Late Antique and Early Christian art in the Mediterranean World   

Prof. Irene Baldriga, IES ROME

This Semester, the course will be cotaught by Dr Baldriga and Dr Racioppi

Fall Semester 2007


(Head of St. Paul))

Description of the course  - Course objectives - Syllabus - Readings - Visits and Field Trips - Grading&Assessment - Research Paper and clues

Pre-requisites (read this carefully!)

Frequently Asked Questions

Instructor's Profile - Virtual Classroom

The course: Considering the area of the Mediterranean world, with emphasis on the cities of Rome and Ravenna, and focusing on the period included between 4th and 6th centuries A.D., the course will trace the pivotal mainstreams of visual art determined by the crisis of the Roman Empire and  the birth of a specific Christian art. Lectures will examine the dialogue/contrast between pagan and Christian art, by paying a particular attention to the mechanisms and to the strategies of translation and transformation of visual languages. The structure of the course will be, thus, centred on lines of internal communication (among different social, political and religious spheres) and of geographical communication (between Western and Eastern Empires).   

Course objectives:

By the end of the course students will have:

-         an outline of the history and geography of the later Roman Empire;

-         a familiarity with the principal works of early Christian art and architecture (with particular attention to the cities of Rome and Ravenna);

-         an awareness of the interaction of cultures which is on the basis of the birth of Christian art (understanding of the differences between classical and sub-antique languages and ability to identify their principal stylistic patterns);

-         a comprehension of the phenomenon of cultural translation during the period examined;

-         an awareness of the meaning of the concept of  the “loss of centre”;

-         a basic knowledge of the main artistic techniques used in the later Roman Empire (mosaics, wall painting, etc.);

-    a basic knowledge of early Christian    iconography.


Part I – Introduction to the course. The age of Constantine. (3 weeks)

Introduction to the scope and material of the course. Historical introduction to the age of Constantine. It will follow a deep analysis of the building and decoration of the Constantine Arch as a major example of the ascendance of “sub-antique” style to an official importance. The discussion on the style used in the bas-reliefs representing the “Liberalitas” and the “Oratio” of the Emperor will involve political and social aspects concerning Constantine’s age, stressing the reasons which brought to such a radical (and conscious) change in the artistic language. A particular attention will be given to the concept of the “loss of centre” as a leit-motif of early Christian art (comparisons with previous examples of “official” Roman art will allow students to better understand such a substantial phenomenon). 

Part II – From Catacombs to Basilicas. (2 weeks)

Short analysis of the first spaces destined to liturgy and of the use of subterranean areas for funeral purpose (Catacombs). A deeper attention will be given to the creation of the first basilicas as a translation of a typical Roman building into the ideal place devoted to Christian liturgy. The creation and symbolic meaning of the first St. Peter’s Basilica will be examined with particular attention. 

Part III - From mimesis to message: iconographic themes in early Christian Art. (2 weeks)

This part of the course will examine the growing importance of symbolic themes in early Christian Art. Visual references to a number of examples taken from sarcophagi’s decorations and wall paintings will strengthen students’ knowledge to this regard (from “colloquial” Christ to “basileus” Christ: the apse mosaic in the church of Santa Pudenziana in Rome; the evolution of the symbol of the Cross). With regards to the transfer of pagan themes into Christian decoration, the mosaics of the Mausoleum of Santa Costanza will be also examined.  Textual reading will also help to better understand the meaning of signs and symbols. A particular attention will be given to the translation of classical themes and subjects into Christian iconography (a discussion of Matthew’s book “The Clash of Gods” (1993) will be suggested during the lessons).  

