Accessibility statement

Art & Religion in the First Millennium - HIS00111M

« Back to module search

  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Katherine Cross
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2020-21

Module summary

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.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2020-21

Module aims

The module aims to:

  • Develop skills of source analysis and interpretation;
  • Assess a range of source material and relevant secondary works; and
  • Develop students’ powers of evidence-based historical argument, both orally and in writing.

Module learning outcomes

After completing this module students should have:

a)        A familiarity with a selection of religious images, objects, and sites from Ireland to India in the first millennium, their connections and characteristics

b)        An awareness of major developments in the history of religion across Eurasia in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

c)        An understanding of first millennium discourses on images and religion (for instance discussions of iconoclasm, ‘books for the illiterate’, relics and representation)

d)        A critical assessment of the modern narratives used to discuss and display these images, objects and sites (particularly with regard for contemporary national and religious identities, imperial pasts, barbarians and orientalism, confessional distinctions, and searches for authentic origins)

e)        The ability to use visual and material sources alongside written texts in historical research, and an appreciation of associated methodological issues

f)         An understanding of ‘global’ and comparative approaches to the history of religion.

Module content

Teaching Programme:

Students will attend eight weekly two-hour seminars in weeks 2-9.

The provisional outline for the module is as follows:

1. Introduction: Religion, word, and image in the first millennium

2. Roman imperial religion and the image of Christ

3. ‘From the lineage of the gods’: Zoroastrianism in the Sasanian Empire

4. Judaism and the graven image

5. Representing Buddha: the first images and relics

6. Holy text and human figure in early Islamic art

7. Image and Iconoclasm in Byzantium

8. ‘Barbarian splendour’ and the inheritance of Rome in the West


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 4,000 Words
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students will complete a 2,000-word procedural essay for formative assessment, due in week 6 of the spring term, for which they will receive an individual tutorial. They will then submit a 4,000-word assessed essay for summative assessment in week 1 of the summer term.

For further details about assessed work, students should refer to the Taught Masters Degrees Statement of Assessment.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 4,000 Words
N/A 100

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive written feedback consisting of comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their procedural work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of 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, Jas, 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.

Nees, Lawrence, Early Medieval Art, Oxford History of Art. Oxford: OUP, 2002.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.