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The Hybrid Architecture of Early Christian Greece

Regular readers of this blog (both of them) recognize that I have been slowly constructing several arguments through a series of posts; one of these arguments draws upon Postcolonial theory to argue for the hybrid nature of Early Christian space in Greece (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Conclusion).  It’s my current research project and the topic of an article currently under construction.  Today’s blog is an early draft of the introduction to that article.

I was conflicted whether to release an early draft of what is definitely a work-in-progress.  Over the weekend, however, I listened to quite a few of the famous Blue Note “blowing session” type Jazz albums; I was listening to Art Blakey’s Night in Birdland and Cannon Ball Adderly’s Somethin’ Else.  These albums are largely characterized by their relaxed arrangement and loosely organized style.  They were provisional by nature and sought to capture the energy of live Jazz recordings.  Consequently, they lacked the polished composition of, say, Miles Davis’ great works; in fact, you could often here the voice of producers or the musicians making comments to one another about the melody or time.  At the same time, I noticed that Sebastian Heath had released a provisional draft of something he had been working on over at his Mediterranean Ceramics blog.

It’s in the spirit of these bold and informal offerings that I present very early draft of an introduction to my “Hybridity and Early Christian Architecture” article-in-progress.  The citations are not done yet and the prose is rough in places, but it does capture, for better or for worse, the current state of my thinking. 

(Version 2: 21 March 2008):

Architecture and the Creation of a Christian Discourse in Greece

Since at least the 4th century, the church building has been an iconic feature of Christianity and ubiquitous in the archaeological record of the Late Antique Eastern Mediterranean. These building proliferated over the 5th and 6th centuries. In the Late Roman province of Achaia alone there is archaeological evidence for well over 200 buildings, nearly 100 of which have some significant part of their plan preserved. Outside of Greek scholarship, these buildings have received relatively little attention despite the recent interest in the Late Roman period across the Eastern Mediterranean and in Greece in particular.[1] Some of this neglect can be attributed to the irregular character of many of the excavations and the generally poor state of preservation of the buildings. Further limiting scholarly interest in these buildings is the prevalent attitude toward Early Christian churches in Greece as relatively unsophisticated pieces of architecture designed primarily to serve the liturgical needs of the local Christian community. Studies of the relationship between architecture and liturgy have tended toward functional analyses of these buildings’ regular features and regarded architecture as evidence for understanding the development of the Middle Byzantine and later liturgies.[2] Over the past several decades scholars have increasingly questioned such developmental models,[3] but the typological studies associated with this work have produced a solid foundation for this study of Early Christian architecture in Greece. This body of evidence is all the more valuable when we consider the dearth of literary sources for Early Christian Greece as compared to elsewhere in the Late Antique Mediterranean. New archaeological evidence and developments in how scholars interpret ancient art and architecture have made the Early Christian basilicas of Greece more accessible for the study of the cultural, economic, and religious history of the region during Late Antiquity.[4] These recent methodological developments complement an already solid foundation of past scholarship to make it an appropriate moment to bring the Early Christian basilicas of Greece into closer contact with the ongoing conversations about the Late Antique Eastern Mediterranean.

This [article] will focus on Early Christian architecture as a source for the emergence of a distinctly Christian cultural, political, and religious discourse in Greece during the Late Antique period. The study of the so-called “totalizing” discourse of Christianity is a central component to understanding the Christianization of the Mediterranean world. Scholars like A. Cameron, R. Markus, and P. Brown have argued convincingly that the increased prevalence of broadly Christian interpretive regimes across all aspects of society marked a significant change in how Late Antique individuals both articulated and understood their world. While scholarly interest in the emergence of Christianity in Greece is longstanding, it has received renewed attention over the past several decades. Despite the well-known evidence from the Pauline epistles, Acts of the Apostles and other first and second century texts, scholars have puzzled at the late appearance of the institutional church in the textual sources and archaeology for Greece prior to the 5th and 6th centuries. This gap in the historical record likely recommends a late date of the large scale Christianization in Greece and suggests that the powerful institutional church of the 5th and 6th century drove the expansion of Christianity. One important implication of this conclusion is that the population was largely non-Christian, or pagan for lack of a better term, up until this point.[5] This line of reasoning has endowed paganism with the appearance of an indigenous and sometimes more authentic form of religious expression.[6] The occasional and shadowy evidence for dramatic and possibly violent clashes between Christians further conjures a romantic image of a persistent paganism as a form of local resistance to institutional church. Ultimately this persistent paganism imparts in the Greek church its distinct character. Thus, Christianity is presented as a cultural system projected on Greece by an outside authority, namely Christianized and increasingly powerful pan-Mediterranean ecclesiastical and imperial hierarchy. In this context, Christian churches become the markers of this authority. While the model that I have presented here for viewing the emergence of Christianity in Greece is rather simplistic, it nevertheless represents one of the most common ways to understand the expansion of Christianity throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.

