By Jean Marie Carey

On 11 December 361, Julian arrived in Constantinople as sole emperor of the Roman Empire. Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus (331-363), who became known as Julian the Apostate, was the last pagan emperor of the empire, and attempted to revive pre-Christian Roman religious practices at a time when no religion had yet gained dominance across the region. 

The icons and mosaics associated with later Byzantine culture were also not yet a major art form. The lead-glazed pottery of the imperial period was produced and very popular across the Roman east, with functional designs intended to imitate vessels made in bronze. Motifs of animals and biomorphic forms adorned jewellery and housewares.

Sculptures of seated figures holding open scrolls referenced philosopher-aristocrats such as Julian. These figures represented interest in an intellectual life and its usefulness in achieving a happy future life. The philosopher pose was adopted from the 300s onward for images of intellectual leaders of the Christian church, including Christ, his apostles, and the Four Evangelists.

Julian was killed in battle in 363 during an invasion of the Sassanid Empire (now in Iran) and thereafter became a popular figure in art himself, often shown being speared by St. Mercurius, according to a vision from a dream recounted by St. Basil.

Reference: Sarah Brooks. “Byzantium”. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.

Crossbow Brooch, c. 430. Made in Constantinople. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accession Number 1995.97.

Belt clasp, c. 150. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accession Number.  21.166.5

Ceramic jug, c. 75. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accession Number 43.11.2

Marble relief fragment, c. 150.  Made in Rome and used later as a Byzantine funerary marker. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Number 26.199.63

Fragment of a sarcophagus with a Julian philosopher figure, c. 250. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accession Number 18.108

Yuhanna al-Armani, Coptic Icon of St. Mercurius killing Julian the Apostate. c. 1750. The Hanging Church, Cairo.

Further Reading: Elizabeth DePalma Digeser; Justin Stephens, and Robert M. Frakes. Rhetoric of Power in Late Antiquity, The Religion and Politics in Byzantium, Europe and the Early Islamic World. London: I.B.Tauris 2010.

Hans Peter L’Orange. Art Forms and Civic Life in the Late Roman Empire. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press 1965. 

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