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HERITAGE Report Summary

Project ID: 694105
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.1.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - HERITAGE (Monumental Art of the Christian and Early Islamic East: Cultural Identities and Classical Heritage)

Reporting period: 2016-09-01 to 2018-02-28

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

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.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

The first stage of Study 1, The Art of Late Antique Egypt and Alexandria, has focused on monumental figured textiles. The starting point was the linen wall-hanging, in the Abegg-Stiftung near Bern, painted with scenes from Genesis and Exodus (2nd–4th century AD). Whether this textile was made for a Jewish or Christian audience has been a mystery, as it lacks specifically Christian or Jewish symbols. After much study and discussion (Jewish Studies seminar, Oxford, 25 April 2017) the problem remained, until Teresa Morgan’s convincing theological analysis which argued that it was probably made for a Christian audience. The arrangement of the scenes has a poetic quality, indicating that it was the product of a highly evolved tradition, as does the painting technique for depicting images on dark blue cloth. Comparanda for the scenes from across the Mediterranean world, as well as Egypt, in various media, were collected and studied to ascertain if any of its scenes could be identified as having specifically Egyptian (or Alexandrian) features. The scenes from the story of Joseph on small tapestry roundels suggest that there was a wide repertoire of such compositions in Egypt.
Our study was expanded to include the large-scale resist-dyed hangings with pagan and Christian figured scenes, which have been little studied and are unrecognized as major artworks. They were made using a technique like batik, in which the scene is painted on the textile in a resist (e.g. wax) before it was dyed (usually indigo blue). Our study of tapestries (textiles with images made from different coloured woven yarn) focused on wall-hangings, including the “Dionysos Tapestry” and those with related (largely pagan) scenes with figures framed, or supported by, architectural features. It was possible to discern groups and workshops for resist-dyed textiles and tapestries, based on content and style. The final category of monumental textiles considered were those with loop piles (like carpet). As the technique makes them look simple, they had been assumed to be later than carbon-14 results now indicate. Most are Christian, but we found a little-known naturalistic, pagan, example in the Benaki Museum in Athens. The variety of techniques used for the Egyptian wall-hangings shows the wealth of this largely lost art. Having collected the relevant textiles, key examples were examined firsthand (in London, Paris, Berlin, and Athens).
Initial work for Study 2, The Art of Late Antique Syro-Palestine: Floor Mosaics, concentrated as planned on placing the mosaics in their spatial context within buildings. The keywording of the 30,000 photographs on our open-access photo archive Manar al-Athar, was done in preparation for the next stage of Study 2 to facilitate searching the archive, which colleagues have also found very useful. One aim of the project was to place on Manar al-Athar important evidence photographed in situ on buildings and to make it available to others. In preparation for the next stages of our research, this has included paintings in Egypt now largely inaccessible to foreigners (e.g. in the Bagawat Oasis and the Imperial Cult Chamber at Luxor), and Roman and Christian floor mosaics (in Algeria).
To further explore the implications of our work on the Ethiopian Garima Gospels (which have Egyptian and other features, as well as distinctively Ethiopian ones), papers were presented in Amsterdam and Harvard and at a colloquium we organised on eastern illuminated gospel books (Oxford, 5 November 2016). Our exhibition, The Hidden Gospels of Abba Garima, Treasures of the Ethiopian Highlands, was viewed by over 1,000 people, and the related exhibition at the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam by 12,000 people.
We co-organised a colloquium, Heritage: Rebuilding the Future from the Past (Oxford, 8 June 2017), in which McKenzie presented a paper on the built environment and identity, showing its significance with regard to both the

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

The workshops/colloquia and presentations were necessary because the project involves moving beyond the state of the art in order to receive feedback from colleagues and take into account the most recent scholarship. At our workshop, Monumentality across Media in the Late Antique East (Oxford, 15 June 2017), we presented papers on the results of our work on the monumental hangings (Spingou and McKenzie) and the use of the same imagery in mosaics and sculpture (Leatherbury), while inviting papers on new evidence for late antique painting in Lebanon and Syria presented by Julia Burdajewicz (Warsaw) and Ségolène de Pontbriand (Paris). The most striking outcome of this workshop was the interconnectivity of iconography and designs across media (on textiles, wall-paintings, mosaics, manuscripts, and sculpture) which has not generally been recognized by art historians. Furthermore, art historians traditionally have not considered textiles to be art, but rather craft. One of our key findings is that monumental wall-hangings with figured scenes are worthy of recognition as art, alongside wall-mosaics and paintings.
The project is divided into studies, each of which focusses on a specific aspect. The study of the art of late antique Egypt aims to further examine evidence of paintings, from which it is hoped it will now be possible to define its characteristics, before attempting to detect its influence elsewhere. The floor mosaics of late antique Syro-Palestine are being examined to define their distinguishing features. From these, it should be possible to detect continuity of local workmanship in the early Islamic mosaics by identifying these characteristics in them. Our work on pagan and Christian Egyptian paintings and textiles will contribute to our study of the early Islamic paintings at Qusayr Amra, which recent cleaning has revealed to have more classical features than previously appreciated. It is also an example of how art on buildings should be viewed as complete iconographic programmes, not mere decoration.
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