Early Christian architecture represents an essential indicator of the institutional church in this understanding the spread of Christianity in Greece. As elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean, Christian churches contributed in important ways to the production of a distinctly Christian urban and rural landscape.[7] Moreover, an approach that links Early Christian architecture to the rise of Christian institutional authority in the Late Antique world has brought these buildings into broader discussions of Late Antique religious, political, and urban history. At the same time, however, Early Christian churches have tended to remain relatively static places in
the Late Antique landscape and serve primarily to express the unambiguous message of Christian political and religious authority.[8] This view of Early Christian architecture as largely representational or symbolic inevitably privileges the intent of the patrons and builders. In this regard, many modern studies of Early Christian architecture borrows the tone from Late Antique literature in which the church building stands as the sign of the triumphant faith and Christian authority.[9] This reading of Early Christian architecture in the Late Antique landscape largely persists even as recent interest in the genre of ekphrasis has encouraged scholars to recognize the variety possible in the way that Late Antique viewers saw Early Christian architecture and art.[10] So while the work on epkphrastic has opened the door to considering the role of the viewer in the creation of Early Christian art, it has done little so far to challenge the primacy of the elite viewer and patron in how architecture and decoration is actually understood in a Late Antique context.

This [article] seeks to expand the representational or symbol reading of churches by assuming that the absence of a stable relationship between the viewer and Early Christian architecture played a central role in the construction of Christian authority in Late Antique society.[11] This instability is manifest both in the practices of the Late Antique patron and, perhaps more importantly, in the diversity of perspectives available to the Late Antique viewer in Greece. The diversity of Late Antique viewers relies on an understanding that most, although certainly not all, Early Christian architecture was physically accessible to wide range of Late Antique viewers occupying a wide range of places in the social, economic, religious, and political communities of Late Antique society. The potential viewers of Early Christian churches would have included committed Christians, new converts, and perhaps even the openly skeptical. Within many churches the highly literate aristocracy would have mingled with the almost certainly illiterate urban and rural poor.[12] In most communities the church would have been an important venue for contact between the clergy and the laity. Each group and, indeed, individual brought to these buildings a diverse range of expectations, religious backgrounds, and interpretive tools.[13] Indeed, scholars have recognized the diversity present in the “preacher’s audience” The potential variation among Late Antique viewers provides a strong contrast to the sophisticated iconography and ordered theology of the Early Christian liturgy.[14] While Late Antique liturgical texts and pronouncement of Early Christian theologians tended to emphasis ritual, theological, and ecclesiastical taxis, or order, the complex interplay of architectural spaces, decorative motifs, movable objects, and inscribed texts almost certainly resisted a unified interpretation and confronted the Early Christian viewer with an abiding sense of ambiguity. The tension between the regularity of the Early Christian ritual, the diversity of Late Antique congregation, and the potential for an ambiguous reading of the architecture and decoration recommends that we approach Early Christian architecture as a type of hybrid space. As this [article] will argue, the hybrid character of Early Christian space played a key role in the development of a compelling Late Antique discourse and contributed the production of a distinctly, but hardly unified Christian society.

Reading Hybridity in the Early Christian Architecture of Greece

The notion of the hybrid and hybridity has received considerable attention in recent decades by scholars seeking to understand the interaction between cultures in a colonial and postcolonial context. The most famous use of this word in the context of postcolonial theory derives from Home Bhabha.[15] Bhabha proposed an image of the colonial hybrid as an individual who occupies and negotiates the middle ground between the colonizer and the colonized. The emergence of a hybrid identity represents, on the one hand, a concession to the influence and power of colonial authority. On the other hand, the colonial hybrid had the ability to understand and to view expressions of colonial power in a way that produced subversive readings of colonial authority. In this way, hybrids exploited the inherent ambiguity of the colonial discourse (and perhaps any act of viewing). Nowhere is this clearer than in the emergence of the colonial mimic who simultaneously represents the colonizers’ reluctance to permit full assimilation of the colonized individual and the colonized individual’s potential for negotiating new, highly unstable identities that disrupted the seemingly fixed relationships stipulated by the traditional structures of colonial authority.

