An Ancient Mystery

Rome 2013 006
Mosaic in S. Costanza, Rome

Here’s a puzzle. The mosaic in this photo is in Rome’s Santa Costanza, a lovely fourth-century church with some of the oldest surviving Christian art. The mosaic is famous among scholars of Christian iconography, even among scholars of Christian jurisprudence. It depicts Christ–blond, beardless, looking like the god Apollo–giving a scroll to St. Peter. Christ is dressed in a golden toga. Scholars believe the image is meant to represent Christ giving the Law to the Church.

According to French scholar Rémi Brague, during the patristic period, “Christianity came to think of itself as a law brought by Christ in the same way that Judaism is a law brought by Moses.” This understanding, he says,

received artistic representation in images such as that of a lawgiver Christ giving St. Peter the scroll of the Law in a mosaic in the church of Santa Costanza in Rome, on the sarcophagus of Probus in Rome, or in the basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan.This scene is adapted from the pagan model of the investiture of a high functionary by the emperor. After Constantine, the ideology of the Christian empire utilized the notion of a unique law. This iconographic theme is present from the fourth century to the sixth, when it was replaced by another image in which Christ gives Peter not the Law but rather the Keys to the Kingdom.

If this reading is correct, the mosaic is an important object, not only in the history of Western art, but Western law as well. A key piece of evidence that supports the reading is the inscription on the scroll Christ holds. According to most scholars, the inscription is “DOMINUS LEGEM DAT,” or, “The Lord Gives Law.” If that’s what the scroll says, it does indeed confirm the reading of scholars like Brague.

Except that isn’t what the scroll says. As the photo, which I took this summer, shows, the scroll reads, “DOMINUS PACEM DAT,” or “The Lord Gives Peace.” Not “Law,” “Peace.” Now, I suppose, the inscription may be elliptical: Christ gives Law, the Law of Christ gives Peace, so Christ gives Peace. But that’s a strain. Besides, in Christian teaching, the Law of Christ is usually described as Love, not Peace. Does the scroll refer to Christ’s words at the Last Supper, “My peace I give to you”? Maybe. But that would definitely change the meaning of the image.

So, what’s the explanation? Perhaps, as Brague suggests, this was a conventional image in late antiquity, so the mosaic must be about law. One scholar I’ve read thinks the word “PACEM” on the scroll is an simply an incorrect reconstruction of the original “LEGEM.” Sounds plausible. But when did the reconstruction take place? The Middle Ages? Why are scholars so confident that the image is about law, when the words on the scroll are about peace? Anybody know?

Possamai, et. al. (eds.), “Legal Pluralism and Shari’a Law”

This month, Routledge publishes Legal Pluralism and Shari’a Law, edited by Adam 9780415826334Possamai (U. of Western Sydney, Australia), James T. Richardson (U. of Nevada, Reno), and Bryan S. Turner (Graduate Center of CUNY & U. of Western Sydney, Australia). The publisher’s description follows.

Legal pluralism has often been associated with post-colonial legal developments especially where common law survived alongside tribal and customary laws. Focusing on Shari‘a, this book examines the legal policies and experiences of various societies with different traditions of citizenship, secularism and common law. Where large diasporic communities of migrants develop, there will be some demand for the institutionalization of Shari‘a at least in the resolution of domestic disputes. This book tests the limits of multiculturalism by exploring the issue that any recognition of cultural differences might imply similar recognition of legal differences. It also explores the debate about post-secular societies specifically to the presentation and justification of beliefs and institutions by both religious and secular citizens.

Dupont, “Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975”

Next month, NYU Press will publish Mississippi Praying: Southern White 9780814708415_FullEvangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975, by Carolyn Renée Dupont (Eastern Kentucky University). The publisher’s description follows.

Mississippi Praying examines the faith communities at ground-zero of the racial revolution that rocked America. This religious history of white Mississippians in the civil rights era shows how Mississippians’ intense religious commitments played critical, rather than incidental, roles in their response to the movement for black equality.

 During the civil rights movement and since, it has perplexed many Americans that unabashedly Christian Mississippi could also unapologetically oppress its black population. Yet, as Carolyn Renée Dupont richly details, white southerners’ evangelical religion gave them no conceptual tools for understanding segregation as a moral evil, and many believed that God had ordained the racial hierarchy.

 Challenging previous scholarship that depicts southern religious support for segregation as weak, Dupont shows how people of faith in Mississippi rejected the religious argument for black equality and actively supported the effort to thwart the civil rights movement. At the same time, faith motivated a small number of white Mississippians to challenge the methods and tactics of do-or-die segregationists. Racial turmoil profoundly destabilized Mississippi’s religious communities and turned them into battlegrounds over the issue of black equality. Though Mississippi’s evangelicals lost the battle to preserve segregation, they won important struggles to preserve the theology that had sustained the racial hierarchy. Ultimately, this history sheds light on the eventual rise of the religious right by elaborating the connections between the pre- and post-civil rights South.