One of the great conversations that I had this past week at Polis Chysochous centered on how one goes about publishing a complex site or sites. Starting this fall, (as I discussed yesterday) a dynamic and diverse team of Late Antique, Byzantine, and Medieval scholars (Amy Papalexandrou, Kyle Killian, Sarah Lepinski, R. Scott Moore, Nora Laos, and myself) are planning to publish two multi-phase Christian churches excavated over the last 20 years in the village of Polis. The sites are relatively complex architecturally with numerous overlapping and interrelated phases; they have also produced robust assemblages of Late Antique to Medieval ceramics, highly fragmentary wall painting, glass, and mortuary remains.
In a traditional publication each of these materials would have its own discrete section (or perhaps even volume) produced after a period of careful study by a specialist. For example, Amy, Nora, and I would study the architecture and publish it complete with a description, comparanda, and comments on the significance of this architecture for existing typologies. Kyle and Scott would perform a similar study of the ceramics; Sarah would study and publish the wall painting. These practices have their roots in the history of discipline of archaeology (and the humanities more broadly). In the first half of the 20th century (outside brief pockets of critique), the humanities emphasized the mastery of (highly!) specialized bodies of material which collectively would contribute to the expanding pool of knowledge on a give topic. This empirical mode of research favored intensive, specialized, and discrete studies which would build a enduring body of factual knowledge.
Over the last 40 years (and perhaps more recently in the proudly anachronistic world of Mediterranean archaeology), scholarship have moved to more highly integrative approaches to research. These approaches have implicitly (or more recently explicitly) recognized that discrete bodies of knowledge exist only in relation to complex interpretative processes. These interpretative processes inform both the hypotheses that guide our research as well as the techniques that we use to collect data to evaluate these hypotheses. In other words, a body of factual knowledge does not exist outside interpretation. The goal of producing an enduring body of empirically sound knowledge is simply not attainable.
As a result of this trend, scholars have worked to produce more richly integrated, interpretative publications across the humanities. While vestiges of earlier practices persist in catalogue of finds and narrow specialist studies of distinct artifact types, these practices are increasingly arranged in relation to large archaeological and historical problems. Our efforts at Polis will, I hope, look to how the assemblage of ceramic material informs how we understand the architecture and decoration of these buildings; at the same time, I hope that the architecture informs our interpretation of the decorative material and the ceramics present at the site. The interplay between these various bodies of material create the interpretative space which we hope will produce a richer, more clearly historically relevant publication of the site. In short, our study will regard the material culture (architecture, ceramics, plaster, et c.) of the past as both the product and the producer of historical interpretation.
This approach is not novel, and on Cyprus we have some great models (particularly Marcus Rautman’s publication of the churches at Kopetra), but it is not universally applied. What could make our approach interesting, however, is that we will attempt to implement it as a team of specialists (rather than as a single visionary scholar who can command a vast body of material). Wish us luck!
I spent a little time this weekend working on my absolutely rudimentary illustration skills. I took as my object the three baptisteries that I included in a recent draft of an encyclopedia article. I worked on tracing them from well-known illustrations with an eye toward simplifying the plans to facilitate their reproduction at a smaller scale.
Producing new illustrations is almost always a good exercise in that is forces me to reflect critically on the various features included in the various floor plans. I used Illustrator for these illustrations and mostly traced them from existing plans. I did free sketch some of the features, though, and they are more illustrative than accurate.
I suspect, for example, that leaving out the thresholds and some of the features associated with the flooring at the Dura Baptistery has had little effect on how most scholars are likely to interpret the basic features of the plan: the baptistery is a room in the northwestern corner of the atrium style house.
Dura Europas Baptistery (after Wells (1967), plan 5)
Likewise, my plan of the Lechaion baptistery illustrates the complexity of the structure and the strange relationships between the two, apparently contemporary, centrally planned rooms and the long apsidal hallway to their west. It boggles the mind that an “architect” (or builder) could so carefully articulate the interior spaces of the various structures, but arrange their relationships to one another in such an awkward way. The narrow passageways linking the northern building to the baptistery proper appear to have been original to the plan, but utterly inelegant.
