Sunday, June 3, 2018


Thomas F. Mathews, Norman E. Muller, The Dawn of Christian Art in Panel Paintings and Icons. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2016. Pp. 256. ISBN 9781606065099. $49.95.

Reviewed by Harikleia Brecoulaki, National Hellenic Research Foundation (

Version at BMCR home site


In late antiquity, both the nature of images and the treatment accorded to them generated deeply divisive debates. Portraits of human subjects were an accepted convention, but offering reverence to them might be controversial. Art historian Thomas F. Mathews here retells the story from the Acts of John about the apostle's rejection of the pagan-style honours—garlands, lamps, and an altar—given to the portrait secretly made of him, in gratitude for being raised from the dead, by the praetor of Ephesus Lykomedes. The third-century Platonist Plotinus, likewise the subject of a surreptitious portrait, went even further and questioned the very purpose and meaning of creating an image of an image: "Isn't it enough that I have to carry around the image that nature has clothed me with?" (Porphyry, Life of Plotinus 1). As for images of divine beings, Clement of Alexandria condemned the masterpieces of the sculptor Lysippus and the painter Apelles, leading Greek artists of the fourth century BC, as examples of a "deceitful art" that vainly seeks to emulate God's perfection (Exhortation to the Heathens 4). Nevertheless, the gods continued to be depicted both in statues and on movable wooden panels. Clement specifically mentions lewd paintings of Aphrodite "hung on high like votive offerings" in pagans' bedrooms. Comparison is unavoidable with the emergent Christian genre of the icon. It is to documenting and speculating on these resemblances and possible continuities that Mathews addresses himself in this elaborate and sumptuously illustrated publication from the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Assisted by the art conservator Norman E. Muller, Mathews proposes a revised history of the evolution of panel painting from pre-Christian and pagan art to Christian icons. Mathews explores the dependence of Christian iconography on models provided by pagan paintings depicting gods from a mixed Greek and Egyptian pantheon, produced from the first through the fourth century AD. The driving aim is to show that the cultic use of panel paintings was a continuous tradition from antiquity into Christianity. "Continuity" and "syncretism" constitute the book's leitmotivs. In the context of this ambitious project, Mathews strives to set up a "fil conducteur" linking the new evidence he unveils with the larger picture of religion and pictorial production in late antiquity, which he believes had a decisive impact on the future of European art. Overall this is a thought-provoking book, calling into doubt earlier established opinions regarding the beginnings of Christian art, the cultic role of icons, and the common belief that early Christian art assumed the format of models developed for imperial propaganda. The raw materials assembled in this volume, with a number of details displayed in high quality close-ups, will significantly assist the progress of future studies.

In his introduction and first three chapters, Mathews extensively discusses a corpus of panel paintings from Roman Egypt of the second and third centuries AD, which until their recent publication in Vincent Rondot's comprehensive monograph, Derniers visages des dieux d'Égypte. Iconographies, panthéons et cultes dans le Fayoum hellénisé des IIe-IIIe siècles de notre ère (Paris 2013), constituted "a no man's land that neither Egyptologists nor Byzantinists have wanted to enter" (p. 13). However, while Rondot austerely confines his analysis to pagan works and their polytheistic Egyptian theology, Mathews extends his interest into the Christian sphere. The first chapter of the book provides information on the sites of discovery and contexts of panels, also including the mural paintings in the chapels of Karanis and Theadelphia and in the Imperial Chamber in the Temple of Luxor. The majority of the panel paintings were found within the Fayyum, but other contexts (the great Temple of Horus at Edfu; the temple of Tutu in Kellis and the Dura Europos shrine to Tyche) also yielded more isolated and fragmentary evidence. In this chapter, Mathews includes the so-called Goddess in Mourning panel from North Saqqara, a small painting found in a dump, containing debris from domestic quarters. The Saqqara panel depicts an enthroned woman holding a sceptre, probably a goddess. The throne shows close affinities with the marble thrones discovered in Macedonian tombs and is perhaps to be dated as early as the end of the fourth century BC. It is the earliest example of panel painting found in Egypt, "as close as we can get to Alexander the Great's introduction of Greek painters into Egypt," and although it was discovered during the 1970s, it has never been properly studied. However, the iconography of the panel should be further investigated, considering its early date and the divine honours offered to the Ptolemies, from as early as the time of Ptolemy II and his sister queen Arsinoe II (theoi adelphoi).1

