barren and lumbering theology of the Church crowded out the
Muses from their earthly walks, and the world became a prison
after having been the home of man. One by one the great lights
went out; Athens was no more, Rome was dead. The bloom had
vanished from the face of the earth, and in its place there
fell upon it the awful shadow of a future hell.'"
Mangasarian (The Rationalist, May 1915)
the fragmentation of Europe into a patchwork of barbarous Christian
kingdoms public works came to an end. The vast
network of roads, the aqueducts, the heated public baths, indoor
plumbing, glass windows and so much else invented by the Greeks
and Romans simply disappeared. As the cities decayed and were
abandoned trade and commerce withered. Currency and standard
weights and measures passed out of use, and transportation and
communication constantly became more difficult.
In many instances
the neglected hulks of antique buildings took on new, degenerate
use. For example, in Lucca the amphitheatre saw housing rise
on the auditorium; in Arles and Rome theatres and triumphal arches
were pressed into service as forts. On
the Dalmatian coast the remnant of the town of Salona actually
moved into the ruins of Diocletian's palace (which became the
town of Split). The Church, in particular, moved adroitly to
re-purpose decaying imperial structures and the fine basilicas
built by the legions themselves became the very structures pressed
into new use as sanctuaries of the Faith.
But most of
the grand structures were abandoned to the elements until stone
was again required – for the construction of churches and
the 'palaces' of barbarian kings. Between
the 6th and 13th centuries there were no quarries open in western
Europe – 'spoil' from the ruins of antiquity provided a
seemingly inexhaustible supply of convenient building blocks.The
finest marble sculptures were burnt for lime.
Tale of Two Emperors:
Hadrian builds himself a villa in the country
Centaur from the ruins of Hadrian's Villa – just
one of many hundreds of stunning works of art from
paganism's high summer.
'Villa', Tivoli, north of Rome, a vast complex
of pavilions and leisure areas from the early 2nd
'theatre' (actually a private sanctuary) on an
estate of more than 30 buildings, including baths,
theatres, temples, libraries and audience halls, connected
by a network of underground service tunnels. Hadrian,
a brilliant, complex personality, designed many of
the buildings himself. At 300 acres,
the pagan emperor's residence was twice the
size of the town of Pompeii.
grandiose palace estate was used by all subsequent emperors
until Constantine – who ransacked the
villa for statuary and other valuables for his new city
in the east. His vandalism set an example for others
to follow. With the arrival of the Christian Dark Age
the imperial residence became a quarry for stone, its
beautiful marbles burnt for lime.
the 17th and 18th centuries, European aristocrats – including
the Popes – dug several hundred buried works of
art from the ruins to decorate their Renaissance mansions.
Many of the prized artifacts in the world's museums originally
graced this sumptuous palace of the caesars.
• • • • • •
contrast to the genuine imperial splendour of Hadrian,
seven centuries after the death of Hadrian, the Christian
Emperor Charlemagne (Carolus
Magnus), for all his pretensions, ruled his ramshackle
'empire' from the ruins of the Roman spa town
at Aachen. He liked the thermal pools
and quarried the ruins of the town to build a palace
and a church.
so-called "Carolingian Renaissance" is
a fiction. The 7th/8th century conquests of Islam isolated
the Frankish lands from the civilising influence of the
Mediterranean. Though Charlemagne styled himself "Roman
Emperor and Augustus" in reality he broke with Roman
Charlemagne refits a provincial Roman spa
so-called "Carolingian Renaissance"
all, sacred edifices were the object of his
care throughout his whole kingdom."
– Einhard, The
Life of Charlemagne.
Einhard wrote his sycophantic biography using Suetonius's Life
of Augustus as
desperately crude marble slab chair is purportedly
the throne of Charlemagne – the 'Emperor
and Augustus' of Europe.
chair may actually date to a century later
and Otto I.
Palace and Church at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle)– 8th
equestrian statue in the courtyard was actually
the 6th century Gothic king Theodoric - stolen
columns, Corinthian capitals, classicising bronze-work – all
pillaged from Roman ruins in Italy!
the design of the church was almost identical
to the Church of San Vitale at Ravenna, built
during the time of Emperor Justinian (527–65).
out with suitable relics sent by the pope in
799, 'Aachen Cathedral' served as Christian
HQ in northern Europe for several centuries.
Basilica of the 'Holy Mother of God' at Aachen
of four ‘Great Relics’ –
cloak of the Blessed Virgin,
• the swaddling-clothes of baby Jesus,
• the loin-cloth worn by Jesus on
the Cross, and
• the cloth on which lay the head
of John the Baptist after his beheading!