Lechaion (after Volonakes (1976), plan 1b)
My sketch of the Orthodox Baptistery in Ravenna eliminated some of the later features which commonly appear in plans and sought to capture the relationship between its architectural massing and the central baptismal font.
Orthodox Baptistery in Ravenna (after Kostof (1965), fig. 1)
I will never be confused for an architect, but the exercise of re-illustrating the plans of well-known buildings can frequently reveal some feature of aspect of the building (or even the plan) that I might have otherwise overlooked.
I finally have a working draft of an encyclopedia entry that was due some time ago. The entry is on Early Christian baptisteries, and I try to provide a cursory study of their architecture, ritual, decoration, and function in less than 2500 words. For some reason this kind of writing always takes me far more time than longer writing projects, so I not only underestimate how long it will take me to produce the original text, but also how long it will take me to tweak and fuss with the text once it is produced.
In any event, I present an advanced working draft here for your enjoyment.
The Lechaion basilica and baptistery are among the most impressive archaeological and architecture remains from the Early Christian period in Greece. As I have blogged on many times, the massive Lechaion basilica stood near the coast at Corinth’s Western harbor. It’s baptistery is often thought to date earlier than the massive basilica situated to its south largely because they have slightly different orientations. (This post has a companion post here).
Scholars have often associated the basilica with the martyr Leonidas and his several companions who, according to the preserved lives, were drowned in the Gulf of Corinth (AS II, April 16). Since Robin Jensen’s visit a few weeks back, I’ve been thinking about this episode and its relationship to the great church at Lechaion. In several articles, Jensen argues that ad sanctos baptism was a not uncommon practice in Early Christian times (for a nice summary see here). This largely involved traveling to pilgrimage sites or even just local martyr’s tombs for the initiation rite of baptism. For Jensen, this evokes the long-standing association between baptism as a kind of spiritual rebirth and the death of martyrs as their birth into spiritual and eternal glory.
I began to wonder whether ad sanctos type baptisms might have taken place at Lechaion. After all, the church is conspicuously close to the sea where a martyr shrine to Leonidas would be appropriate. Moreover, the church makes abundant use of water both in some of the imagery present in the yet unpublished architectural sculpture (at least one unpublished fragment of sculpture includes a dolphin which would have had particular significance in the context of baptism and Corinth through the myth of Arion) and in the various water features associated with its massive western atrium. These water features include the installation of a large basin, perhaps for fountains, in the center of its western hemicycle and two large basins along the eastern wall of the atrium. The baptistery itself is quite large with three rooms: two ancillary rooms and the baptistery proper with its central font. In short, the basilica featured water prominently, and if the basilica was to be associated with the martyr Leonidas, then the use of water throughout may well have been evocative of the events surround his and his companions martyrdom.
The use of water around Lechnaion is not enough, however, to link this church to the martyr Leonidas or to make an argument for ad sanctos baptismal practices. Corinth and the Corinthia was known in antiquity for fountains and water; so, the the use of water at Lechaion may have merely evoked or advanced Corinth’s longstanding reputation. There is something more however linking Leonidas to baptismal practices. First, it was not uncommon to associate explicitly martyrdom with baptism, especially if the martyr was a catechumen. Leonidas seems to have been a full-fledged Christian. He was, however, martyred on during Easter. Easter was the common time for baptism in the Mediterranean in general and in the Greece specifically according to the historian Socrates (5.22). While there does not appear to be explicit (at least that I’ve found) references to baptismal imagery, the accounts of St. Leonidas’ martrydom are short and the link between their physical and fatal submersion in the sea at Easter when catechumens experienced (at least symbolic) submersion of their own in the baptismal font at Lechaion seems hard to overlook.
To take this admittedly speculative reading a step further, it would be interesting to imagine the relationship between the Lechaion basilica and the nymphaion excavated a short distance to the south of the church (E. Stikas, Ergon (1957), 53-58).