Part IV – Byzantine Italy. From narrative space to transcendental space: the relation architecture-decoration in Ravenna at the time of Galla Placidia, Teodorico and Giustiniano. ( 3 weeks)

The subject will be introduced by a short historical presentation of the period corresponding to the division of the Roman Empire and to the critical times which followed. Political contacts between Ravenna and Constantinople will be explained in order to contextualize the diffusion of the Byzantine language in the visual art. The emergence of a new concept of decoration, meant not just as an addition to the building, but on the contrary as the access to a super-natural dimension will be explained by examining pivotal monuments such as Galla Placidia’s Mausoleum and the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. Monuments in Ravenna will be also examined in order to compare their architectural structures with the most important buildings raised in Constantinople in the same period (Basilica of Haghia Sofia, SS. Sergius and Baccus). Focus on minor arts will be also offered, by examining major examples such as Massiminiano’s ivory throne in Ravenna. 

Part V – Teaching by Art: the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. (1 week)

The coexistence of sub-antique elements (such as symbolism, absence of perspective) and classical space in the mosaics decoration of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome makes particularly clear the didactic – but also political - use of art during the Vth century. A comparison with the art of illumination (Virgilius Vaticanus’ codex) will permit a deeper comprehension of the concept of naturalism and symbolism in the visual technology of that time. 

Part VI – Rome and Constantinople: the resistance of Roman Aristocracy and the progressive corruption of classical language. (1 week)

The stylistic analysis of minor arts items (ivory objects such as diptycs and silver items) will permit to discuss the resistance of a part of the leading social population against the dramatic linguistic and cultural transformation of the Empire. A particular importance will be given to the production of ivory diptycs, where the stylistic change  (meant as a different conception of the relation between space and figure and as a progressive loss of proportional consciousness) appears clearly. Objects of study will include: Nichomacorum and Symmachorum diptyc; Lampadio’s diptyc; Boetius’ diptyc, and so forth.  



Kitzinger, Ernst, Byzantine Art in the Making. Main Lines of Stylistic Development in the Mediterranean Art, 3rd-7th Century, Cambridge, Mass., 1977. 

Mathews, F. Thomas, The clash of Gods. A reinterpretation of Early Christian Art, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.  


containing the following articles:

- Extract from P. Brown, “The world of late antiquity”, London 2002 (1971), pp. 49-68;

- Extract from Fiocchi-Nicolai-Bisconti-Mazzoleni, “The Christian Catacombs of Rome. History, Decoration, Inscriptions”, 1998, Chapter II, pp. 71-144 (in the Italian Edition);

- Extract from F. Mancinelli, “The Catacombs of Rome and the origins of Christianity”, pp. 3-16; 21-25; 33-38; 49-51.

- Extract from Jh. Lowden, “Early Christian and Byzantine Art”, 1997, Chapter I, “The formation of Christian Art”, pp. 11-60; Chapter III, “Ravenna and the West”, pp. 103-144.

- Extract from Honour-Fleming, “The Visual Art. A history”, London, 2002, Chapter VII, pp. 300-325.

- Texts from Internet sources:

Margherita Guarducci, The Remains of Peter

The Edict of Milan

Tertullian, Apology of Christianism, CHAPTER xxxix

Letter of Gaius Plinius to the Emperor Trajan


Elsner, Jas, Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph, Oxford-New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 

Aurea Roma. Dalla città pagana alla città cristiana, edited by Serena Ensoli & Eugenio La Rocca, exhibition catalogue, Rome, 2000/2001. 

Cameron, A. The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity (AD 395-600), London: Routledge, Routledge History of Ancient World, 1993. 

Elsner, Jas, Art and the Roman Viewer. The Transformation of Art from the Pagan World to Christianity, Cambridge University Press, 1995. 

Grabar A., Christian Iconography: A Study of its Origins, New York, 1968. 

Jensen, Robin M., Understanding Early Christian Art, New York: Routledge, 2000. 

J. Lowden, Early Christian and Byzantine Art, London: Phaidon Press Limited,1997.  

Weitzmann K., ed. Age of Spirituality, late Antique and early Christian art, Third to Seventh Century, New York, 1979.


