A couple of weeks ago at the IHR earlier Middle Ages seminar, we had some more art history, when we welcomed Eileen Rubery from the Courtauld to talk on ‘Papal Opposition to Imperial Heresies: Text as Image in the Church of Sta Maria Antiqua, Rome, in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries’. As her title suggests, however, this was not straightforward art history, but an attempt to interpret the meaning and political significance of some of the complex decoration of the church, a project which is made more difficult by the fact that the wall paintings are rapidly decaying, so that Eileen was having to make frequent use of early twentieth century artists’ copies of some key images.
Her starting point was the fact that in a pair of frescos on either side of the apse there are standing saints on each side holding scrolls with Greek texts (This picture from the Department of Archaeology Rome shows the place concerned (on the left), but not really the images).
The traditional art history approach has been to notice that one of these texts came from a florilegium prepared for a Roman synod in 649, use this to date the decoration and move on. Eileen was interested in the political and religious significance of this and the other three texts on the scrolls, and showed that they were all texts which were significant in the debate around 649 on monotheletism (the belief that Christ had two natures, but a single will), which the Lateran Council of 649 condemned. She was also arguing that small fragments of fresco on the outside of the Oratory of the Forty Martyrs (part of the church), which show bits of one of the four texts may indicate that some of the fresco images have been duplicated outside.
Eileen was tying this to a later (late C7 onwards) tradition in both Byzantium and Rome of producing depictions of church councils for propaganda purposes. To place an image of a council in the city atrium or in the church was to proclaim its orthodoxy and make its status known; to tear down such an image was part of rejecting the council’s authority. She saw the frescoes in S. Maria Antiqua as possibly the first known example of this tradition, although unusual in using texts from the preparation for the council rather than from the council itself.
We got into discussions of the audience and significance of the texts. Were the saints on either side of the apse intended to symbolically protect its orthodoxy, Eileen wondered? Did people actually go into that part of the church between services, so that it was a public display? If there was a similar display outside the church, was this intended for propaganda purposes, especially given the use of texts in Greek and the closeness of the site to the Palatine Hill, still the seat of the (Byzantine) administration? Was the church used as a ‘billboard’, given that the frescoes were probably painted over again within fifty years? Did processions into the oratory stop and read out loud the texts on it?
It was this last question, on the experience of such texts, that I found most interesting. My immediate point of comparison was the streets of Ephesus as described by Charlotte Roueché last year. You have two early medieval societies where the public display of quite complex texts is normal, in a way that I don’t think is comparable to more northern parts of Europe. You do have things like the Ruthwell Cross, but that a single monument, not a series of different texts in space, like Ephesus and its acclamation per column down a street. (The nearest non-Mediterranean equivalent would probably be the multiple tituli in some Carolingian churches).
But I was also wondering how passers-by actually responded to these texts and their spatial arrangement. Do they read it as they go by, some of it, all of it? Do they follow the logic of the arrangement? It got me realising how such an aesthetic experience is now relatively rare in the modern world. If you have texts combined with images, it?s usually on the pages of a book: you’re not moving past it. The tendency for billboards and other advertising is to cut down the text ever more (a comparison with magazine advertising even 30 years ago is revealing); the emphasis is now on the immediate visual effect. The only current comparison I can think of is, ironically, that of going round a historical site, with interpretation panels at each spot to tell you what to see. Was the public for such public displays possibly less the local citizens (who might soon end up just not ‘seeing’ them through over-familiarity) than visitors, whether provincials coming into the provincial capital or the pilgrims etc coming to Rome?