The imperial realm
The imperial realm Portraiture
With the exception of medical illustration, portraiture is surely the most subject-linked of all forms of visual expression. It requires a model, either in memory or actuality, and it will always be judged, to some extent, by its success in conveying something specific about that model to its viewer—despite Thomas Eakins’ consolation to a dissatisfied sitter: “After all, in a hundred years who’ll know the difference?”
The successful portrait is also a work of art: it shares the stylistic qualities of art of its time and place and hence usually can be placed with some accuracy —something not always true of medical illustration. A portrait from fifteenth-century Flanders will not be mistaken for one from the same country a century later. This is not because of superficial attributes of costume or setting; there is a deeper way in which all art shares the general stylistic and interpretative qualities of its ambience. Although the people around us on the street seem to differ widely in appearance, the “look” of men and women at a particular place and time shares similar stylistic imperatives.
We are now, for example, aware of what is called a “1920s look,” recognizable not only in photographs of people from that decade but in its painting, its graphic arts and design, and even its architecture. A period and its “look” may not necessarily be unified ; at no time was this likely true, certainly not in our own century. Consider the 1950s: the same decade that began with the “Zoot Suit” and ended with a “Leather Look” was also the heyday of the “Man in the Brooks Brother Suit.” Each was an instantly recognizable representative of a distinct socioeconomic class. One mode was almost certainly a reaction to the other—but it was impossible to know which to which.
If we can accept such premises, it will be easier to see the relevance of Late Antique portraiture to the development of Christian art. However different the subject matter—for there were no actual likenesses of the founders of the Church, Christ or the apostles—portraiture itself did reflect its own time with accuracy, not only in the mechanical aspects of artistic style but in contemporary concepts of nature, human and otherwise.
Because they are based on specific individuals, portraits hold at least the possibility of identification and, hence, precise dating. Imperial portraiture is the most useful in this respect, since multiple images of the same model were made and since coin types can usually supply basic data on the likeness. Still, as will be demonstrated, precision is not invariably possible even with these.
The earliest imperial portraits here, of Trebonianus Gallus (no. 1) and of Gallienus (no. 2), present the artistic alternatives available to the artist—and to his client—at the middle of the third century. The Roman Empire was tom apart by internal conflict, while its borders were being ravaged by foreign invasion. The senate and the army promoted rival candidates for supreme power—none of whom proved equal to the task—and contrasting imagery developed to portray the candidates of the opposing factions.
Military chieftains like Trebonianus were shown grizzled and grim, with close-cropped skulls and scowling brows. Senatorial candidates, the group to which Gallienus belonged by inheritance, were depicted as more genial, longer of hair and beard, more dignified in expression, perhaps more complacent because of a longer historical perspective. While antecedents of the military image can be traced to the death-mask-like memorials of the worthies of the Roman Republic, the stylistic background of the other mode is made explicit by Gallienus in his later portraiture, where his heaven-fixed gaze emulates that of Alexander the Great, who had sought thus to dramatize the divine inspiration of his own mission.
Comparison of Gallienus’ earlier and later portraiture, in sculpture or coinage, shows a shift of imagery that marks the true beginning of late antiquity (fig. 1); the later portraits, like no. 2, transform the actual appearance of the emperor, so that he comes to be shown not in his physical but, somehow, his spiritual self. This change in attitude toward what art should represent—to what is reality—is explicit not only in these portraits but in the words of the greatest philosopher of the day, one whose lectures Gallienus is supposed to have attended: Plotinus the Neoplatonist, who had refused to have his own portrait taken, since it would show only the mundane, not the “true” spiritual and intellectual reality which was what really mattered about himself as a person.
This new attitude toward reality and truth underlies Christian as well as late pagan representation; yet it would be a mistake to assume that it permitted artists to ignore physical reality. In a portrait, the starting point was always the individual subject.
The stylistic legacy of the third century, then, was a determination of the possible range of modes of representation, from the military—compact, geometric forms, hard, tight surfaces with linear details worked by incising—to the senatorial—open forms with soft and contrasting textured surfaces, developed by plastic modeling. Both styles had their roots in classical precedent, but the former tended toward a less classical expression, while the more Hellenizing senatorial mode was more frequently used to exemplify the periods of retrospection when the glories of imperial Rome were evoked to inspire contemporary effort and emulation.
Certainly both modes were in practice during the period of the Tetrarchy at the close of the century (figs. 2, 3). On the evidence of the coins, the two seem to have followed geographic preferences, with the “hard ” style mostly current in the Oriental provinces, from Egypt to Syria and over to the Balkans, and the “soft” style based in Greece and the Latin West.
It was at this time that the “hard,” anticlassical style, the most distinctive style of the Tetrarchy, was pushed to its ultimate point of compaction at the hands of Egyptian sculptors working the most intractable stones (nos. 3, 5). This reduction of form soon, reached a stage that eliminated all traces of historic sources, whether in Roman Republican or dynastic Egyptian precedent; it also stressed basic shapes so strongly that differences between models can become difficult to descry (nos. 5, 7). Nevertheless, it is clear that there were real differences between the transmitted likenesses of the different Tetrarchs, and, although these may often have been felt to be less significant than the identities that unified the rulers within their system, in most major works we may distinguish members of the group from one another.
