Art and Religion in the First Millennium

Tutor: Katherine Cross

Module type: MA Option

Module code: HIS00111M

Credits: 20

The conversion of Europe to Christianity was one of the most significant transformations of the Middle Ages. But it may be understood as part of a broader story: the first millennium CE saw the rise and spread across Eurasia of scriptural faiths with universal claims, and the decline of polytheistic, dynastically specific or locally focused pagan beliefs. Much of the success of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism was down to the development of powerful religious images and distinct visual identities.

This module foregrounds visual and material evidence in the study of first millennium religion, focusing in each session on key images, objects and sites as case studies. The questions we tackle will relate as much to the reception of images as to their creation. Did viewers of the Hinton St Mary mosaic see Christ, or the Roman Emperor? Did Islamic rulers really dispense with all human images? Why did European Christians and Indian Buddhists venerate holy relics? And what use were illuminated holy books to those who could not read?

Alongside our strong focus on visual sources, we shall investigate contemporary responses by reading relevant primary texts such as pilgrimage narratives, doctrinal tracts, histories and hagiographies.

Comparative themes include relics in different traditions, the political and dynastic use of religious images, and iconoclasm. We shall also explore how these religions used the visual in conversation with each other, through connection – such as the transmission of motifs – and distinction – including in their use of figural images or holy text.

Seminar topics may include: 

    • Introduction: Religion, word, and image in the first millennium
    • Roman imperial religion and the image of Christ
    • ‘From the lineage of the gods’: Zoroastrianism in the Sasanian Empire
    • Judaism and the graven image
    • Representing Buddha: the first images and relics
    • Holy text and human figure in early Islamic art
    • Image and Iconoclasm in Byzantium
    • ‘Barbarian splendour’ and the inheritance of Rome in the West


Preliminary Reading  

    • Belting, Hans. Likeness and Presence. A History of the Image before the Era of Art, trans. by Edmund Jephcott. Chicago, I.L.: Chicago University Press, 1994
    • Elsner, Jaś, Stefanie Lenk, et al. Imagining the Divine: Art and the Rise of World Religions. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2017
    • Fowden, Garth. Before and After Muhammad: The First Millennium Refocused. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2014
    • Wickham, Chris, The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000. London: Penguin, 2009 


For more information, please refer to the module catalogue.