In the two following chapters, Mathews discusses at length the ancient custom of making votive offerings as an expression of private religious sentiment that reached Egypt from the wider Hellenic world. He scrutinizes the changes that occurred in the Egyptian pantheon through its progressive Hellenization and its assimilation of foreign divinities, for example the soldier gods Heron and Lykourgos, whom V. Rondot (336-40) has associated with Arab, probably Syrian, immigrants into Egypt. Particular attention is given to the group portrait with Septimius Severus, his wife Julia Domna, and his two sons Geta and Caracalla, probably dedicated in an Egyptian temple on the occasion of a family visit that took place between September 199 and April 200. According to Mathews, the panel was only cut down into tondo form much later. The original painting had acquired sacred status due to its dedication in the temple and to the syncretism of the Emperors Septimius Severus and Caracalla with Serapis. Muller gives a detailed description of the panel's technique, stressing the fusion of painting with drawing and the dense hatching of coloured lines to model the face.

Relying on the technical observations of Muller on a number of pagan Egyptian panels and their painting materials, Mathews suggests a continuity in artistic know-how and pictorial technique with Hellenistic painting traditions. He draws comparisons with the large-scale wall paintings from Macedonian tombs, dated to the late fourth and early third centuries BC. Although common features certainly exist in both the use of materials and their application between the pagan panels and their Hellenistic predecessors (artistic technologies developed very slowly in antiquity), it is equally important to set them against the much larger and contemporary corpus of mummy portraits, considering the recent revival of interest in their technological features.2 Mathews and Muller suggest that use of egg tempera was typical for the corpus of gods, while the encaustic technique seems to have been applied exclusively to mummy portraits, although several of them were also produced with egg tempera.3 While differences in subject matter may not necessarily call for different pictorial media and techniques, artistic aspirations regarding the mimetic reproduction of the human figure, be it mortal or divine, certainly affect the overall style of an image and produce different aesthetic approaches. With the exception of very few examples, such as the Septimius Severus tondo and the Harpocrates/Dionysos panel showing a skilful manipulation of form and colour, the pictorial representation of figures in the majority of Egyptian pagan panels is not particularly concerned with the modelling of flesh tones and realistic image making. Therefore Mathews' argument that both the paintings of the gods for private cultic use and the mummy portraits were commissioned by the same patrons requires further reflection, considering the fact that mummy portraits represent the elite ruling class, whereas pagan panels seem to be addressed to a rather illiterate part of the population, particularly widespread outside the metropolis of Alexandria.

Mathews' painstaking observations on the complex problem of door or wing panels from triptychs are particularly informative, and allow for a better understanding of problematic documents such as the Getty Museum doors in Malibu depicting Isis and Serapis. Mathews argues that the principal image in a portable shrine (or naiskos) was not its painted doors but the marble or bronze figurine contained inside, while the slight inclination of the hinge sides of the doors was intended to accommodate the shape of a naiskos, a placement which solves the problem of the gaze of the Malibu gods (111-15).

In order to further support the artistic and cultic continuity between the pagan and Christian images, Mathews attempts (ch. 4) to push the production of Christian icons back from the sixth to the second century, relying on textual accounts (in the works of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and the non-canonical Acts of John). Despite the debate over whether the Acts of John belongs to the second century or later, Mathews opts for the most commonly accepted chronology in the second century, and uses it as crucial evidence to support his argument in favour of the early use of Christian icons.

