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Works by Thomas F. Mathews

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It is now a common assumption in the art-historical world that much of early Christian art (particularly from the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries) portrays the Roman Emperor as some sort of demigod and intercessor between our world and that of the divine, imbued with ultimate power. This is what the author called "Emperor Mystique." In fact, this idea might even shore up the even more commonly held belief that the Church and the state were united for much of the middle ages. In "The Clash of Gods," Mathews critically examines this assumption and comes to what I thought were some fascinating conclusions.

According to Mathews, it is largely the work of three scholars that is responsible for the rise of the Emperor Mystique: art historian Andre Grabar, medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz, and archaeologist Andreas Alfoldi. Along with collectively contributing to the Emperor Mystique, they come from Czarist Russia, Wilhelmine Germany, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire respectively, and all harbored a great love for imperial greatness and yearned, in some way, for its return. In order to do this, they all retroactively read signs of vanished empire into the early Christian art they were studying. As Mathews says, "The need to interpret Christ as an Emperor tells us more about the historians involve d than it does about Early Christian art" (16). The scholarly apparatus that Mathews brings to bear on his argument is impressive. The vast majority of the book looks at individual pieces of art, arguing for an interpretation against that of the Emperor Mystique, none of which I will recapitulate here. It could even be convincing, but I will confess to not knowing enough about the art of the period in question to say one way or another.

One thing that I can say is that Mathew's argument seems to exhort the reader into an either/or reaction toward the three aforementioned scholars. As Peter Brown, the Princeton professor of the post-Constantinian Christian world, said in a review of the same book, Mathews thinks that "either representations of Christ betray artistic conventions that must mirror faithfully the visual content of contemporary court ceremonials and imperial representations - and, further, must communicate the overbearing message associated with such ceremonials and representations - or they communicate, often, the exact opposite."

Another tacit assumption of the book that Mathews does nothing to repudiate is that the thesis would, in some ways, suggest that we dismiss not only the Emperor Mystique, but also the entire body of scholarship of Kantorowicz, Grabar, and Alfoldi. Grabar and Alfoldi might not be as read today, but Kantorowicz's "The King's Two Bodies" is still considered an indispensable text in historical medieval theology. I certainly do not want to suggest that the book is a hatchet job. It is not. I think Mathews achieves something lastingly important by giving us a book-length treatment that resists what is still, in some quarters, a widely held assumption. I would just regret to see this book read as something more than an unfortunate interpretive misreading that was made by a group of otherwise superb, astoundingly learned scholars.
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kant1066 | Nov 29, 2011 |

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