4.19.2006

Christians and the Closure of Pagan Temples

This image from the Goleniscev Papyrus has been in several books, and is discussed by Troels Myrup Kristensen in his Towards an Archaeology of Iconoclasm (brilliant site, can't wait to read his thesis, and only wish he would post more often - click on the link for for information).

I've borrowed the image from him, as it relates to the closure of temples by the Christians. Although many Byzantine Emperors such as Theodosius issued edicts ordering the closure of temples, as with the Parthenon these were often ignored. The Ilissus temple in Athens was converted into a church very early, but this was very unusual and might be because it was related to a cult of underworld gods. Most temples turned it churches are quite late. The Parthenon, for example, was abandoned for a while.

This 5th century Alexandrian papyrus shows Saint Theophilos standing 'on' a temple with a statue of Serapis within it. The text describes how he and the Alexandrian Christians destroyed the Serapeion in AD 391. The Byzantine image is thus an allegory of the closure (another image in the codex shows monks throwing stones at the temple) - not only the only certain image of Christian destruction of pagan temples, but one which can be linked with a known sanctuary.

For more on the papyrus, see Troels' site.

For a history of Christian attempts to close pagan temples, see my The Elgin Marbles.

Michael Greenhalgh wrote about the closure of temples in Italy: Christian re-use of antiquities in mediaeval Italy and knowledge of the pagan past (link broken).

Alison Frantz, The Middle Ages in the Athenian Agora, an Athenian Agora Picture book - Frantz was one of the pioneers of work on Late Antique Athens, and this short guide to the post-Constantinian Agora can now be downloaded from their web site.

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