Antecedents of Christ's iconography and specifically of his radiant halo are to be found, according to Mathews, in the haloed divinities of the pagan pantheon, in particular Sobek, while the construction of the cult of Mary is also viewed in relation to the pagan background. Indeed, the iconographical scheme of Mary with her child can hardly be separated from the pagan iconography of Isis with Harpocrates. The iconography of Mary is thoroughly discussed in chapter five, taking into consideration that Mary already played a prominent role in the second-century Protoevangelium (consistently misspelled by Mathews) of James.

A convincing reconstruction of the early sixth-century marble templon barrier from the church of St. Polyeuctus in Constantinople, excavated in the 1960s by Martin Harrison, is proposed in chapter six. Although the iconography of the marble reliefs depicting Mary, Christ, and ten apostles has already attracted scholarly attention, Mathews proposes a closer iconographical reading and an alternative assemblage of the mutilated fragments, and compares their location with that of the figures of Mary, Christ, and the Apostles in front of the altar of Hagia Sophia, following Paul the Silentiary's description of the templon program. He stresses iconographic details hitherto unnoticed, such as the omophorion worn by five of the apostles – the earliest documented ecclesiastical garment, popular during the fifth and sixth centuries. He further suggests that the templon iconography of St. Polyeuctus "owed some debts to Alexandria" (p. 182), pointing to the exaggerated ears in both the figures of the apostles and the Egyptian gods in the pagan panel corpus.

The Egyptian counterparts of the Constantinople templon icons of Hagia Sophia and St. Polyeuctos are presented in chapter seven, together with an in-depth discussion of the decree of the council of Nicaea II in 787, the most important ecclesiastical document on the veneration of icons. Mathews gives a detailed account of the brilliant decoration of the recently restored church of the Red Monastery near Sohag, the largest intact sanctuary of Christian Egypt. Maintaining his thesis of artistic continuity from the pagan panels to the Christian icons, Mathews considers that the "faux" icons of individual saints in the Red Monastery belong to the same tradition as the surviving wood-panel icons from Egypt. His insightful interpretation of specific provisions in the canons of Nicaea allow some reconsideration of its correct meaning, as more focused on the cultic problems posed by the dedication of images, rather than on the philosophical problem of their nature.

One of the great merits of this book is that it includes information on the painting materials (pigments and binders) identified within the pictorial layers of the Egyptian pagan panels, discussed in Appendices A and B by Muller. Although a single chapter with a systematic presentation of the analytical results and their scientific documentation (spectra, chromatographs, microphotographs) would have been particularly appreciated, the discussion of the uninterrupted use of egg tempera from antiquity to the Renaissance in the last chapter of the book, as well as the acute observations on the rendering of flesh tones, the application of coloured primings, and mixtures of pigments, provide a significant addition to the study of historical painting techniques that will be of great help to future research in the field.

Three appendices (A: Pigment identification; B: Media analysis and C: Corpus of panel painting from ancient Egypt) are followed by an up-to-date bibliography and a general index. This book offers a penetrating and alternative view, replete with acute historical, philological and technical observations, of the history of the Christian icon from its origins in Egyptian pagan panels to its influence on subsequent painting traditions. Historians of Graeco-Roman and Byzantine art, Egyptologists, and historians of late antiquity are only a few of those who will derive much stimulation from this book.


1.   A. Chaniotis, "The Divinity of Hellenistic Rulers", in: Andrew Erskine (ed.), A Companion to the Hellenistic World, (Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell 2005), 431-445: 436-437.
2.   J. K. Delaney, K. A. Dooley, R. Radpour and I. Kakoulli, "Macroscale multimodal imaging reveals ancient painting production technology and the vogue in Greco-Roman Egypt", Scientific Reports 7, 2017 (doi:10.1038/s41598-017-15743-5). Through a J. P. Getty Museum initiative (APPEAR Project: Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis, and Research), a shared database was created in order to collect technical and analytical information on Graeco-Roman panel paintings from collections all round the world: APPEAR Project.
3.   C. Cartwright and A. Middleton, "Scientific aspects of ancient faces: mummy portraits from Egypt", The British Museum Technical Research Bulletin, vol. 2, 2008, p. 59-66.

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