Patronage and community agency in early Christian iconography : the evidence from three Tunisian mosaics.
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
This thesis applies a holistic approach to analyse the iconography of three early Christian Tunisian mosaics. These fifth-century monuments comprise the baptism font located in the Felix basilica, in Demna, and the Ecclesia Mater and deacon Crescentinus tomb mosaics, in the Chapel of the Martyrs, in Tabarka. These late-antique monuments are reproduced and mentioned in almost all early Christian art reference material, yet the conclusions about their meaning, patronage and the context of their production have not been revised or challenged, for the most part, since they were first published. Further, their role in shaping individual Christian experience has not been questioned. These artistic productions reveal much about the communities involved in their production, yet research thus far has focused on the unavoidable topics one encounters when studying North Africa between the fourth and sixth centuries; namely Donatism, Vandal invasions and rule, as well as the Justinian re-conquest, martyrs, martyrdom and sainthood. In addition, there remains the difficulty in establishing site chronology in North African Roman provinces such as Africa Proconsularis. The importance of context in the interpretation of early Christian iconography cannot be underestimated.
After a discussion on the best way to approach the problem of early Christian art, this thesis considers the complex baptistery iconography of the Demna baptism font mosaic, and proposes a new, cohesive, interpretation based on comparisons to the Neonian and Arian baptistery dome mosaics in Ravenna, which previous interpretations failed to achieve. After proposing a new chronology for the Felix basilica and its baptistery, the discussion focuses on replacing the Ecclesia Mater mosaic in its immediate, local context in order to best interpret its imagery and the meaning behind its enigmatic epitaph. In addition, the treatment of the basilica shown in Chapel of the Martyrs mosaic is replaced within a long-standing pictorial tradition. Finally, the iconography of the Crescentinus mosaic is examined in terms of the status granted to the deceased by both the patron and the community. Imagery and epitaph are discussed side by side and reveal whether the deacon died as a martyr, as a saint, or whether he was merely venerated as such. This interpretation is made possible by introducing imagery of the wreath or crown, of the Hand of God (Dextera Dei) and apotheosis and decursio. The agency of patrons, ecclesiastical authorities and community is introduced and the imagery and inscriptions are discussed in terms of their context.