Charlemagne's sarcophagus was pilfered from
Apples in God's garden.
from 9th century "Grandval Bible" – primitive
cartoons were the best of "Carolingian
Miniscule – the Carolingian
contribution to civilization.
But the Romans
had their own cursive writing a thousand years
cursive – Vindolanda 1st
Christianum' or a world lit only by fire
Christian hero, is credited with many things – most alarmingly, "the
European ideal." Though he did put priestly
scribes on the royal payroll and tried hard to read and write,
he mainly got on with butchering
recalcitrant Saxons. He was very good at that.
On coming to
the throne in 768, Charlemagne launched a vicious campaign of
evangelism against the Saxons of Germany by cutting down their
sacred tree – the World Tree or Yggdrasil – located
in the north German forest near present day Marburg. The Roman
roads, un-maintained but still serviceable, aided the rapid deployment
of his troops.
resisted 'conversion' with a passion and in 772, at Quierzy (today
an insignificant village on the Oise about a 100 miles northwest
of Paris) a frustrated Charlemagne, urged on by his bishops,
issued a proclamation that he would kill every Saxon
who refused to accept Jesus Christ. From that time on
he kept a special detachment of Christian priests who doubled
as his executioners. Pagan practices, such as eating meat during
Lent, cremation of the dead and pretending to be baptized ("dogs
returning to their vomit") were all made punishable
of his vow, in a single day at Verden in 782, Charlemagne had
4500 Saxon prisoners beheaded for slipping back to their old
gods. He then went off to Mass and had his dinner. What a
the Saxons resisted Charlemagne's onslaught for more than 30
Christianisation of Art
"Just as Constantine took an empire and changed it to his design, so
the artists of these splendid scenes have subjugated individual figures,
placing them in rectangular units. All the free air of their ancient world
has gone. The backs of figures are pressed into a thin envelope of space,
as if they were up against a shop window.
classical human figure in all its individual dignity has
disappeared." – John Romer (Testament,
Portrait 2nd/3rd century
mask, Fayum, Egypt)
Portrait 5th century, Egypt
(Detroit Institute of Art)
man has acquired a Christian 'nimbus' but the
best we can say of the degraded design is 'abstract
Pagan banquet scene
(1st century Pompeii)
Jolly Prayer Meeting
(Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome)
morbid Christian 'catacomb art began during
the early 3rd century and continued for about a century.
is no evidence to support the notion that the catacombs
were places of refuge for persecuted Christians.
Jews and pagans were also intered in the catacombs
and the sites were well-known to the authorities.
fossores, dug the tunnels and guided visiting pilgrims.
Rude – but
skilful. Pan gets amorous with his goat.
(1st century Herculaneum)
god who loves everyone. 4th century catacomb
version of JC himself.
realistic portrait of the pagan caesar Caracalla.
Early 3rd century.
colossal staring statue of Constantine.
Early 4th century.
generation later and the Christian monarch
Arcadius is quite 'angelic'.
shift in subject matter from the Classical Age to
the Christian Dark Age was stark. The only acceptable
works of art were scenes from the Bible or those
depicting great 'Christian' events. Art was debased
into Christian propaganda – anything not directly
relevant to the needs of the Church was ignored.
the figure of Jesus Christ was de-judaised – the
classic blond hair, blue-eyed hippy Christ originated
II (408-450) – familiar bulging eyes raised
to Heaven. One of the last sculptured portraits
ever-popular mosaic of the tyrant Justinian from
Ravenna disguises the fact that, by 6th century,
the the art of sculptural portrait had died.
another century the 'iconoclastic' Christians
were destroying images wholesale.
Emperor Leo III orders all icons in the Byzantine
Empire destroyed. Wipes out income of hundreds
of monasteries and shrines in the icon business.
Empress Irene caves into religious pressure – icons
are restored to Orthodox worship.
Business as usual.
800 years, sculptural portraiture returns – as
morbid tomb architecture! (13th century French
14th century Christian art resembles the efforts
of a talented pre-school child.
Four Evangelists, Armenian Bible)
Charles Freeman, The Closing of The Western Mind (Heinemann, 2002)
Jenifer Cochrane, The Illustrated History of Medicine (Tiger Books,
Henry Pirenne, Medieval Cities (Princeton UP, 1952)
John Julian Norwich, Byzantium (Penguin, 1991)
Arthur Ferrill, The Fall of the Roman Empire (Thames & Hudson, 1986)
Friedrich Heer, The Fires of Faith (Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1970)
Michael Grant, The Roman Emperors (Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1985)
Some fifty articles are now available as a book.
For your copy order:
Copyright © 2004
by Kenneth Humphreys.
Copying is freely permitted, provided credit is given to the author and
no material herein is sold for profit.