This building shows many remarkable similarities in both architectural decoration and in the use of opus sectile floors to the Lechaion basilica. While the building itself may be earlier, it seems likely that it underwent some modification by the same work crews who were involved in building the Lechaion basilica. The location of the nymphaion at the base of a coastal bluff gave it access to water and a position along a likely coastal road leading to the north coast of the Peloponnesus and, presumably, past the massive Lechaion church. It would be appealing to imagine this building as a symbolic billboard (are there other kinds of billboards?) for the Lechaion basilica taking not only certain decorative cues from the church as well as the reference to water. Water would have brought together the local history of the church, well-known Corinthian water culture, the martyrdom of Leonidas, and the Christian rite of baptism performed in an elaborate building less than 100 m from the foreshore of the Corinthian gulf.
via Doctoral Bliss
This Friday, March 5, the Beta-Upsilon Chapter of Phi Alpha Theta will host its 5th Annual Red River Valley History Conference at the Memorial Union on the UND campus. Several student will present papers on a variety of topics. In addition, staff from our Dept. of Special Collections, as well as local archivists will present a panel on careers in public history. Finally, Dr. Robin Jensen will deliver the keynote address as part of the 2010 Robert Wilkins Lecture at 4:00PM entitled “Living Water: Rituals, Spaces, and Images of Early Christian Baptism”. Below is the schedule of panels:
Panel 1: (9:15-10:30)—Memorial Room
Race and Gender in 19th Century America
Chair: Daniel Sauerwein, UND
“No Country For End Men: A Re-Evaluation of American Small Ensemble Blackface Minstrelsy From 1843 to 1853.” By Dorothea Nelson, UND
“Independence in Cape Palmas: The Contentious Path for Autonomy in Maryland in Liberia” By Matthew Helm, UND
“Women and the American Civil War” By Chad Holter, UND
Panel 2: (9:15-10:30)—President’s Room
Controversy in American History
“What Are You Afraid Of? How Governments Have Reacted to Real (or unreal) Threats” By Mark Hermann, UND
“The Lost Environmentalists: The Struggle Between Conservative Christianity and the Environment in the 1970s” By Neall Pogue, NDSU
Panel 3 (10:45-12:00)—Alumni Room
Material Culture, New Media, and How They Shape History
“Grandma’s Cookie Jar” By Kathryn Nedegaard, UND
“French Heritage Tour 2009 – Directed by Dr. Virgil Benoit with IFMidwest” By Emilie VanDeventer, UND
“William Bligh or Jack Aubrey? Two Alternative Historical Views of Nelson’s Navy” By Jon Eclov, UND
Panel 4: (1:00-2:30)—Memorial Room
“Career Paths for History Majors: Opportunities in Museums and Archives”
Chair: Daniel Sauerwein, UND
Leah Byzewski, Director, Grand Forks County Historical Society
Curt Hanson, Head, Department of Special Collections, UND Library
Mark Peihl, Archivist, Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County
Michael Swanson, Assistant Archivist, Department of Special Collections, UND Library
Alison Voss, Head Curator/Director of Education, Bonanzaville
Panel 5: (1:00-2:30)—Alumni Room
Art and Faith in European History
Chair: Dr. Bill Caraher, UND
“Caught between the Old Man and the New: Women and the Body of the Soul in High Medieval Ghost Stories” By Christopher Gust, UND
“The Theology of Existential Salvation in the Interrogative Sayings of the Desert Fathers” By Paul A. Ferderer, UND
“A wild boar from the forest:” Martin Luther as a Model of Rebellion, 1520-1525” By Danielle Skjelver, UND
“The New Topographics: Emergence and Legacy” By Ryan Stander, UND
Panel 6: (1:00-2:30)—President’s Room
The Power of Persuasion in early 20th Century America
Chair: Dr. Kimberly Porter, UND
“Father Coughlin: A Historiography of the Radio Priest” By Emilie VanDeventer, UND
“Henry Ford’s Anti-Semitism and Influence on the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (Nazi Party)” By Paul Robinette, UND
In addition, conference participants have the option to partake of a lunch and there will be displays for various on and off-campus entities, including the Society for Military History, Elwyn B. Robinson Dept. of Special Collections, Civil War items by Stuart Lawrence, to name a few. I hope you will come out and join us if you are in the area.
It’s exciting to announce that Grand Forks native, Robin Jensen will present the 2010 Robert Wilkins lecture on Friday March 5, 2010 at 4:00 pm in the Lecture Bowl. This semi-annual talk is dedicated to the memory of Prof. Robert Wilkins, a long time member of the Department of History. Prof. Wilkins contributed to the departments development from the early 1960s through the 1980s during which time it was transformed from a small and fractious department to a major contributor to the intellectual life of the university.
