What is Ugly? Art and Taste in Late Antiquity

Bente Kiilerich, professor of art history, University of Bergen





In his seminal Spätrömische Kunstindustrie, Alois Riegl argued that the principles of style in late antiquity were not the ones of classical art, and that it was because the reliefs of the Arch of Constantine had been measured by the yardstick of classical antiquity they had been found wanting (‘Allerdings sind diese Stilprinzipien nicht diejenigen der klassischen Kunst’, reprint of 1927 ed., 90). By leaving out the more classical works and by putting undue stress on the concept of a different Kunstwollen, Riegl may have been partly responsible for a simplified view of late antique art, especially among non-specialists. Thus in 1963, Ernst Gombrich claimed that ‘what we experience as expression in late antique art is mostly its primitiveness’.


This lecture will survey paintings, mosaics and sculpture from various contexts, both secular and sacred, and from various parts of the empire, in order to show some of the variety and dynamics of visual expression. The style of these works has little, if anything at all, in common with that of the Constantinian friezes. As it transpires from more recent finds of fourth-century mosaics in Syria, Tunisia and Spain, the arts of late antiquity are far from primitive but possess an expressiveness ranging from the refined: Lady musicians at Mariamin, to the burlesque: Achilles in drag. Posing the question: ‘What is “late antique” about late antique art?’, the conclusion is that, by and large, artistic goals, standards and taste had not changed dramatically.



 (The title of this paper is taken from that of a lecture, Was ist hässlich, held by Franz von Wickhoff in 1901 in defence of Gustav Klimt.)