Art critic Waldemar Januszczak has focused his new BBC4 series on the Dark Ages and is aiming to show that it has been terribly misnamed. When you see the sparkling mosaics that the period produced you have to concede he has a point. Maybe the centuries between the fall of Rome and the rise of William the Bastard were not a destructive melange of backwardness but instead a time when art was redefined and retargeted.
Before Constantine’s Edict of MIlan Christianity was an underground movement, its members living in fear and communicating in ambiguous symbols. In these drawings of fish and anchors Januszczak sees the beginnings of the great Christian art of the Dark Ages. This was given a fuller chance for expression when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire in 313AD. With the full resources of a huge empire behind it, Christian art could blossom – though it needed a direction and a form, which was taken from the pagan gods around.
Moving from Rome to Sicily, the Vatican to Cleveland, the programme certainly took us to all the great sights that built up the argument. The dark, narrow catacombs brought the first depiction of Jesus – though no one knew what Jesus looked like, so they had to make it up. At first he was a youthful looker – based on the handsome Roman god Apollo. Later on he even gained Apollo’s halo. Januszczak makes the interesting point that early portrayals of Jesus were feminised, as though there was a need for Christians to see something of the female in their God. When they had appropriated a suitable feminine figure from the Egyptian deities and constructed the ‘Virgin Mary’, images of Jesus were freed up to become more masculine. It is an interesting thesis.
It wasn’t just the visualisations of gods that Christianity borrowed. As it was now the religion of the Emperor it needed grander buildings than the house churches with which it had managed for three centuries. There were no religious predecessors from whom to steal design ideas, so the early Christian architects looked to the largest buildings in Rome for tips. These were the basilicas, used as law courts, but altered to make the first great churches.
This episode was only the first of the series, but with enthusiasm and a loud stage whisper Januszczak has set the scene for the following programmes when he will look at the art of Islam and look at what the Barbarians did for us. I think we’re going to discover they’ve been misnamed as well.