Professor Jensen’s talk is entitled “Living Water: Rituals, Spaces, and Images of Early Christian Baptism” and it will coincide with the Fifth Annual Red River Valley History Conference that same day. The talk and the conference are free and open to the public.
Here’s the flier.
Over the Christmas holiday, I’ve spent some time thinking and reading on Early Christian baptisteries. This contributes to a relatively long-term collaborative project with Robin Jensen of Vanderbilt University and Dick Rutherford of the University of Portland, but also to a short-term project of writing an encyclopedia entry on Early Christian Baptisteries for a encyclopedia of world religious architecture published by Cambridge University Press. So, I’ve spent the break reviewing some very basic works on Early Christian baptisteries and considering how to approach a 2000 word essay on their architecture.
In many ways, the study of baptisteries suffers from many of the same problems that the study of Early Christian architecture faces in general. There are five major problems, as I see it:
1. Most Early Christian baptisteries, like churches from the same period, lack a clear date for their construction, use, and modification. Many of the best examples of architecture from the Early Christian period (roughly from the 3rd-7th century) were excavated before the middle years of the 20th century and were not subjected to stratigraphic excavations (or at least not published as such). The absence of stratigraphic information and the archaeological material that allows scholars to assign dates to the relative chronologies produced through careful excavation has made it difficult to determine the degree to which diversity across the entire corpus of Early Christian architecture is the result of chronological changes or simply differences in style, taste, or the needs of a specific community.
2. In fact, it is clear that there was considerable diversity in the architectural forms of baptisteries across a region or even across the buildings in a specific city. This diversity may reflect differences in taste or a desire to create a distinct space of initiation for admission into a particular group of Christians. The diverse range of “orthodoxies” among Christian groups present in the Mediterranean basin ensured that any number of different Christian groups could live and build in a particular region. The Arian and Orthodox baptisteries in Ravenna are clear evidence for this and propose a model that might explain the differences of architectural form in other urban centers like Corinth where several baptisteries of different forms existed at the same time.
3. Recognizing that different groups may have desired different kinds of buildings is a far cry from understanding why these differences were required. The importance of ritual in the process of Christian initiation suggests that differences in the baptismal liturgy might account for some of the differences. The known rituals across the Mediterranean reveal considerable variation even among grounds regarded broadly as Orthodox. It would stand to reason that “non-orthodox” groups would have differed from their Orthodox brethren as well as from one another adding to the considerable variation in ritual structure of Christian initiation. Unfortunately the lack of chronology for many of our buildings and our uneven coverage of known baptismal rituals mean that liturgical texts can only shed light on the function of Early Christian baptisteries in some areas. For Greece, for example, we have no liturgical texts at all.
4. Further compounding the uneven distribution of liturgical texts is the diverse range of symbolic and exegetical readings of the baptismal ritual. Even if a liturgical text provided a blue-print of sorts to the rites involved in Christian initiation, the meaning of these rites derived from the ongoing interpretative work of various communities, church leaders, and even, one must assume, the viewers. Moreover, it seems likely to me that the rich symbolism and interpretive skill of Early Christians produced multiple simultaneous or even contested meanings for baptismal ritual. It, therefore, becomes very difficult to assign a single symbolic text to an Early Christian baptistery and then relate this text to a particular Christian community or set of initiatory values. This does not mean, of course, that it is impossible to interpret the symbolism present in Early Christian baptisteries. Some symbols like water, the hart, paradise, the river Jordan, and the dove appear consistently enough to present a consistent array of baptismal imagery. What I mean, rather, is that the diversity of images associated with baptism and baptisteries should discourage us from assigning a single, exclusive meaning to Early Christian space and ritual.
