zacharias"). These images, which support the authors' painstaking material analyses, mark a major distinction from older monographs devoted to mosaic ensembles, such as Paul Underwood's 1966 study of the Kariye Camii.1 Whereas Underwood's volumes were filled with close-ups of faces that aimed to elicit an emotional response, the details of Dynamic Splendor are documents that emphasize materials over effects.

The text is divided into six chapters. The first presents the evidence for the state of the mosaics before the restorations of the late nineteenth century, and the second addresses the physical evidence for the restorations, distinguishing between four major phases of mosaic work: one of the sixth century, one of the eighteenth century, and two of the nineteenth century. (An appendix separates the authentic from the restored throughout the entire ensemble.) The third chapter analyzes stylistic similarities between the Porec mosaics and several monuments in Ravenna in order to date the former, opting convincingly and uncontroversially for the mid-sixth century. The fourth chapter attempts to reconstruct the workshop structure and working techniques of the mosaicists. The fifth and sixth chapters, in a nod to Panofsky, address the mosaics' "iconography" and "iconology," respectively. A conclusion develops the concept of "dynamism" referenced in the title. The structure of the whole is a complete reversal of Underwood's study, which began with detailed accounts of iconography, and then turned, ever so briefly, to the technical aspects of the mosaics' execution. Like the volume of plates, Terry and Maguire's text places the primary emphasis on the materiality of its subject.

The reasoning behind this approach is lucid and simple. It is first necessary to establish which portions of the mosaic ensemble are authentic. Only then is it possible to interpret the sixth-century program. There is an asceticism involved in such a method that rigorously excludes all extraneous subjects from consideration: additional elements of decoration (the sculpture and the opus sectile have been documented in earlier studies by Terry, while the exterior mosaics remain difficult to access), architecture (the subject of Terry's dissertation), and the history of reception are all consistently bracketed and set to the side. The authors themselves describe their procedure as "analogous to that of editors of an important original text" (2).

Despite their reserve, Terry and Maguire advance a number of significant conclusions. The second and fourth chapters form the heart of the study, containing the authors' account of the distinctions between the four major phases of mosaic work and their reconstruction of the working methods of the sixth-century mosaicists. Their observations are set out in detail and supported by excellent photographs. Their reasoning is therefore both transparent and verifiable, and their conclusions and methodology will prove useful to similar investigations of other monuments.

In these sections the authors reach two major conclusions. First, the nineteenth-century restorations involved far fewer alterations of the pictorial content of the mosaics than has previously been thought. Second, the sixth century mosaics were set by a team of as few as two musivarii, who were highly skilled in the manipulation of their medium to achieve specific visual effects, and who worked with a clearly defined hierarchy of materials. This summary cannot do justice to the wealth of observed detail contained within these chapters. To give one example: the face of Eufrasius himself is composed of unusually small tesserae, many of them made from materials found nowhere else within the ensemble, and is marked by an unusually high ratio of glass to stone.

When the authors turn to the "iconological" interpretation of the mosaics, their focus remains on the details. An extended discussion is devoted to a censer and a casket carried by a figure of Zacharias on the north pier of the main apse. These objects are figured with the three children in the furnace and Susanna and the Elders, respectively. The three children are read together with three bands on an orb held by an angel on the central pier as "trinitarian symbols," while Susanna is seen as a "model for people falsely accused... of heresy." The authors connect these symbols to the Three Chapters controversy, in which Bishop Eufrasius was likely involved as one of the schismatic bishops of Venetia and Istria. The authors carefully avoid describing such details as propaganda, speaking instead of the "special resonance" that they might have had for Eufrasius himself.

The authors also advance a new interpretation of the mosaic that fills the semidome of the main apse. This composition is anchored by a central figure of the Virgin, enthroned, and holding the Christ child on her lap. To the right are seen an angel and three anonymous saints; to the left, moving outwards, an angel, Saint Maurus (an early bishop of Parentium), Bishop Eufrasius, and an Archdeacon Claudius. Between Claudius and Eufrasius stands the diminutive figure of a child: he is likewise named Eufrasius, and is identified by an inscription as the son of Claudius. Here too the authors discover "private" significance. Thus the image of young Eufrasius is a "prayer on behalf of a child" and has a "private character." Likewise the apse mosaic as a whole is "both public and private." Its public message is seen as the legitimation of Eufrasius through association with his saintly predecessor, Maurus, while its private significance is seen as that of a votive.

Dynamic Splendor may superficially resemble a traditional art-historical monograph, but as the comparison with Underwood makes clear, Terry and Maguire have in fact produced something quite novel. The difference consists primarily in their emphasis on the materiality of the mosaics. Just as textual criticism, with its devotion to the significance of the detail, shares a certain common ground with deconstruction, so too does this "materialist" approach reintroduce a sense of the oddity and irreducibility of its subject.

The priority accorded to production, moreover, forces the reader to conceive of the mosaic ensemble as a process, a series of gestures leaving a material record that generates a gradually proliferating set of interpretations and responses. This is something fundamentally different from older monographs, which had more the feel of iconographic lexica. The authors' stated assumption that "the anonymous artisans were responsible for transforming the ideas and concepts devised by the ecclesiastical authorities in Parentium into mosaics" (71) is partially contradicted by the more complex situation that they, in fact, describe: not the translation of ideas from a verbal into an artistic medium, but rather the production of meaning from a material basis.