The concept of hybridity has become a popular interpretative paradigm throughout the humanities and gained influence among scholars of antiquity over the past two decades. The application of postcolonial theory has expanded our understanding both of the interaction between different groups in ancient society and of modern and ancient techniques employed to construct ethnic, religious, and social identities. Archaeological efforts to document the colonial moment have particularly attended to the instability of contact between indigenous populations and colonial powers and have issued important caveats regarding any reading of the ancient world rooted in essentialized notions of cultural identity. Peter van Dommelen’s work on contact between Punic and indigenous populations in Sardinia is particularly important for highlighting the inherent ambiguity present in the material representations of colonial identities in the Sardinian landscape.[16] Derek Counts recent work on the “Master of the Lion” motif in Iron Age Cypriot sculpture provides a focused study on how individual objects could reflect the deep ambiguity of the hybrid form.[17] These studies are only two examples of the conceptual interdependence of the ambiguity and hybridity in the recent readings of the ancient material culture.

Scholars of Early Christianity have also recognized the applicability of postcolonial theory to the Late Antique world. In particular scholars have examined how the totalizing Christian discourse of Late Antiquity has shaped our modern reading of contact between Christians and non-Christians.[18] Rebecca Lyman has pointed out that long prevailing notions of a monolithic and coherent orthodoxy have tended to critique diversity within Early Christianity as the failure of a unified Orthodox Christianity to assert complete control over Late Roman society.[19] A postcolonial reading of this evidence, however, suggests that arguments for a monolithic Christian identity belie far less stable reality. In fact, the process of creating a rhetorically exclusive Christianity depended in large part on the existence of the threatening and destabilizing hybrid; in other words, non-Christians, heretics, and other dissenting groups helped to define the core values of the Christian community. Consequently, the strident rhetoric of Christian triumphalism, despite its claims to persistence and uniformity, constantly shifted to accommodate the diversity within the Christian community as it sought to span the complex and cosmopolitan world of Late Antiquity. Andrew Jacobs recent work on the representation of the Jews in Early Christian sources illumi
nates the delicate negotiations necessary within a Christian discourse that both appropriated Jewish knowledge and discredited the Jewish “other” to reify Christianity’s privilege position.[20] The result of these recent readings of the so-called totalizing Christian discourse is an Early Christian identity that had an inherent instability deeply tied to its modes expression. Like the rhetoric of the triumphant Early Christian literary traditional and emphasis on ritual taxis in the Christian liturgy, Early Christian architecture projected a wide-spread, easily recognizable, and relatively uniform presence in the Late Antique Eastern Mediterranean. This uniformity, however, like the regularity of the rites performed in Early Christian space, belies the deep ambiguity present in the arrangement, decoration and even epigraphy of the Christian architecture. Postcolonial theory with its emphasis on the ambiguity and instability in viewing the seemingly unified rhetoric of colonial authority offers useful tools for deconstructing the productive forces at play in the emergence of a Christianizing discourse. Applying this method of analysis to Early Christian ecclesiastical architecture not only challenges the rhetorically potent construct of Early Christian triumphalism and uniformity, but also reifies the place of material culture as a constituent and productive element in the social, cultural, economic, and even political history of Late Antiquity.

The increasing awareness of hybridity within the unified Christian discourse offers considerable potential for reinterpreting Early Christian architecture, decoration, and ritual and finds close parallels with the recent trend toward recognizing ambiguity in ancient art, and Late Antique art in particular. Of particular significance for this current project is John Clarke’s work emphasizing the impact of imperial art in Rome on the non-Roman or “ordinary” viewer.[21] While he stopped short of proposing subversive readings for monuments like the column of Trajan or the Arch of Constantine, he demonstrated that there was sufficient ambiguity present in these potent monuments to make them meaningful for groups often neglected in the study of the reception of Roman art. Jas Elsner proposed that the ambiguity of the motifs in some art at Dura Europus made it possible to communicate messages of resistance to Roman rule by the “indigenous” inhabitants of this community.[22] Elsewhere Elsner and Henry. Maguire have both recognized the potential for ambivalence and ambiguity inherent in the complex symbolism oft utilized in Early Christian contexts and noted that the persistent efforts of the clergy to propose exegetical interpretations.[23] The fruitful discussion of ambiguity in the viewing of Early Christian art provides a suitable foundation for considering the hybrid nature of the Christian discourse produced by the engagement with Early Christian space.

As Clarke, Elsner, Maguire and others have realized monumental architecture is particularly valuable barometer of social change in antiquity. It not only has a larger potential audience than textual sources, but it also absorbs considerable resources from the community. Consequently, monumental buildings tend to occupy significant places in the symbolic, ritual, and social landscape of a community. Not only do the Early Christian basilicas of Greece reflect the varied motives of their donors, but the motifs, furnishing, and texts employed in these buildings evoked different responses from the diverse groups who witnessed Early Christian space. In this context, the hybrid and ambiguous nature of Early Christian space negotiated and produced an unstable middle ground between the intent of donors who sought to draw upon multiple contexts to create spaces rich in meaning, and equally diverse expectations of Early Christian viewers.