5. The diversity of meanings in Early Christian architecture is made clear in the practice of literary ekphrasis. Ekphrasis was a popular genre of Early Christian ritual focused on unpacking and exploring the symbolism present in architecture. The authors of ekphrastic texts clearly took it upon themselves to produce wide ranging symbolic meaning from even relatively mundane objects in a religious building. Such extensive architectural exegesis often departed from structural reality which these authors subordinated entirely to their own creativity. Efforts by modern scholars to reconstruct actual spaces and buildings from ekphrastic texts regularly end in tears. The goal of ekphrasis was the text itself as a literary artifact and not as an even loosely empirical reproduction of an actual building. As a result, some of the most detailed descriptions of Early Christian space are, ironically, the least helpful in construction actual practice or architecture, and, instead, reveal Early Christian architecture as a suitable foundation for multiple symbolic regimes.
The challenges associated with our understanding of Early Christian baptisteries and architecture more broadly will likely discourage any scholar committed to understanding these spaces as a manifestation of a single unified ritual or symbolic regime. (And, in all fairness, I am not sure that there are many scholars committed to this particular approach.) Instead, the diversity of architectural forms, symbolic regimes, and the ambiguity of chronology begs for interpretations that embrace the multivocal nature of the evidence itself. Taking the lead from the authors of ekphrasis, scholars might be well-served by exploring the space of Christian initiation as the space susceptible to multiple, overlapping, and perhaps in some cases contested, symbolic, architectural, and ritual significance. In such a case, the study of Early Christian architecture becomes the study of Early Christian architectures in the same way that Early Christianity has given way to the study of Early Christianities.
I continue to work with Robin Jensen and Richard Rutherford in an effort to prepare a catalogue of Early Christian baptisteries. The goal of the catalogue is to present this material in a way that makes it more accessible to a broader audience (than Ristow’s otherwise satisfactory work) and with a greater emphasis on regional characteristics, indicators of ritual activities, and their place within their immediate spatial context and built environment. I’ve taken a stab at one of the longer entries in this catalog, but may not have struck the balance between scholarly precision and accessibility.
The Lechaion Baptistery ranks among the most architecturally elaborate and lavishly decorated baptisteries in the Eastern Mediterranean and yet remains relatively unknown. The baptistery sits less than 200 meters from the Gulf of Corinth at the ancient harbor of Lechaion, the Western harbor of Corinth. The baptistery is situated at the southwestern corner of the Lechaion basilica. This massive three-aisled basilica with a large atrium and double narthex is the largest and most ornate church in Greece and seems almost certainly to be associated with a prominent local saint. Today, nothing of the church exists about the lowest reaches of the walls, but these are sufficiently well-preserved to provide a complete floor plan of this impressive building.
The baptistery itself consists of three architecturally distinct compartments. The largest is a 16.20 m x 7.60 hall with apses on its north and south end. This main hall was entered from the south end, presumably from the basilica , through the apse. To the east of this apsidal hall were two additional chambers. The northern chamber has a central core measuring 5.05 m square with apsidal exedra at the cardinal directions. Entered from the west through the western apse, this room was identified by the excavator as the apodyterion. This chamber lacks a font and seemed well positioned for this purpose. Immediately to the south of this chamber was the octagonal photisterion or baptistery proper which measures 3.15 m across. It appears to have communicated with the apodyerion to its north through the triangular space formed by the east wall of the long hall and the west walls of the north and south chambers. The octagonal room featured apses at the corners and square exedra at the cardinal directions. To the west, the photisterion communicated with the long hall. To the east projects an usually shaped apse. Marble revetment decorated the walls of the elaborate buildings and the interior of the font.
The photisterion preserved two fonts. The center of the octagonal interior space featured cruciform octagonal font set in the floor with stairs on the northern and southern cross-arms. It is just under .50 m in depth. Such cruciform fonts are common in the Corinthia and in Late Roman Achaea more broadly. A smaller font sits in the southeast apse. The chronology of the baptistery complex is difficult to ascertain with any certainty. The basilica has a terminus post quem of 425 leading the excavator to argue that the basilica was largely 5th century in date and destroyed during the 6th century earthquakes. Recently, however, scholars have been inclined to date the basilica to the 6th century, perhaps during the reign of Justinian or Anastasius, on the basis of ceramics found in nearby graves and architectural cues. While an archaeological date for the construction of the basilica is unlikely to emerge, it seems probable that the building continued to stand into the second half of the 6th century. Any clarity regarding the dating of the church sheds little light on the date of the baptistery. It is on a slightly different orientation to the main church, however, suggesting an earlier date. The baptistery may have also remained in use later than the main church. One argument for the second font suggests that it came into use to allow the photisterion to serve as the church after the main basilica became damaged or fell out of use. This practice appears to have occurred elsewhere in the Corinthia.