Constantine the Great came to power within the Tetrarchal system and used its means of propaganda, such as its imperial imagery, as instruments in his rise to supreme rule. He early abandoned the “hard” style, however, and turned to the alternative tradition of classical evocation, which more explicitly alluded to specific styles of the imperial past. At the capture of Rome, his desire to exploit such associations was demonstrated on the triumphal arch quickly erected to commemorate the event (no. 58). Incorporated into its decoration were not only contemporary, “hard” style reliefs of episodes of the conquest of Italy, but also reliefs made originally for monuments honoring Trajan, Hadrian (fig. 9) and Marcus Aurelius. While this reuse of “spoils” is usually attributed to the haste with which the arch was erected and to the shortage of competent sculptors in devastated Rome, it has recently been recognized that a positive selection controlled the choice of borrowed images: these were the “good” emperors with whom Constantine hoped to be associated.
His own portraiture at the time of his arch shows rounded forms executed in a restrained, Trajanic classicism, while his coins were imitating Trajanic types and style. In a subsequent phase (no. 9) the head was elongated and the temples widened to form a wedge shape, a form that had Augustan precedents. In his final stage of self-glorification, after his vicen- nalia, Constantine’s portraits become more oval (no. 11), with reminiscences of Antonine style and, beyond that, of the apotheosized Alexander. Through all of these transformations, remarkably, the unique traits of Constantine’s appearance persist.
One other feature emerges in the art of this time: the creation of portraits—and other works of art, for that matter—of greatly increased size. This had been a heritage of Rome from Hellenistic taste and seems to have been particularly popular with emperors of authoritarian bent—the most famous colossus had been that of Nero, while Gallienus is reported to have left unfinished a colossal portrait of himself as Helios, for example. Still there seems no real precedent for the quantity of overscaled— that is, over life-size—works produced for the Con- stantinian dynasty. Reports of other enormous images come from other places in his empire; yet these all are merely the most exceptional works, rising over an army of lesser colossi only once or twice life-size. This taste must be marked as one of the distinctive traits of the Constantinian period.
A reaction to this extravagance seems to have set in soon after Constantine’s death (no. 15), and, after the passing of Constantius II, the counterdirection became dominant. The new style is related in only the slightest degree to the old “military” tradition (in the incised eyebrows of Gratian, no. 18, for example), but it does form as direct as possible an antithesis to Constantinian expressionism.
Such compact, crystalline, delicate forms, apparently typical of the Valentinian period, are replaced in the next generation by a style of ovoid heads, inorganic bodies, and richly ornamented surfaces, using or suggesting the most precious materials (no. 20). Theodosian art is complex in its references, as with its revival of female coiffures popular in the early Constantinian period, which were emulations of Antonine fashions; the Theodosians seem to begin where the Constantinians left off. In its later phase, delicacy of form and softness of textures predominated in Theodosian sculpture, giving rise to the term the “subtle” style.
The Theodosian dynasty, under which the Roman Empire was permanently divided into two entities, was also the last dynasty to offer a coherent body of portraiture with a sense of a dynastic style, even a mode (cf. the Theodosius obelisk [no. 99]). With the rapid overthrow of usurper after usurper hastening the collapse of the Western Empire and threatening the survival of the Eastern, imperial imagery offers only random clues to the course of events. When stability returned in the East, conditions had changed so much that traditional imperial portraiture is no longer a useful index to stylistic developments.
Instead, from the beginning of the fifth through the middle of the sixth century, a series of images appears in a new artistic form: the ivory consular diptychs. At the same time, the group shows the possible range of regional variation within a generally standardized period style.
A different sort of clue is offered by the small medallion portraits of imperial overseers placed on Constantinopolitan consular diptychs in the early sixth century (no. 48). These supply our best evidence for the attribution of a number of distinctive full- scale imperial portraits to the same period. Several of these sculptures (e.g., no. 24), as well as two ivory panels (e.g., no. 25) are best identified with the empress Ariadne.
This spherical, polished style of the early sixth century ushers in a new series of classicizing episodes in Byzantine portraiture, in which forms soften and lengthen, and textures blend into uniform smoothness. The supremely elegant head of Theodora in Milan (no. 27) makes clear the debt of this period to Theodosian precedent, while pictures of Justinian (no. 28) imitate, even surpass, earlier imperial images of victory. Our evidence for the imperial portraiture of Justinian’s reign is fragmentary to say the least, but it seems to show an evolution from earlier classicism—probably initiated under Justin I—toward increasing drama and expressionism, exemplified by the scowling porphyry head preserved on the balcony of S. Marco in Venice (fig. 6).
In spite of continuing imperial awareness of the importance of imperial portraiture (no. 27), other evidence in the arts shows that this iconography was becoming much less significant in relation to the growing body of religious imagery. The sixth century appears to be the last in which imperial portraiture was made in any quantity for purely secular political purposes. From this time forward, the focus of Byzantine imperial art is on the art of the Church; that of the rulers serves only to honor and exalt the religious empire (no. 29).