N.B. : read this carefully

This is a 330  level  course. Students are expected to  have already acquired at least a basic historical and art historical knowledge concerning Classical time (Greek and Roman civilization). Newers to the discipline are welcome, but they have to be aware that they might need to make an additional effort. In order to understand the principles of Christian iconography, it is extremely important that you have a quite detailed knowledge of Christ's life and preaching.

To test yourself, try to answer the following questions:

1) Why was Constantine the Great  a crucial character in the  history of Christianism? When did he live?

2) Who were the "barbarians" and where did they come from?

3) Why were the Christians persecuted by the Roman Empire?

4) Could you mention at least five masterpieces of Classical art?

5) What do we mean by "classical" art?

6) Where was situated Constantinople?

7) Could you mention at least 5 main episodes told in the Gospels?

8) What happened in 476 A.D.?

Hints for newers:

 Suggested additional readings:

M. Henig (ed), "A Handbook of Roman Art", Phaidon Press.


D. Emrys Strong, J.M.C. Toynbee, Roger Ling,  "Roman Art", Pelican History of Art.


P. Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, Library of European Civilazation

Once you are in Rome, visit at least the following sites: Museo Nazionale Romano di Palazzo Altemps (near Piazza Navona); the Roman Forum.

Visits and Field Trips

Santa Costanza’s Mausoleum and Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura; Church of Santa Pudenziana and Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore; Vatican Necropolis (if allowed);  Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano and Basilica of San Clemente.

Changes to this list of field trips might be made on the basis of the possibility to get special permissions to visit sights usually closed to the public. Priority will be given to monuments and sights not easily accessible. For field trips requiring special permissions, students will be asked to sign in advance a sheet of reservation.

Students are strongly encouraged to visit on their own sights and monuments treated by the course which, for evident didactic reasons and lack of time, it will not be possible to visit together.

  Format, Method, Grading, Assessment

Course format: since the work of art will be the central focus of the course, classes will be held – partly – in situ (see the list of visits below).  

Method of presentation: lectures, seminar discussions, visits to monuments and sights, slides, use of multimedia and internet resources (selected by the instructor).

Class time: Monday and Wednesday, 15,45-17,30 (Link Campus, Via Nomentana)  

Required work and form of assessment: Class attendance and participation (15%); midterm (20%); research paper (30%); final exam (35%). Final exams will be based on both the course lectures and the assigned readings.  

Grading: the final grade will be based on the exams, the paper and class participation (which requires that students attend class). The format of the exams and the extent of the research paper will be discussed in class.

Research paper: the research paper will be focused on the presentation of a work of art (very likely a church) to be chosen from a list suggested by the teacher. By examining a specific work of art, main goal of the student should be making logical connections to the main topics treated in class. It is mandatory to know directly the building or work of art which is the object of the paper. The research paper may be of approximately 4-5, pages, possibly typewritten and double spaced with footnotes, bibliography and (if possible) illustrations. An elementary bibliographic research is required. Presentations of the paper in class are welcome and may involve the attribution of extra-credits to be considered in the final grade. Be careful in quoting your sources: plagiarism is punished and considered as a very serious offence.

For information concerning art history libraries in Rome click here 

Instructor's Profile

Irene Baldriga is art history Ph.D.; she graduated from Rome’s University “La Sapienza” and was awarded with several fellowships from Italian and foreign cultural institutions. She has a wide experience in teaching art history and regularly participates to international academic projects. She has published extensively in Italian and English on art history topics from medieval to contemporary times and participated to the organization of several exhibitions. She recently published a book for the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei. Her favourite field of research is Renaissance and Baroque art, the history of collecting and patronage and the relation art-science in early modern Europe.

See also her other courses: Rome as a Living Museum (usually during the Fall - with Prof. Racioppi); XVI and XVII century Art and Papal Patronage (Spring); 20th century Italian Art and Architecture (Spring)

Photo Gallery from previous courses

Irene Baldriga's Home Page

Virtual Classroom

A Virtual Classroom has been created to promote discussion among the group. Students are strongly encouraged to participate, sending materials and sharing thoughts and opinions about the topics treated in the real class, assignments and readings. Proposals are welcome.