The baptistery is striking in that it is close to the main basilica, but they hardly represent an architectural unit. The entrance on the south side of the baptistery allowed for easy access from the narthex of the main church through a door in its north wall. Seemingly later and relatively insubstantial walls created a courtyard between the north wall of the basilica and the baptistery. Ancillary room attached to the northern wall of the basilica may have also functioned in conjunction with the baptistery and provided access to the church’s northern aisle or galleries which are no long preserved. This may have provided an easy way for catechumens to enter and leave the basilica for the baptistery complex.
Bolonaki, I. (1976). Ta Palaiochristianika Baptisteria tes Ellados. Athens Archaeological Society, Athens, 65-66.
Ristow,S. (1998). Früchristliche Baptisterien, Aschendorffesche Verlagsbuchhandlung. Munich, pp. 155-156, no. 249
Sanders, G. D. R. (1999). A Late Roman Bath at Corinth: Excavations in the Panayia Field, 1995–1996. Hesperia 68: 441–480.
Sanders, G. D. R. (2005). “Archaeological Evidence for Early Christianity and the End of Hellenic Religion in Corinth,” in D. N. Schowalter and S. J. Friesen, Urban Religion in Roman Corinth. Harvard Theology Studies, Cambridge, MA., pp.. 419-442.
Varales, I. (2001). E epidrase tes theias leitourgias kai ton ieron akolouthion sten ekklesiastike architectonike tou anatolikou Illyrikou (395-573). Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Thessaloniki.
I usually wake up, become oriented, and think about what I will do and blog about for the day. This morning, I slipped into some kind of overload. I could not put together a coherent blog post, plan for the day, or strategy for the week. This semester has presented me with a whole series of mini-tasks. None takes more than a day or two and none provides any sense of accomplishment.
So, in the spirit of the mini-task, I offer four mini-posts:
1. Video and the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project. So what would happen if we distributed 5 simple HD cameras to folks on PKAP this summer. They were told to video anything of interest to them and at the end of each day, we downloaded the video onto a hard drive and marked with the individual’s name. On the return to the US we turned it all over to another group of students, faculty, folks, people, scholars, whoever, and asked them to produce a mash-up, narrative, montage, or whatever. What would we learn? What would we see? Who would be the author? Most importantly, what would this exercise or experiment tell us about the experience of archaeology on Cyprus with the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project?
2. Military History in Murfreesboro. In April, I am going to the Society for Military History’s Annual Meeting in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I was invited to comment on papers offered by a group of graduate students from Penn State on topics related to archaeology and the Battle of Issus where Alexander first defeated the Persian King Darius III. This is pretty far from my comfort zone, although I did write my M.A. Thesis on Alexander the Great and I have worked on Hellenistic fortifications. I have to be honest when I say that I am a bit nervous about this, but the idea of the archaeology of ancient battlefields, has begun to intrigue me. The most recent wave of intensive pedestrian survey archaeology has done little to clarify the topography of battle in the ancient world, and, in this regard, stands in contrast to its predecessor — extensive survey, which often sought to localize ancient battles within the modern topography. So, I think that I will be able to say something…
3. Cyberpunk Space and Archaeology. This is a tiny post for our Punk Archaeology project. I had a habit of reading William Gibson on flights to conduct archaeological work in Greece and Cyprus. Gibson was among the founders of the Cyberpunk movement and many of his books are characterized by vivid “post-urban” landscapes. While all his books work at the intersection of material culture, punk, and identity, his Bridge Trilogy (Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow’s Parties) was the first to draw me in — if for no other reason than one of the books was titled All Tomorrow’s Parties and any book with a title from a Velvet Underground song deserves to be read. One of the key settings in these works (which I have not read for at least 5 years) is Bay Bridge in San Francisco which after being damaged in an earthquake became an interstitial settlement. Spolia, the re-use of urban space, cultural and political dystopia, and the shadow of natural disasters evoke themes common to literature on Late Antique archaeology.
