3. Roman Art of the Late Empire Period (c.200-400 CE)
Christianity was not the principal cause of the artistic changes in Late Antiquity. Christianity was only one among many spiritual movements that started in the East and flooded the Roman environment with rites, cults and sects. Christian art did not make an impression as of something new - rather it was just one of the branches, and not the main one - of the art of the time. Instead of creating a new style or a new iconography, it made the necessary adaptations to Pagan traditions and drew on them.
These adaptations arose largely from the new
importance of the East and of the provinces in general in the life of the
Empire. The axis of Imperial policy gradually shifted to the East, and it
was there that the contests for power were often settled. It was there too
that political movements pressing for autonomy flourished, while on the
eastern frontiers the Empire's most dangerous and warlike enemies were continually
threatening. "The Eastern transformation of life in Late Antiquity
is an undeniable fact that cannot escape the scholar's attention" (Schlosser).
A renewal of political importance almost always coincides - and not only
in the ancient world - with a cultural renaissance. The East was a land
of very ancient art and culture, and it
was not surprising that the original substrata of the various Eastern cultures,
submerged by Hellenism and Rome, should reappear at the moment when the
historical, philosophical and political assumptions on which the dominating
culture had been founded, were entering a crisis. Scholars have always underlined
the importance of neo-platonism, especially that of Plotinus, in the shaping
of a new vision of art, and now, together with this new doctrine that proposed
a synthesis of Greek art with Oriental ideas,
there was a resurrection of the ancient 'primitive' cults, revived in the
new climate of spiritual curiosity and new forms of art.
It is these elements that confer on Late Antiquity that 'singular aspect of innovation and age' that Schlosser so clearly saw. The new spiritual demands and the manner in which they were expressed in art (the schematization of designs, simplification of forms, the reduction of the plastic elements - concentrating on those essential features considered to be the most expressive - as well as all the distortions that came from this, etc.) did not, of course, impose themselves all at once on the Roman environment. They merged with and were bound to the traditional Hellenistic-Roman elements, and in this way a fresh tradition began that was to become the dominating one - especially after Constantine, and especially in the Eastern zone of the Empire. (The word 'dominating' is not in fact intended to mean exclusive, insofar as artistic traditions often take a long time to fade, and a cultural background is never so homogeneous as it may appear in the ordered descriptions of later scholars.)
Thus, in the Eastern countries that had had ancient civilizations, the Hellenistic and, later, Roman cultures were accompanied at certain stages by 'archaic resurrections', some of which were energetically pursued, others less so. They became stronger whenever the recurring crises of the Empire loosened direct contact between the capital and the provinces. And it was for this complex and varied artistic world - encompassing both painting and sculpture - that such art definitions were coined as: Romano-Mesopotamian, Romano-Syriac, Romano-Egyptian, and so forth. It was a world of rich and multiple aspects, and fascinating like all composite cultures. At times, a strange kind of mysticism, developing in Asia Minor, united with an exuberant decorative richness that was clearly Oriental in origin. It was just this complex and esoteric splendour that created the subtle fascination of the Artemis statue at Ephesus, a work that would have been outstanding in any age.
Certain portrait busts of ladies, emperors or other illustrious persons revealed an acquaintance with Roman models, but they have been freely interpreted by original artists open to many different influences. The funerary stelae found at Palmyra are particularly remarkable. The image of the dead person was depicted on the stelae which were used to cover the graves. They represent one of the highest forms of the new Byzantine art, with its frontal representation and splendid sumptuousness. It is not surprising to find such original and vibrant sculpture at Palmyra, if we remember the extent of the prosperity and power that this ancient caravan city had attained by the third century AD, and the way in which it had succeeded in making itself completely independent from Rome. In the same way as Eastern art was to have a decisive importance in the development of Byzantine figurative art, so the art of the Western provinces of the Empire (where, similarly, the ancient local substratum flowered alongside the Roman culture) asserted its own importance. A parallel phenomenon, analogous to events in the Middle East, occurred in the regions of Europe that had been reached by Roman expansion. There the imperial Roman art of the conquerors was grafted on to that of the local inhabitants; this process brought forth original results and contributed to the formation of the medieval style in the West.
Next: 4. Roman Empire Art, Celtic Style.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART and CLASSICAL ANTIQUITIES