Christian Bodies, Pagan Images: Women, Beauty, and Morality in Byzantium

Veroli Casket, detail of lid with the Rape of Europa. Victoria and Albert Museum (no. 216-1865)

Date: Apr 3, 2017 Time: 6:15 PM–7:45 PM Location: Harvard Faculty Club Address: 20 Quincy Street Cambridge, MA 02138

Alicia Walker explores how Byzantine women’s bodies were put in dialogue with visual and textual portrayals of pagan goddesses and heroines, and how these practices changed in fundamental ways from the early to middle Byzantine eras.

Despite their non-Christian origins, Greco-Roman tradition contributed in meaningful ways to Byzantine paradigms of female behavior, self-understanding, and comportment. Female characters of antique myth and epic remained relevant in the Byzantine world because they provided compelling models for how corporeal beauty and sexual allure might be advantageously manipulated as well as cautionary examples of how people who engaged with these powerful forces might be corrupted.

This lecture explores how Byzantine women’s bodies were put in dialogue with visual and textual portrayals of pagan goddesses and heroines, and how these practices changed in fundamental ways from the early to middle Byzantine eras. Greater vigilance surrounding sacred images has long been recognized as a central phenomenon of the post-Iconoclastic era. The talk posits that the use of non-Christian imagery was also transformed in this period. 

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