Virtue, status, immortality: functions and meanings of architectural motifs in the art of the Late Roman and Early Byzantine era (c. 180-700).
Head of project: Dr Cecilia Olovsdotter
The project, which has been conducted as part of a three-year senior research fellowship at the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul (SRII), investigates the applications and meanings of a widely diffused but hitherto scarcely studied phenomenon of Late Roman and Early Byzantine art: architectural motifs. The category includes the arch, the portal, the gabled front, the fastigium (palatial or ceremonial front), the aedicule, the baldachin and other domed structures, arcades and niche arcades, and numerous variants and conflations of these, as well as more complex configurations of the city and cityscape type, and its primary function is to lend monumentalising and symbolically charged frames to figures and scenes in images. The majority of architectural motifs can be traced to the beginnings of Roman art, where they chiefly occur in commemorative contexts, and to Middle-Eastern, East-Hellenistic and Etruscan architecture and funerary culture, but it is in the increasingly abstracted and symbolic art of late antiquity that they develop into a rich and diversified motif category with near universal applicability. Architectural motifs now appear in palatial and church interiors, on triumphal and sepulchral monuments, in commemorative and ceremonial works in silver, ivory and wood, in illuminated manuscripts such as calendars and gospels, and in a variety of objects of personal use such as costumes, jewellery caskets and pilgrim souvenirs. At the same time they become more complex and symbolladen, and tend to accumulate other symbolic motifs, offering structures on which to arrange them in meaningful patterns.
‘Sidamara’ sarcophagus from Seleucia/Silifke (Mersin), Turkey (detail); Istanbul Arkeoloji Müzesi. Photo: C. Olovsdotter
Architectural motifs constitute a prominent and systematically applied component of late antique art, yet no comprehensive or structural analysis has been undertaken until now. The theoretical foundation of the present study is the a priori assumption that every type of figurative motif is a carrier of meaning and thus relevant, sometimes vital, for a full understanding of the image of which it is part, and that its presence and form (type, conformation) are the results of conscious, qualified and purposeful choices on the part of the commissioners and/or artists of the artwork within its context. Whether representational, symbolic or a combination of the two, an architectural motif and the manner in which it has been rendered – type, form, placement, etc. – are in various ways and degrees intended to reflect, modify, specify and enforce the content of the image’s main motif/s, and thus to offer suggestions as to how that image should be understood in its context, what values, ideas and beliefs are being conveyed through it. Using the iconological (contextual) method of analysis, the application patterns (thematic correlations, intercontextual migrations, Christian adaptations, etc.) of architectural motifs in late antique visual culture are explored with the aim of revealing the mechanisms and motives – historical, religious, social – behind their intensified use, and behind the symbolisation of art in general, in the deeply transformative last phase of the Roman Empire. More particularly, the project study seeks to elucidate, from a new and somewhat unusual angle, the perhaps single most important function or objective of visual expression within Roman and Early Byzantine culture: to formulate, (re-)confirm and perpetuate ideas about public worth, success and status, with the associated notions of victory, power, immortality and cyclic (cosmic) regeneration.
The main publication resulting from the project is the monograph Virtue, status, immortality: functions and meanings of architectural motifs in the art of the Late Roman and Early Byzantine era (c. 180-700) (forthcoming). After an introductory section where the occurrence and evolution of architectural motifs within ancient (Near-Eastern, Greek, Etruscan, Roman) art tradition are outlined, the repertory and distribution patterns – typological, material, contextual, geographical – of architectural motifs in late-antique visual culture are examined. The subsequent iconographical analyses deal with the relationship between physical (built, ’real’) and pictorial architecture, the tectonic functions of architecture in late-antique image composition, context- and value-related application of architectural mouldings, the repertory of symbolic motifs with which the architectural motifs are regularly combined, and colour. In the interpretive section of the study, the results of the foregoing analyses are synthesised under thematic headings that describe a successive progression from concrete, worldly and temporal to abstract, cosmic and transcendental in the applications and meanings of architectural motifs in late antique art, whereas the concluding discussion is concerned with the universal themes and underlying concepts, the ’world-views’, that inspired the development and proliferation of architectural imagery in late antiquity.
Lead sarcophagus from Baabda, Lebanon (detail); Istanbul Arkeoloji Müzesi. Photo: C. Olovsdotter
Apart from the monograph, the project has, in various ways and under various thematic headings, generated a number of articles, lectures and conference and workshop papers, and the international conference Symbolism and abstraction in Late Antique and Early Byzantine art (c. 300-700) held at the SRII in May 2013 as well as the workshop To represent and to narrate in Byzantine art co-organised with Dr. Ivana Jevtic (Koç Üniversitesi) at the SRII in March 2014 were directly related to the research on architectural imagery and symbolism in Late Roman and Early Byzantine visual culture undertaken within the project.
Publications related to the project:
Olovsdotter, C., ‘Representing consulship: on the conception and meanings of the consular diptychs’, Opuscula 4, 2011, 99-124.
Olovsdotter, C., ‘Anastasius’ I consuls: ordinary consulship and imperial power in the consular diptychs from Constantinople’, Valör. Konstvetenskapliga studier 1-2, 2012, 33-47.
Olovsdotter, C., Virtue, status, immortality: on the functions and meanings of architectural motifs in Late Roman and Early Byzantine imagery (c. 180-600) (forthcoming).
Olovsdotter, C. ed., Symbolism and abstraction in late antique and Byzantine art (c. 300-700): proceedings of the international conference held at the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, 9-10 May 2013 (forthcoming).
Olovsdotter, C. ’Architecture and the spheres of the universe’, in C. Olovsdotter, ed., Symbolism and abstraction in late antique and Byzantine art (c. 300-700): proceedings of the international conference held at the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, 9-10 May 2013 (forthcoming).
Olovsdotter, C., ‘Kejsarmakt och stat i tidigbysantinsk tid: konsulardiptykerna från Konstantinopel’, Dragomanen. Årsskrift för Svenska Forskningsinstitutet i Istanbul 13, 2011, 46-53.
Olovsdotter, C., ‘Arkitektursymbolik i senromersk och tidigbysantinsk bildkonst’, Dragomanen. Årsskrift för Svenska Forskningsinstitutet i Istanbul 14, 2012, 157-166.