Tuesday, July 30, 2019


Robin Margaret Jensen, Mark D. Ellison (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art. London; New York: Routledge, 2018. Pp. 398. ISBN 9781138857223. $220.00.

Reviewed by Georgi Parpulov, University of Birmingham (g.r.parpulov@bham.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Anglophone readers who need a scholarly introduction to early Christian art are now presented with an array of useful options: the illustrated exhibition catalogue Picturing the Bible (2007), the three-volume Eerdmans Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art and Archaeology (2017), and the extensive Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology (2018). The work under review has the advantages of being more concise and more focused: buildings and other purely archaeological finds have been bracketed out, so that the emphasis lies squarely on visual culture. "Early Christian art", a special chapter (§ 23) thoughtfully reminds us, is far from a self-evident concept. To be sure, all categories of human knowledge are arbitrarily constructed—this particular one has a well-established pedigree.1 An overview of the field's nineteenth- and twentieth-century historiography2 is the only notable omission in an otherwise exhaustive survey. In Part I, the material is grouped according to medium and/or setting; the shorter Part II discusses select overarching topics, mostly pertaining to function and iconography (§§ 17-20).

The authors faced the familiar choice of either touching briefly on a large number of objects or discussing in greater depth a few typical ones: some opted for the first (§§ 2-4, 6-9, 11-12, 14), others, for the second approach (§§ 5, 10, 13, 15-16). The photographic illustrations, all in black-and-white, are by no means limited to standard textbook examples, so that even an expert will see something unfamiliar (esp. in §§ 3-4, 8-9, 11, 14, 20, 22). The contributors belong to different generations, ranging from recent university graduates to emeriti/ae, and are active in a number of countries: the USA, UK, Germany, Israel. The bibliography is up-to-date;3 the text has been edited with diligence.4

Like any good handbook, this one reflects the methodological approaches predominant at the time of its publication. The two editors state, respectively, that early Christian art is demarcated by its subject matter, setting, context, or use (2), and that "an object is conventionally called Christian by reason of its iconography" (385). All contributors seem to acknowledge "more or less uncertain stylistic arguments" (22) as a taxonomical tool,5 but artistic form as such is of no great interest to them. By and large, attention is focused on function, either practical or symbolic. Baptistery buildings exemplify the connection between art and ritual actions (97, 279-80); most gold glass was made specifically for funerary purposes (131); wall mosaics served aesthetic, didactic, or devotional ends (89); mosaic floors "helped to clarify the symbolism of the church building, explain the liturgy, and intensify the religious experience" (115). "Cluster[s] of popular visual motifs" (279) are related to specific contexts, so that, for instance, portrait types encode social and gender roles (27, 328), images engraved on gemstones mark an individual's status and religious beliefs (141), catacomb murals "express in different ways the multiple expectations and hopes for the afterlife" (32). Several chapters (§§ 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 21) draw on recent technical research to discuss the materials and processes of artistic production. Another recurrent concern is the original reception of images: "due to the interactive nature of the viewing experience, one should discuss not only the creator but also the viewer" (114). Inscriptions or ekphrastic texts are assumed to document the viewers' historically conditioned mental or physical responses (51, 96, 115-7, 277, 334, 360). Current thinking of this kind can be contrasted with Max Dvořak's of exactly a hundred years ago: "Altchristliche Kunst" is not a conventional label for an assembly of archäologisch nach den Realien gegliederte artefacts but a Totalität des geschichtlichen Geschehens informed by a distinct system of thought and corresponding to distinct set of aesthetic principles.6 One wonders how early Christian art will be viewed by scholars a century from now.

Authors and titles

1. Introduction: The Emergence and Character of Early Christian Art (Robin M. Jensen)

Part I: Media
2. Catacomb Painting and the Rise of Christian Iconography in Funerary Art (Norbert Zimmermann)
3. Christian Sarcophagi from Rome (Jutta Dresken-Weiland)
4. Early Christian Sarcophagi outside of Rome (Guntram Koch)
5. Freestanding Sculpture (Heidi J. Hornik)
6. Christian Wall Mosaics and the Creation of Sacred Space (Sean V. Leatherbury)
7. Christian Floor Mosaics: Modes of Study and Potential Meanings (Rina Talgam)
8. Gold Glass in Late Antiquity (Susan Walker)
9. Engraved Gems and Amulets (Jeffrey Spier)
10. Reliquaries and the Cult of Relics in Late Antiquity (Erik Thunø)
11. Ceramics in the Early Christian World (John J. Herrmann, Jr. and Annewies van den Hoek)
12. Panel Paintings and Early Christian Icons (Katherine Marsengill)
13. Christian Ivories: Containment, Manipulation, and the Creation of Meaning (Niamh Bhalla)
14. Textiles: The Emergence of a Christian Identity in Cloth (Jennifer L. Ball)
15. Early Christian Silver: Sacred and Domestic (Ruth Leader-Newby)
16. Early Christian Illuminated Manuscripts (Dorothy Verkerk)

Part II: Themes
17. Early Christian Art and Ritual (Michael Peppard)
18. Picturing the Passion (Felicity Harley-McGowan)
19. Miracles and Art (Lee M. Jefferson)
20. "Secular" Portraits, Identity, and the Christianization of the Roman Household (Mark D. Ellison)
21. The Mosaics of Ravenna (Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis)
22. Early Christian Art and Archaeology in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Rome (Janet Huskinson)
23. "Early" "Christian" "Art" (Robert Couzin)


1.   A pedant might wonder why § 16 discusses a number of secular manuscripts, incl. illustrated copies of Dioscorides, Terence, and Virgil.
2.   The best account in English is William H. C. Frend, The Archaeology of Early Christianity: A History, London 1996.
3.   The omission a few recent publications was probably unavoidable. It would have been useful to cite (363) Dreksen-Weiland's book in English translation (cf. 103); to list (206) Mathews' and Muller's recent monograph on early icons (cf. 390); to mention (101) Benjamin Fourlas, Die Mosaiken der Acheiropoietos-Basilika in Thessaloniki: eine vergleichende Analyse dekorativer Mosaiken des 5. und 6. Jahrhunderts, Berlin 2012, as well as (239) Petra Linscheid, Frühbyzantinische textile Kopfbedeckungen: Typologie, Verbreitung, Chronologie und soziologischer Kontext nach Originalfunden, Wiesbaden 2011. The citation in note 38 (238) should be corrected to "Byzance en Suisse (Geneva: Musées d'art et d'histoire, 2015)".
4.   I hope that I will be excused for pointing out a few infelicities: "funerary epitaphs" (4), "the walls of most Roman buildings have collapsed over the intervening centuries, eliminating our access to their decoration" (86), "[t]he physiognomy of the elephant's tusk determined the appearance of the objects made from it in terms of scale, shape, technique, style and finish" (207), "[t]rough decades of leadership, Byzantinist Gary Vikan has curated interpretation of the genre of early Christian pilgrimage art" (285), "[m]iracles additionally addressed the maladies of human existence that afflict the general population" (308).
5.   An ivory panel, for example, "has been matched" "[t]hrough its relatively flat abstract style" "to several other fragments in museums around the world" (216).
6.   Max Dvořak, "Katakombenmalerei: die Anfänge der christlichen Kunst," in: id., Kunstgeschichte als Geistesgeschichte: Studien zur abendländischen Kunstentwicklung, Munich 1924, 1-40. Dvořak's brilliant essay is hard to render in another language. For an English version of it, see The History of Art and the History of Ideas, tr. John Hardy, London 1984, 1-25.

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