The three cases studies features in this article will bring to the fore the hybrid character of Early Christian space in Greece. The first study looks at the intersection of imperial and local influences in the Lechaion basilica outside of Corinth. The distinctive liturgical furnishing of this building created an environment which would have visibly linked the local ecclesiastical hierarchy to imperial power and perhaps the liturgy of the Eastern Capital. This link would have flaunted the formal ecclesiastical ties between Corinth and the bishop of Rome. Neither purely local in its arrangement and features nor obviously Constantinopolitan, the architecture of this church encouraged the viewer to negotiate between the familiar features required for the Greek liturgy and novel insertions heralding imperial influence. The second case study examines a prominent mosaic pavement found in a basilica in Late Antique Delphi. This mosaic inserts motifs traditionally associated with the aristocratic display into a liturgical setting. The hybrid combination of aristocratic motifs and liturgical space serves to transfer values deriving from the largely “secular” sphere of the elite to the Christian rituals and perhaps even the clergy who perform them. The hybridity introduced by the mosaic floors from Delphi could easily represent the perspective of a secular, aristocratic donor as the desire of the clergy for association with elite values. Moreover, the overlap of the aristocratic and Christian discourse, whether intentional on the part of the clergy or not, like communicates a particular view of Christian authority to at least some of the Late Antique viewers. The final case study moves away from the imperial or even aristocratic component of Early Christian hybridity to consider the different modes of Early Christian epigraphy. In particular, I will focus on the difference between elite donations to Early Christian basilicas and more modest donations made by the artisan classes. The intersection of these two different, if closely related, donor strategies produced not only a hybrid method of expressing one’s identity as a donor, but may have also reflected the emergence of a particular Christian mode of giving. Each of these case studies highlights a particular aspect of hybridity in Early Christian space. They emphasize hybridity not merely in the juxtaposition of the familiar with the unfamiliar, but also as the creation of unstable interpretative regimes in which the plurality of potential meanings derived subverts plausible modern readings of the intended meaning of the donor, author, or clergy. In this assessment the ambivalence of Early Christian space empowered the congregation to play a key role in the establishment of the hybrid Christian discourse. Hybridity, then, becomes more than simply the static combination of diverse features in an object or the landscape, but a method of reading architecture, ritual, and objects breaks down the unity of essentialized discourses whether they be characteristic of Christian, pre-Christian, imperial, local, elite, or common expression.


[1] A. Frantz, Late Antiquity, A.D. 267-700. Athenian Agora 24. (Princeton, N.J 1988), ###-###; W. Bowden, Epirus Vetus: The Archaeology of a Late-antique Province. (London 2003); A. Avramea, Le Péloponnèse Du IVe Au VIIe Siècle: Changements Et Persistances. (Paris 1997); R. M. Rothaus, Corinth, the First City of Greece: An Urban History of Late Antique Cult and Religion. (Leiden 2000), ###-###. C. Kosso, Cynthia. The Archaeology of Public Policy in Late Roman Greece. (Oxford 2003). Oikonomou-Laniado, A., Argos Paléochrétienne: Contribution À L’étude Du Péloponnèse Byzantin. (Oxford 2003) NON VIDI.

[2] Soteriou “Αἱ παλαιοχριστιανικαὶ βασιλικαὶ τῆς Ἑλλάδος,” AE (1929), 161-254; A. Orlandos Η Ξυλόστεγος Παλαιοχριστιανική Βασιλική Της Μεσογειακής Λεκάνης. Athens (1957); Lemerle ; D. I. Pallas “Corinth et Nicopolis pendant le haut moyen-âge,” FR 18 (1979), 93-142; –, “Monuments et texts: rémarques sur la liturgie dans quelques basiliques paléochrétiens.” EEBS 44 (1979/80), 37-116; –, “”L’édifice culturel chrétien et la liturgie dans l’Illuricum oriental,” Studi Antichita Cristiana 1 (1984), 544-557

[3] W. Bowden, “Epirus and Crete: Architectural Interaction in Late Antiquity,” Creta Romana e Protobizantina 3.1 (2000), 787-800; A. Poulter, “Churches in Space: the early Byzantine city of Nicopolis,” in Churches Built in Ancient Times. K. Painter ed. (London 1994), xxx-xxx (at 249); C. Mango, Byzantine Architecture. (Milan 1978), 7-8.

