“Beautiful Beings in Air, Fields, and Water”: An Iconography of Saints and Animals in Late Antiquity
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Taronas, Katherine May
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CitationTaronas, Katherine May. 2020. “Beautiful Beings in Air, Fields, and Water”: An Iconography of Saints and Animals in Late Antiquity. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThe compositional unit of a figure in the orans or orant posture—an attitude of prayer from the ancient world in which a person stands upright with arms raised and bent at the elbows, imploring and reaching upwards—and flanked by a pair of animals appears with surprising frequency throughout the corpus of Late Antique art and forms the primary iconography of certain Old Testament figures, major saints, and metaphorical images of Christ. This dissertation accounts for the prominence of images that juxtapose saintly figures and animals in Early Christian art, traces this iconography’s symbolic resonances, and takes it as a case study illustrative of larger patterns in the development of a Christian visual language.
Acting as the ultimate signitive image in the terms established by André Grabar, Ernst Kitzinger, Jaś Elsner, and others, the Christian Master of Animals motif, I argue, exemplifies the exegetical mindset of Late Antique viewers who sought to find meaningful symbolic connections between elements of the visible world around them. I am to demonstrate that animals came to play a new role in art and rhetorical exegesis in the Late Roman period, wherein they became symbolic vehicles for a multiplicity of meanings. Their visual forms were mobilized as signifiers for aspects of nature and creation, for spiritual forces, and for human qualities, and they contributed greatly to early conceptions of sanctity. The composition under study played a role in Christian art almost exclusively in the period of Late Antiquity, before the Iconoclastic crisis brought about major changes in the East, and its study illuminates concerns specific to this early period.
This investigation also aims to deepen and expand current interpretive models for understanding how Early Christian iconography developed out of and in interaction with the traditions, beliefs, and visualities at play in the Late Roman world. It offers a detailed examination of the multiple and interrelated sources in Roman art from which the Christian Master of Animals emerged and drew inspiration. This motif creates references that reach across image traditions, crafting visual associations to longstanding branches of ancient and contemporary Roman art. Several chapters chart the relationship between this motif and the art of the mystery cults, small-scale magical imagery, honorific depictions of athletic champions, and representations of amphitheater executions. Each of these subtle artistic references acts to visualize metaphors circulating in rhetorical discourse, such as the comparison of Daniel to the Christian martyrs, the saint to a spiritual athlete, or Christ’s followers to a devoted flock of sheep around their shepherd. Such motifs could also allude to the invisible deaths and sufferings of the martyrs, almost otherwise entirely absent from Early Christian art. In these signifying operations, the Master of Animals image participates in larger changes in religious thinking, art making, and viewing practices that characterized Late Antiquity and the transition to the medieval world.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37365936
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