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Monumental Art of the Christian and Early Islamic East: Cultural Identities and Classical Heritage

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - HERITAGE (Monumental Art of the Christian and Early Islamic East: Cultural Identities and Classical Heritage)

Reporting period: 2018-03-01 to 2019-08-31

In Late Antiquity (AD 250–750) the predominant religion in Egypt and Syro-Palestine (modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine) changed from paganism to Christianity and, in turn, to Islam. These changes are reflected in monumental art in a variety of media (wall-paintings, floor and wall-mosaics, relief sculpture). These artworks were the product of local expressions of identity, religion, and culture, combined with “classical” (Greco-Roman) traditions. This project aims to distinguish features of the largely unrecognized continuity of regional classical traditions as opposed to those of Rome, Constantinople, and Alexandria (once the characteristic features of the art of late antique Egypt have been established). The role of local artisans in the creation of these artworks will be ascertained by following both workmanship and content into Christian and early Islamic art. Examples in a variety of media, of which sufficient survive, will be used to achieve these aims. As many of the monuments to be studied are major buildings in the Middle East, this project will increase understanding of the region and an appreciation of its heritage.
The starting point of Study 1, on the ‘Art of Late Antique Egypt and Alexandria’, for a book of that title, was the Old Testament paintings on a large linen in the Abegg-Stiftung near Bern. Examination of these revealed a uniquely Egyptian tradition of this genre of painting scenes in pale tones on dark blue linen. After an extensive study, it was also possible, with the help of early Church historian Teresa Morgan, to conclude that it was made for a Christian audience, rather than a Jewish one. We also discovered that there was an unrecognised tradition in Egypt of large scale textiles with figural scenes in resist-dyed, loop-pile, and tapestry methods of production. From our research on Ethiopic manuscripts and the influence of Egypt they display, came a study-day and public-engagement event at the Bodleian Library, and a publication of the library’s holdings of Eritrean and Ethiopic material, as well as a major monograph on the remarkable and recently discovered Garima Gospels. Parallel work on the Luxor cult-chamber wall murals has led to a full reinterpretation of these important remains, which is about to be submitted for publication. Work has also begun on the wall-paintings of the Bagawat necropolis, especially focusing on the ‘Chapel of Peace’ and its relations to the iconography of Christian salvation in fourth-century funerary art and Egyptian textiles.

Study 2 on the ‘Art of Late Antique Syria: Floor Mosaics’ has five main sections, of which the first three have been completed. The first focusses on the distinctive ‘Syrian’ geometric patterns, which have a long continuity – into the early Islamic period. The same patterns were found to occur in churches, as well as synagogues and Islamic buildings, so that they were in contexts other than those where figural scenes were being avoided, contrary to what has been assumed. The second section concerns pavements in churches with animals on them. Unlike elsewhere, where hunt scenes are common, a tradition developed in Syria of mosaics with various wild animals in them without figures. The third section examines the previously unexplored phenomenon, which is almost unique to Syria (and Jordan), of the depiction of biblical scenes on church floors. The draft manuscript of the planned book project on Syrian floor mosaics in their regional context, the first comprehensive study of these, has been written and is now being prepared for submission to Cambridge University Press.

Since the project was formulated, a great deal of work has been done on Qusayr Amra by others, with increased interest in it since it was cleaned. As no one has been working on the mosaics of the Great Mosque of Damascus, it was decided to focus on them for Study 3 on ‘Early Islamic Wall Mosaics and Paintings’. Although it is not possible for western scholars to visit the mosque at present, we have assembled over 1,200 photographs of its mosaics to study and to form the basis of a full colour published record of the mosaics. As a pilot study had shown that meaningful results could be obtained from these photographs, the first task has been to determine the chronology of the mosaics to identify the Umayyad ones. This has been done with some success from their content and style, and also in relationship to inscriptions and historical sources. Dating subsequent repairs is also shedding light on the unacknowledged extent of mosaic work in later periods. These discoveries will also be significant when looking at continuity of local glass wall mosaic traditions, such as on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. This research has identified multiple repairs and reworkings of these mosaics over the centuries, showing that traditions of mosaic-work long outlasted the Umayyad period – a wholly novel conclusion that has led to an article (about to be submitted) collecting all the evidence of Abbasid mosaic-work.

Researchers on the project gave mu
Progress so far has moved the research beyond the state of the art. The discoveries concerning monumental figural textiles has moved them beyond being treated as ‘craft’ to being considered alongside other monumental art on buildings. We are also beginning to be able to detect distinctive features of Egyptian figured art. The examination of iconography across a number of media is ground breaking because most art historians limit their focus to isolated categories of the material (rather than studying mosaics, manuscripts, sculpture, textiles, and wall paintings together). The impacts of the project include creating an increased understanding and, thus, appreciation of the Middle East and its art and heritage. Making Judith McKenzie’s 1981–86 photographs of the rock-cut monuments of Petra freely available on Manar al-Athar will help with efforts to increase their preservation. Our exhibition of the Garima Gospels and work with the Bodleian Library for an exhibition of their Ge‘ez manuscripts have both shown the material to be worthy of equal consideration alongside western examples.