Monuments are strange anchors. Built, thus the topos, to hold fast against the shifting currents of time, their apparent solidity is belied by their inherently collaborative nature. Their construction involves complicated negotiations between patrons, themselves often corporate, producers, and a multiplicity of audiences. Monuments are thus inevitably products of numerous shifting and often contradictory intentions. Even the simplest honorific monument will usually embody an ambiguous message already for the commissioner, who, as in the economy of Roman euergetism, might be a corporate body composed of the honoree's social rivals. More ambiguous still are the intentions behind complex and multifaceted types of monuments such as episcopal cathedrals, more pronounced the tensions that must be accommodated.

Terry and Maguire, with their focus on the Three Chapters, emphasize the historical tensions between north Adriatic bishops, the Roman episcopate, and the emperor. There are certainly parallel examples of this dynamic manifesting itself in the decoration of sixth-century basilicas. Thus, according to one interpretation, the imperial panel in the sanctuary of San Vitale expresses the priority of bishop over emperor in ecclesiastical matters.2 A more obvious case is the seventh-century panel in Sant'Apollinare in Classe which depicts the imperial grant of autocephaly to the see of Ravenna.3 However, these are both far more blatant interventions than the subtle and allusive symbolism discerned by the authors in Eufrasius's church. It must furthermore be said that Parentium, however impressive its cathedral, was still quite provincial, hardly a nexus of empire-wide power structures and struggles like Ravenna.

For this reason, I would tend to place a greater emphasis on the local social tensions involved in the construction of the church. In the fourth and fifth centuries many north Adriatic basilicas, including the earlier Parentian structures on top of which Eufrasius's new cathedral was built, recorded the names of numerous lay families on their pavements together with the number of feet of mosaic that each had funded. Over twenty such inscriptions are preserved from the "pre-Eufrasian" basilica of Parentium. By contrast only three donor inscriptions, aside from those of Eufrasius himself, are recorded for the sixth-century basilica. This decline may admittedly be exaggerated by the poor preservation of the sixth-century pavement, but it does correspond to regional trends in patronage.4

There is, however, one family that is still prominently represented in the Eufrasian Basilica: that of Eufrasius himself. Many commentators have concluded, on the basis of their facial similarities, that Bishop Eufrasius and Archdeacon Claudius were brothers. This hypothesis is bolstered by the homonymy of the bishop and the archdeacon's son.5 It is given further support by Terry and Maguire's observation that precisely the same facial type has been used for all three figures (94), although they do not express an opinion regarding the kinship of bishop and archdeacon. If they are indeed brothers, then the apse mosaic, whatever its private significance, had a blunt public message to communicate: one family is in control in the see of Parentium. This would have been reinforced by the contrast with the earlier, more explicitly collaborative, pre-Eufrasian basilica. That structure is indeed invoked in the inscription of the apse, where Eufrasius describes it as ugly and unadorned ("small, filthy, and lacking in glitter"). Such a claim might seem rather insulting to the local worthies of the previous generations. In short, if a fourth- or fifth-century church had been represented explicitly as a product of the entire congregation, the sixth-century church has become a monument to a single family, whose claim to power was validated through their prominence in the ecclesiastical hierarchy.6

Indeed, the omnipresence of Eufrasius within the basilica that conventionally bears his name (its earliest attested dedication is in fact to the Virgin and St. Maurus) is extraordinary. His monogram appears on the capitals, the lengthy inscription of the apse celebrates his activity as a builder, an altar celebrates his deposit of relics, and his portrait, as has been noted, was lent a material splendor unique within the ensemble. The sudden appearance of the living bishop in the semidome of the apse, a space previously reserved for those who already occupy heaven, is a characteristic phenomenon of the sixth century, and finds a parallel in Santi Cosma e Damiano in Rome. It is an intrusion far more remarkable, if far less frequently discussed, than the appearance of Justinian and Theodora at the lower levels of the sanctuary of San Vitale. In this context, Parentium becomes an unusually well-documented case study for changing trends in civic patronage and power structures in late antiquity. Its interest is increased by its status as a relatively undistinguished provincial town.

With the publication of Dynamic Splendor, Ann Terry and Henry Maguire have erected a monument of their own in honor of the Basilica Eufrasiana. It is marked by a powerful tension between material singularity and hermeneutic multiplicity, between the effort to fix the original form of a monument, and the recognition that its images "are rich and multivalent. They can be, and have been, read and interpreted in numerous ways" (127). It will serve many uses: as an object of aesthetic appreciation, a record of valuable research, and a thoughtful model for future monographs.


1. P.A. Underwood, The Kariye Djami (New York, 1966).

2. J. Engemann, "Die religiöse Herrscherfunktion im Fünfsäulenmonument Diocletians in Rom und in den Herrschermosaiken Justinians in Ravenna," Frühmittelalterliche Studien 18 (1984), 336-56.

3. T.S. Brown, "The church of Ravenna and the imperial administration in the seventh century," EHR 94 (1979), 1-28.

4. J.-P. Caillet, L'évergétisme monumental chrétien en Italie et à ses marges: d'après l'épigraphie des pavements de mosaïque (IVe-VIIe s.) (Rome, 1993).

5. Thus A. Degrassi in Inscriptiones Italiae X,2, p. 37; followed by the Prosopogaphie Chrétienne du Bas-Empire 2, s.v. CLAVDIVS 5.

6. A related progression, from "social structures based on extended kinship networks" to "structures forged from within the official hierarchies of the church and state" has been perceived in the representation of civic patronage in the central Balkans: L. Brubaker, "Elites and patronage in early Byzantium: the evidence from Hagios Demetrios at Thessalonike," in J. Haldon and L.I. Conrad, eds., Elites old and new in the Byzantine and early Islamic near east (Princeton, 2004), 63-90.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.