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Christianizing the Skyline: The Appropriation of the Pagan Honorary Column in Early Constantinople


The freestanding column with culminating statue is generally viewed as a relatively limited genre in Roman art and architecture. The purpose of such a column varies between glorifying a victory and honoring an individual for his or her achievements. While the best-known examples were created in Rome during the Empire, such columns were common in early Byzantine Constantinople as well. This dissertation examines four such monuments: the Columns of Constantine, Theodosius I, Arcadius, and Justinian. These towering monuments were erected in imperial fora along the Mese, the main ceremonial thoroughfare passing across the city of Constantinople. The first part of the dissertation focuses on the art historical and material aspects of column monuments and illustrates the formal and urbanistic innovations applied in Constantinople. Comparison to other column monuments and monuments alike, both in the western and eastern Roman world, situates these built objects within their cultural contexts. The second part of the study addresses the visibility of the columns in the ritual and daily experience, focusing on secular and religious urban processions held along the branches of the Mese. The analysis unfolds a transition process as the columns were transformed from pagan architectural elements to Christian urban monuments: the evolution from the simple and abstract porphyry Column of Constantine; to the hybrid, re-framed, cross-signed Columns of Theodosius and Arcadius embellished with spiral bas reliefs, and ultimately to the richly-decorated, intentionally Christianized Column of Justinian . Hence, the concluding sections explores the Christianization of the area ‘up in the air’ by presenting a hypothetical skyline where each honorary column under investigation constitutes a significant marker in a choreographed sequence. Although the beginning of this process is commonly assigned to the sixth-century adoption of the Virgin Mary as Constantinople’s protector, this study attempts to show that the conversion of the honorific column began earlier. The kinetic, sequential experience of colossal columns and their related fora offers the potential to reembody and enrich our understanding of the shift from the religiously-ambiguous foundation phase in the fourth century to an overtly Christian capital in the sixth century.

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