Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

God and Gold in Late Antiquity

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

God and Gold in Late Antiquity

Article excerpt

God and Gold in Late Antiquity. By Dominic Janes. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 1998. Pp. xii, 212;13 b/w halftones, 1 color frontispiece.)

This little book consists in five chapters. Chapter 1 is actually an introduction to the book overall; the chapter skims several subjects: public display of wealth, early Christianity and wealth, gift exchange and gift giving, the so-called jeweled style, Jewish iconophobia (presenting a view that is fifty years out of date), moral opposition to wealth and luxury, luxury commodities as social markers, power, representing God in gold, sex, symbolism. All this (and there is more!) in seventeen pages.

Chapter 2.1 concerns the Roman Imperial application of luxury goods (precious metals, selected colors [notably purple], textiles, gemstones, pearls, coins, `precious substances,' colored marbles, gold tesserae, opus sectile, silver plate) as traditional markers of power (all clearly borrowed from Hellenistic models, although Janes does not mention this); the author lumps this omnium gatherum under the rubric "secular": a problematic if not downright misleading term, given the context. Chapter 2.2 concerns the early Christian appropriation of the materials outlined in Part 1; the result, we are told, is the creation of a church built on the so-called treasure society mentality. This is without doubt a reasonable judgment.

Chapter 3 is based on literary sources and attempts to explain how early Christianity managed to reconcile the evangelical call to poverty with the ecclesiastical commitment to building up the Church on the model of a treasure society. Much of this chapter focuses on Latin metaphorical and allegorical readings of the Song of Solomon and John's Revelation-the time frame of this interpretative exercise (as Janes presents it) extends well beyond the Late Roman period into medieval western Europe.

Chapter 4 treats iconographic issues, mosaic iconography (with particular attention to Christian appropriations of Imperial types and the use of gilded tesserae) along with an examination of the so-called golden aesthetic "from Antiquity to the Middle Ages." The author deigns to share his view ("gaudy") of the jeweled cross in the apse of Sant'Apollinare in Classes bumpkins like the present reviewer probably will continue to admire this image despite Janes's peremptory dismissal.

This concluding chapter returns to what I take to be the book's main theoretical crux, namely how the early Christians reconciled their commitment to voluntary poverty with their church's wealth. …

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