4. An Encyclopedia of Baptisteries. I’ve recently returned to thinking about Early Christian baptisteries. Hopefully I will have a few early drafts of encyclopedia type entries done in the next week or so. As I write these relatively short entries, I’ve had to think about what to include and exclude in each and who my audience will be. It reminded me of site reports from my time at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Do I include dimensions? Do I include scholarly debates? How much bibliography should I include? Should I interpret as much as I describe? More?
So, four mini posts for the day.
This weekend I enjoyed John Mitchell’s new book, The Butrint Baptistery Mosaics, published this year by the Butrint Foundation. The circular baptistery at Butrint is among the most important Early Christian buildings in the Balkans and a fairly well-preserved example of the art of mosaic decoration on the Adriatic coast. (A nice line drawing of the mosaic is here).
The book brings out several particularly interesting aspects of the baptistery mosaics and their architectural context. First, The two central scenes in the mosaic, peacocks surrounding a kantharos sprouting vines and two stages at a fountain, are clearly tied to Christian iconography of eternal life. Peacocks symbolized eternal life as their flesh was thought not to decompose and the stags evoked the first verse of the Psalm 41 (33-37) in which stags and water were combined lending the text baptismal significance. Aside from these two panels, however, there was very little on this floor that lent itself immediately to exegetical interpretation.
The rest of this round building’s floor is covered with linked medallions filled with birds, sea creatures, and domestic and exotic animals. Mitchell reads these critters as representing “A New Creating and an Earthly Paradise” (41). This, indeed, seems plausible. It is worth noting, however, that some of the panels appear to represent rural pursuits like the hunt. Three consecutive roundels show a hunting dog, a stage, and a net. Throughout Classical Antiquity, the hunt was identified with aristocratic pursuits. Moreover, the juxtaposition of exotic animals like lions and leopards with more mundane animals like dogs and donkeys could link the life of the countryside where more typical domesticated animals were common with the life of the city with its exotic animals representing shows in the arena. Animal combat scenes and staged hunts, frequently involving exotic animals, would have been a familiar aspect of the more cosmopolitan centers of the empire into the 6th century. The otium of aristocratic life in the countryside is a well-developed theme in Late Antiquity and would have complemented allusions to animal games in the urban center likely sponsored by the elite. Thus, paradise, in part, is framed by themes tinged with aristocratic values the same way that the presiding Bishops homilies would have been enlivened with the aristocratic language of Classical paideia.
Slight differences in how we read the mosaic floors do little to challenge Mitchell’s careful reading of the floors at Butrint. Of particular value are his suggestions that subtle variations in the floors — for example, different motifs in the interlinked roundels — marked out places of ritual importance in the baptistery. Checkerboard patterns in several of the outer most ring of roundels evoke the checkered pattern immediately surrounding the central font. Mitchell suggests that coincidence may have marked the area where the bishop stood during the baptismal ceremony. In effect the checked pattern marks linked the ritual power of the central font to the place where the bishop presided.
Finally, the baptistery at Burtint has intriguing connections with important buildings elsewhere in the Balkans. The mosaics floors were almost certainly the product of a workshop based in Nikopolis in Epirus (31). The presence of a fountain in the baptistery, roughly on axis with the font and the axial mosaic panels depicting the stags and the peacocks has parallels with the similar fountain from the baptistery at the Lechaion basilica in Corinth. The large, free-standing and centrally planned baptistery finds comparanda from several other sites in the Mediterranean. Relatively recent geophysical work in the eastern part of the city of Corinth has produced an image that looks very much like a large octagonal baptistery there (G. D. R. Sanders, “Archaeological Evidence for Early Christianity and the End of Hellenic Religion in Corinth,” in Urban Religion in Roman Corinth: Interdisciplinary Approaches. D. N. Schowalter and S. J. Friesen eds. (Cambridge 2005), 440). This would form another link between the site of Butrint and Corinth. Scholars have long recognized the connection between the prominent transept basilicas at Corinth and the city of Nikopolis (and elsewhere in the Epirus) (see: D. I. Pallas “Corinth et Nicopolis pendant le haut moyen-âge,” FR 18 (1979), 93-142). The Butrint baptisteries through links to both Nikopolis and Corinth reinforce the place of the latter city in the Adriatic world of the West with its close ties to Italy and Rome.