[4] For a short summary of some recent and historical trends see: C. Mango, “Approaches to Byzantine Architecture.” Muqarnas 8 (1991), 40-44.

[5] Sanders, Gregory, et c.

[6] Gregory, “first order concerns”

[7] O. Von Simson, Sacred Fortress: Byzantine Art and Statecraft in Ravenna. (Princeton, N.J 1987). R. Krautheimer, Three Christian Capitals: Topography and Politics. (Berkeley 1983). R. A. Markus, “How on Earth do Places become Holy?” xxxxxxxx; –, The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge?? 1990), xxx-xxx; B. Caseau, “Sacred Landscapes,” in G. Bowersock, P. Brown, and O. Grabar eds. Interpreting Late Antiquity: Essays on the Postclassical World. (Cambridge, Mass. 2001), 40-45; R. Rothaus, Corinth, the First City of Greece, ###-###.

[8], but see also Wharton

[9] See also recently J. Elsner, “The Rhetoric of Buildings in the De Aedificiis of Procopius,” in L. James ed . Art and Text in Byzantine Culture. (Cambridge 2007), 33-57.

[10] For Ekphrasis and the growing appreciation of ambiguity in this context: L. James and R. Web, “’To Understand Ultimate Things and Enter Secret Places’: Ekphrasis and Art in Byzantium,” Art History 14 (1991), 1-17; P. C. Miller, “’The Little Blue Flower is Red’: Relics and the Poetizing of the Body,” JECS 2000 (8), 213-236.

[11] For such approaches see especially J. R. Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans: Visual Representations and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C. – A.D. 315. (Berkeley 2003), 9-11; Maguire, Elsner.

[12] Note some of the recent work on poverty. Also look at Maxwell’s recent book on John Chrysostom.

[13] There is a particularly well-developed body of work that examines t

[14] H.-J. Schulz, The Byzantine Liturgy: Symbolic Structure and Faith Expression. Trans. Mathew J. O’Connell. (New York 1986); R. F. Taft, The Byzantine Rite: A Short History. (Minneapolis, MN 1992).

[15] H.K. Bhabha, “Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree outside Delhi, May 1817” in The Location of Culture. (check: London 2004), 145-174. The basic study remains R. Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. (London 1995) J. Nederveen Pieterse, “Hybridity, So What?: The Anti-Hybridity Backlash and the Riddles of Recognition.” Theory, Culture, and Society 18 (2001), 219-245.

[16] P. van Dommelen, “Ambiguous Matters: Colonialism and Local Identities in Punic Sardinia,” in K. Papadopoulos and C. Lyons, eds. Archaeology of Colonialism ( Los Angeles 2002), 121-147.; –, “The Orientalizing Phenomenon: Hybridity and Material Culture in the Western Mediterranean,” in C. Riva and N. Vella eds. Debating Orientalization: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Change in the Ancient Mediterranean. (London 2006), 135-152. See also the work by C. Antonaccio, “Hybridity and the Cultures within Greek Cultures,” in C. Dougherty and L. Kurke eds. The Cultures Within Ancient Greek Culture: Contact, Conflict, and Collaboration. (Cambridge 2003), 57-74.

[17] D. B. Counts, “Master of the Lion: Representation and Hybridity in Cypriote Sanctuaries.” AJA 112 (2008), 3-27.

[18] P. Brown, Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World. (Cambridge 1996). For the term “totalizing discourse “ see: A. Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse. (Berkeley 1991), xx-xx.

[19] J. R. Lyman, “2002 NAPS Presidential Address: Hellenism and Heresy.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 11 (2003), 209-222. Cf. R. Lim, “Christian Triumph and Controversy,” in in G. Bowersock, P. Brown, and O. Grabar eds. Interpreting Late Antiquity: Essays on the Postclassical World. (Cambridge, Mass. 2001), 196-218.

[20] A. S. Jacobs, Remains of the Jews: The Holy Land and Christian Empire in Late Antiquity. (Stanford, CA 2004). D. Boyarin, and V. Burrus, “Hybridity as Subversion of Orthodoxy? Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity” Social Compass 52 (2005), 431-441.

[21] Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans, 42-67.

[22]J. Elsener, “Viewing and Resistance: Art and Religion in Dura Europus,” in Roman Eyes: Visuality and Subjectivity in Art and Text. (Princeton 2007), 253-287; A. Wharton, Refiguring the Post Classical City, 23-63.

[23] H. Maguire, Earth and Ocean: The Terrestrial World in Early Byzantine Art. (University Park 1987), 1-19; J. Elsner, Art and the Roman Viewer. (Cambridge 1995), 249-287.

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