Book Reviews -- the Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art by Thomas F. Mathews

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THOMAS F, MATHEWS The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. 208 pp.; 16 color ills., 122 b/w.$49.50

In 336, Donatus, bishop of Carthage (the founder of the schismatic "Donatist" church in Roman Africa), rebuked the imperial authorities: "Quid est imperatori cum ecclesia?" he wrote, "What has the emperor to do with the Church"(1) Though uttered in pique (the emperor had given to his rivals funds for the care of the poor which Donatus himself had hoped to administer), these were fighting words. Thomas Mathews's The Clash of Gods is the work of an art-historical Donatist. He wants to exclude the emperor-the art and ceremonial associated with the emperor's person along with their absolutist overtones-from the artistic and, by implication, from the imaginative world of post-Constantinian Christianity, much as Donatus had wished to exclude him from the affairs of the Donatist church.

The Clash of Gods is written to free Early Christian art of the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries from what Mathews calls "the incubus of imperial interpretation" (p. 179). A previous tradition of art history, in his opinion, had imposed on the interpretation of this art "The Mistake of the Emperor Mystique": that is, it was claimed that much of the Christian art of the period was consciously derived from prototypes in imperial art. And with the art came the ideology attached to such an art. By borrowing from imperial models in this manner, late Roman Christians were assumed to have swathed the figure of Christ in a thick wrapping of "latent memories" that charged his figure with the absolutist power of a Roman emperor. Mathews will have none of this. He rightly insists that Christians of that period thought of Christ as a god, not as an emperor. He further insists that they were perfectly capable of creating an art of their own to convey their message. Indeed, it was their ability to do this that was part of the secret of the Church's victory over paganism. In "a relentless war of images" (p. 21), the Christian art of the post-Constantinian period carried the greater "punch" (p. 14). This, so Mathews insists, was precisely because Christians looked away from the heavy-handed obsequiousness of the imperial court to a wider range of images--to images of the gods and to images associated with less elevated but imaginatively more appealing areas of late Roman society: to the suave and resolutely antimilitarist philosopher and even (Mathews suggests at length with impish delight) to raffish figures of the religious demimonde, to the magician and to persons of indeterminate gender. For Christ, Mathews assures us, won out because he was the right sort of god. He was "A god of the 'little man.' a genuine 'grass-roots' god ... a caring god, concerned" (p. 92). Thus, Early Christian art derived its appeal not from echoing the stuffy solemnity that still reigned in imperial circles, but from its ability to present to the grass roots the image of a new, accessible divinity, many of whose representations positively subverted the official art of the Establishment. It is of this streak in Early Christian art that Mathews writes with undisguised fervor.

For modern persons, it is a pardonable enthusiasm, Mathews's Early Christianity is so very nice. Emperors, as we all know, were usually far from nice. They tended to have authoritarian personalities. Their art was rigid and overbearing. It would be nice to think that it was a Christ of "Buddha-like pacifism" (p. 45), "non-military and non-imperial" (p. 62), whose images swept the Roman world. What a reviewer whose speciality lies not in art history but in the social, cultural, and religious life of the post-Constantinian era must ask is whether such a Christianity ever existed; whether, or to what an extent, the Christian images of the time spoke with the voice of such a Christianity; or whether Mathews's Clash of Gods is based upon so large a measure of misunderstanding of what late Roman Christianity was likely to be like as to make his explanation of the sources, of the social and political context, and so of the power of Christian images in this period at best anachronistic, at worst an exercise in wishful thinking. …