Visual Arts Directory
Visual Arts - Review Directory

Although after Constantine, all the most important architectural projects in Italy were Christian in character, not everyone converted to the religion, even after Theodosius closed all temples and banned all pagan cults in 391. An ivory plaque probably produced in Rome toward the end of the fourth century, strikingly exhibits the endurance of pagan themes and patrons and of the classical style. The ivory, one of a pair of leaves of a two carved hinged panels, may commemorate the marriage of members of two powerful Roman families of the senatorial class, the Nicomachi and the Symmachi, although this has been questioned recently. Here, the families seem consciously to reaffirm their faith in the old pagan gods. Certainly they favor the aesthetic ideas of the classical past, much as we find these ideals realized in such works as the friezes of the Greek Parthenon and the Roman Ara Pacis.

The illustration represents a pagan priestess celebrating the rites of Bacchus and Jupiter; the other diptych panel, inscribed with the name of the Nicomachi, shows a priestess honoring Ceres and Cybele. The priestess on the Symmachi leaf prepares a libation at an altar. The precise yet fluent and graceful line, the easy gliding pose and the mood of spiritual serenity bespeak an artist practicing within a still vital classical tradition probably was sustained deliberately by the great senatorial magnates of Rome, who resisted the empire wide imposition of the Christian faith at the end of the fourth century. An ivory panel over a century later in date than the diptych of the Nicomachi and Symmachi, carved in the eastern empire, perhaps in Constantinople, offers still further evidence of the persistence of classical form, although subtle deviations from classical rules are apparent here. The panel, depicting Saint Michael the Archangel, is one leaf of an early sixth-century diptych.

The survival rate of all works of ancient art is notoriously low, but nowhere is the lacuna greater than for the art of the book. The designers of the Old and New Testament narrative cycles in Santa Maria Maggiore and Sant'Apollinare Nuovo must have drawn on a long tradition of pictures in manuscripts that began in Egypt and was developed to a high degree by the Hellenistic Greeks of Alexandria. Thousands of texts, richly illustrated with Hebrew, Greek, and Christian themes, or with combinations of all three must have been available to the Early Christian mosaicists. We know that Constantine summoned numerous savants and literati from Alexandria, an intellectual center for both Jews and pagans since Hellenistic times and one of the great episcopal sees of the Christian church.

The dissemination of manuscripts as well as their preservation, was aided greatly by an early invention invented in the Early Imperial Period. The long manuscript scroll used by Egyptians, Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans alike was superseded by the codex, which was made much like the modern book, of separate pages enclosed within a cover and bound together at one side. The sacred texts were copied as faithfully as possible, as were the pictures in them.