You can join the Virtual Classroom from the site, typing the code you will be provided by the Instructor after the add-and-drop period.

Frequently Asked Questions


- Absences

- Participation Assignments, Readings

- Research Papers

- Pre-requisites

- Exams

- Field Trips

- Virtual Classroom


1. How many absences are tolerated without being penalized in the final grade?

But for the justified absences (due to illness or very serious personal or logistic problems) a maximum of three absences is tolerated. As a general rule, it is necessary to communicate absences in advance, especially when students are missing field trips which often requires reservations.

2. How is it possible to communicate absences?

Oral communication or e-mail to the teacher, if possible, or phone call to the Office.


Participation, Assignments, Readings.

1. With regards to the "participation" expected, what is exactly taken in consideration?

Attendance to the course, active presence and demostration of interest by posing pertinent questions and by taking part to discussions in the real and in the virtual classroom.

2. Are students supposed to study the assigned readings on the basis of the schedule provided at the beginning of the course?

Yes. A fruitful discussion would otherwise impossible.

3. Is  the additional material provided in class considered as a part of the required readings for the mid-term and the final exam?



Research Papers

1. Is it mandatory to present the research papers in class?

No, but once you have enrolled to do it you are expected to keep your commitment.

2. Is it possible to extend the lenght of the research paper (more the  5 pages suggested)?

As a general rule, no. 

3. Is it possible to use also internet resources for the research paper?

Yes, provided that the information given are reliable (ask to the Instructor).

4. Is it mandatory to insert images in the research paper?

No, but it is strongly recommended (you can use also postcards, digital images, photos, etc.).

5. Is it possible to propose a different topic from those suggested by the Instructor?

Yes, if you can adduce some good reasons and if the topic proposed is worth a research.

6. Which are the assessments applied to the research paper?

Linguistic Accuracy



Use of  Art Historical Jargon



Pertinent comments and impressions



Contents and Historical Information



Critical approach



Appropriate connections to the course and to the readings



Coherence of the interpretation and description



References to the issue of patronage



Demostration of a direct knowledge of the city and of its monuments



Tidiness and Format



Bibliographic Research and Sources quoted























1. Are there pre-requisites required  to attend the course?

The course is a 331 level. It would be necessary to have at least a general idea of the art-historical method. and a general knowledge of the historical context taken in consideration . Newers to the art historical field are welcome, but they must be aware that an additional effort will be required to them in order to acquire the very basic tools of the subject. Additional readings might be necessary to them. For further information click here.



1. Which is the format of the mid-term and of the final exam?

Written test, consisting of 15 multiple choice questions (awarded 2 points each), 10 true-false questions (awarded 1 point each) and 5 short anwers (awarded 5 points each).

2. Which are the assessments applied to the short answers?








Linguistic Accuracy, style and tydiness                             







Critical  approach and personal remarks







Contents and Historical Information







References to the readings             (0-2)







Pertinent use of the art historical jargon and critical tools                            (0-2)
















Field Trips

1. Will the contents of the Field Trips to Monuments and Sights be included in the exams?

Sure. Field Trips are not for amusement, but they are meant to be a crucial part of the course. That's why it is extremely important that students do their best to don't miss them and try to take notes of the explanations given.

2. What does it happen if a field trip overlaps with classes of other courses?

Should something similar occur, this will be considered as an exception and absences justified by other teachers. Field trips always require the Director's approval.

3. Who does cover the costs of the fields trips (tickets to museums)?

IES will do, under the decision of our Director.


Virtual Classroom.

1. How do I join the Virtual Classroom?

Go and type the key you will be provided by the Instructor. 

2. Is it mandatory to join the V.C.?

Yes. You can use the PC at our Office in Corso Trieste.

3. May I simply peep at the classroom, without sending messages? 

Sure. Although an active participation would be welcome.

4. May I propose topics of academic discussion in the virtual classroom?

Yes, that would be perfect.