In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Late Antique Art

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Catalogues
  • Journals
  • Approaches

Classics Late Antique Art
Thelma K. Thomas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0182


There is no consensus as to the shape of the field of Late Antique art or the temporal parameters of the period of Late Antiquity (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article Roman History: Late Antiquity). Following current trends toward inclusivity, the temporal frame adopted here spans much of the 1st millennium CE, focusing on the 3rd through the long transition of the 6th to 9th centuries as the locus of political power shifted from the eastern Roman (i.e., Byzantine) and the Persian Sasanian Empires to the predominance of the Arab caliphate, resulting in a territorially diminished yet still-wealthy Byzantine Empire and numerous emergent smaller kingdoms and polities throughout Europe and western and central Asia. Indeed, “1st-millennium studies” is emerging as a more neutral temporal frame as the field develops an even greater capacity for religious and other cultural traditions, and heightened attention to commercial and diplomatic connections across Eurasia. This article retains a traditional perspective on scholarship, addressing the artworks, artistic media, and expressive concerns of regions of the late Roman and early Byzantine Empires while maintaining a wide-angle view on artistic cross-cultural engagements. Since the period encompasses the disappearance of Greco-Roman polytheism and the emergence and increasing dominance of monotheistic religions, religious art and architecture predominate throughout much of this article. General overviews share a perennial interest in artistic evidence of the transformation of the empire from a polytheistic to a Christian state, the emergence of the Islamic Empire, and interactions between religious communities. Roman and Byzantine political ideology—as it shaped the imperial image, reflected and participated in religious change, and, through patronage, drove artistic development—also remains a constant concern. Early generations of scholars, who documented sites, monuments, and artworks, compiled catalogues and archaeological reports of fundamental importance for the field. Notably, several of these scholars, such as Alois Riegl and Josef Strzygowski, were deeply involved in the development of the discipline of art history. A great deal of the surviving art of Late Antiquity is archaeological in origin, and much documentation remains to be done. This is especially urgent in areas where economic difficulties, illicit trade in antiquities, ecological change, and the horrors of war threaten the artistic heritage. Entries for Media and Topics reflect the continued, sometimes contested, relevance of early categories of documentation and subjects of current interest in scholarship. Archaeology and Architectural History introduces approach and methodology, then urban environment and architecture.

General Overviews

Handbooks typically include sections on Late Antiquity at the end of surveys of earlier Roman art or as the precursor to later Byzantine and medieval art. Surveys devoted to Late Antique art are rare. Brenk 1985 remains a handy guide to monuments across regions throughout the empire and along several of its frontiers and is unique for its presentation of discrete, detailed entries rich in documentation. (Note that publications of new discoveries and fresh looks at long-known works may supersede even quite recent discussions, but rarely do they replace them altogether.) Since the late 20th century, Most overviews of the art and visual culture of Late Antiquity have focused on the Mediterranean region under Roman rule, and the religious transition from paganism to Christianity. Starkly put, some of these overviews continue to promote the notion of a stylistic shift from Greco-Roman idealism, naturalism, and realism to Christian abstraction, without comprehensive or critical reassessment. Changes in form (stylistic and iconographic) and meaning have remained enduring puzzles at the center of art-historical inquiry over generations of scholarship, from Bianchi Bandinelli 1971 to Kitzinger 1977 to Elsner 1998: all address radical changes in form as reflecting cultural change with attendant changes in meaning, as well as materials, techniques, media, audience, and context. (See also Approaches.) Brubaker and Haldon 2001 addresses the production of meaning through close contextualization in social, political, and theological history, as well as style and iconography. Fine 2005 presents key themes and issues of interpretation for Jewish art of Late Antiquity. Krautheimer 1986 presents a thorough and archaeologically grounded overview of Late Antique and early Christian architecture.

  • Bianchi Bandinelli, Ranuccio. 1971. Rome: The late empire; Roman art, A.D. 200–400. Arts of Mankind 17. New York: Braziller.

    Also published as Roma: La fine dell’arte antica (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1970). Thought-provoking companion to Rome: Center of Power (New York: Braziller, 1970). Reads later Roman (late 2nd through 4th century) art as European, responding to a shift of power from philhellenic elite to emperors and others of plebeian background, leading to stylistic preference for the hieratic, symbolic, and ornamental over Greco-Roman naturalism and realism.

  • Brenk, Beat, ed. 1985. Spätantike und frühes Christentum. Contribution by Hugo Brandenburg. Propyläen Kunstgeschichte Supplement 1. Frankfurt: Propyläen Verlag.

    Innovative in its cultural inclusion. Introductory essay, overview essays by period, and a documentation section for Constantinople and by region. Entries on individual monuments in documentation section, with numerous maps, plans, diagrams, and black-and-white photographs. First published in 1977.

  • Brubaker, Leslie, and John F. Haldon. 2001. Byzantium in the iconoclast era (ca. 650–850): The sources, an annotated survey. Birmingham Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies 7. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

    Overview essays situate texts, artworks, and monuments within a period of intense debate about the nature of sacred images within the broader context of empire and a wider world in transition. A companion volume (published in 2011) addresses historical developments of Byzantine imperial iconoclastic ideologies and policies, and theological issues.

  • Elsner, Jaś. 1998. Imperial Rome and Christian triumph: The art of the Roman Empire AD 100–450. Oxford History of Art. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Thematic organization. Emphasis on continuous Roman cultural change, especially as evident in the arts of empire and the Second Sophistic (Roman adaptation of Greek culture, especially literary, rhetorical, and visual) in the philhellenic world of the educated elite (2nd and 3rd centuries) and emergent Christian art (3rd to 5th centuries). Many illustrations, and a timeline.

  • Fine, Steven. 2005. Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman world: Toward a new Jewish archaeology. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Brief topical essays on Jewish visual and material culture during the long Late Antiquity. Necessary alternative to the predominant narratives of empire and church. Useful introduction for all levels, from undergraduate to interested scholars.

  • Kitzinger, Ernst. 1977. Byzantine art in the making: Main lines of stylistic development in Mediterranean art, 3rd–7th century. London: Faber and Faber.

    Undertakes the charting of stylistic change as a dialectical development between Hellenistic naturalism (“inner-directed” artistic choice) and abstract (irrational, symbolic, “other-directed”) forms. Social-historical forces seen to lead to alternating stylistic phases of innovation, retrospection, and synthesis. Close formal analysis. High-quality illustrations. Republished as recently as 1995 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press).

  • Krautheimer, Richard. 1986. Early Christian and Byzantine architecture. 4th ed. Pelican History of Art. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    Focuses on Christian and imperial monuments, presenting archaeological and historical evidence toward reconstructions and formal (morphological, typological) analyses. Charts developments of styles, liturgical arrangements, building materials, and technologies. Regional surveys, chronological organization. Extensive illustrations. First published in 1965. Updated commentary by W. Eugene Kleinbauer in Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture: An Annotated Bibliography and Historiography (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1992).

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