Home > Late Antiquity > Why Hybridity Matters for the Study of Early Christian Greece

Why Hybridity Matters for the Study of Early Christian Greece

My talk yesterday was canceled or rather postponed indefinitely due to a conflict with another talk here at the American School.  I was a little disappointed, but having a date to complete my first draft of an article was more important (in some ways) than actually giving the talk (although I would have liked to get the feedback!). 

Over the weekend, I was able to revise my introduction (and a revised introduction is posted here: Intro) and complete a draft of the conclusion.  My conclusion attempts not only to wrap up the arguments that I make in the Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, but also articulate why this kind of analysis matters for how we understand Late Antiquity and Early Christian Greece in particular.

Since it touches upon several of the ideas that I have talked about in the blog (e.g. Dreams, Inventio, and Archaeology) and since I have posted informal versions of each section (see above) and since I have posted 2 versions of my introduction, it only makes sense to post the conclusion here as well.  It’s a work-in-progress, an almost-working paper, fresh off the presses with all its warts, and now it’s available:


The proceeding three case studies suggest that both patrons and viewers recognized the potential for ambiguous and hybrid readings of architecture and decoration in an Early Christian context. Adding to this complexity was the character of churches as ritual space. While donors might pay for the construction and decoration of a church drawing upon both Christian and elite motifs, ultimately the clergy take center stage during the performance of Christian ritual. This ritual not only played an important role in establishing clerical authority as they are shown mediating between the divine and mundane, but also may have also created ambiguity as inscriptions marking lay euergetism, mosaics evoking aristocratic values, and imperial patronage competed for the attention of the Late Antique viewer. One method for coming to terms with how we understand Early Christian space characterized by the polyvalence of signs is accepting the mottled and ambiguous message produced within Early Christian architecture. The postcolonial concept of hybridity offered a paradigm for understanding the interaction of authority and ambiguity. Moreover, the historical situation in Greece during Late Antique finds certain parallels to colonial circumstances at other times and places. In common with other colonial situations, Late Antique Greece manifests the intersection of a powerful source of institutional authority with ties extending beyond the local community, and strongly held and long standing local needs and expectations. A postcolonial reading of the architecture of Early Christian Greece should not disregard the problematic nature of the archaeological and historical evidence for these centuries in Greece. In fact, such a reading accepts the archaeological and interpretative problems by suggesting that we abandon our efforts to find sharp developmental, regional, or exegetical interpretations of Late Antique Greek ecclesiastical architecture and recognize that some of the ambiguity confronting the modern scholar would have been present for the ancient viewer as well.

A substantial revision of how we understand Early Christian architecture in the context of Late Antique history of Greece has the additional benefit of shedding valuable light on the implications of more traditional interpretative paradigms. Recent work on the historiography of Late Antiquity has revealed the strong, and not entirely unexpected, influence of Orientalist influences in the work of late 19th and early 20th century pioneers in the discipline like A. Riegl as well as in the long-suspect but no less significant works of J. Strzygowski.[1] The willingness to consider the “Eastern” influence on the art of the Late Roman world drew upon contemporary practices of essentializing cultures and tracking cultural traces through the art, architecture, and cultural syntheses that emerged from periods of intimate contact. Flattering or unflattering critiques of the art of Late Antiquity often depended upon assessing how much influence “Oriental cultures” had on the artistic development of that age and thereby reflected the colonial judgments of Western European scholars derived in part from the experiences of contemporary political contacts with the societies of the so-called “Orient”.

The desire to understand the character and boundaries of these essentialized cultures intersected with the nationalistic goals for archaeology in places like Greece. From the second decade of the 20th century men like George Soteriou and Anastasius Orlandos revealed the presence of numerous Early Christian basilicas throughout the modern boundaries of the Greek state.[2] The uniformity of these buildings confirmed in the mind of these scholars the relatively uniformity of a Christian Greek culture within and perhaps even beyond the boundaries of the modern nation-state during 5th century AD. Moreover, the emphasis reading architecture in Greece as evidence for the development of the Christian liturgy not only established a historical connection between the Early Christian liturgy in Greece and its Middle Byzantine successor but also placed Greece firmly within the liturgical history of both Constantinople and the broader Orthodox world. Thus, the architecture and liturgy of Greece sought not only to define the ancient roots of Greek Christian culture, but also to tie it to the culture of the Orthodox Eastern Mediterranean at the very moment when Greek territorial ambitions had been stifled after the disastrous Asia Minor campaigns of the early 1920s. The terms of debate established by Soteriou and Orlandos persisted even as the discipline of Early Christian archaeology passed into the hands of scholars with rather different political views like Demetrius Pallas.

In contrast to paradigms rooted in the historicism of the national narrative, postcolonial theory provides a sustained critique of the unity and integrity of culture as a constituent component of individual or group identity.[3] By critiquing our reading of Early Christian culture in the context of the art and architecture of Greece we offer a clear challenge to the long shadows of Orientalism and nationalism that still fall over Late Antique scholarship.[4] Such efforts reinforces the readings of Late Antiquity that view the emergence of something identifiable as the Late Antique or Early Christian world less as the coalescing of a distinct culture, and more the interplay of diverse individuals, groups, and interests across the Eastern Mediterranean. In this intellectual context, Early Christian basilicas no longer stand out as merely static markers of Christian authority in the landscape and instead come to be places where the population of Greece negotiated changing notions of authority, social and religious hierarchy, cosmology, ritual life, and even the role of religious and public architecture in the life of the community. By undermining monolithic claims to cultural unity and authority, which resonate so closely with the modern distortions of totalitarian regimes, we shift our focus f
rom the institutional power of the Early Christian church to the complex interplay of the various groups within Late Antique society in the creation of a distinct, if unstable, Christian discourse.

[1] S.L. Marchand, “The Rhetoric of Artifacts and the Decline of Classical Humanism: The Case of Josef Strzygowski.” History and Theory 33 (1994), 106-130; J. Elsner, “The birth of late antiquty: Riegl and Strzygowski in 1901,” Art History 25 (2002), 358-79.

[2] W. Bowden, Epirus Vetus, 22-24; W. H. C. Frend, The Archaeology of Early Christianity, a History. (London 1997), 204-205, 244-245.

[3] H. Bhabha, “Postmodernism/Postcolonialism” in Critical Terms for Art History. R. Nelson and R. Schiff eds. (Chicago 1996), 302-322.

[4] For a sustained critique of these methods, albeit in a different context see: F. Curta, The Making of the Slavs. (Cambridge 2001), 6-36.

Categories: Late Antiquity
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