50th International Congress on Medieval Studies

Church of the Virgin of Skripou, detail of inscription

Conference Date: May 14, 2015–May 17, 2015 Location: Medieval Institute Western Michigan University Kalamazoo, MI 49008


Ivan Drpić (University of Washington, Seattle)

Organizer and presider

Brad Hostetler (Florida State University)

Epigrams and the Placement of Names on Works of Art

The visual and material aspects of inscribed text are fundamental to the study of epigrams. What is frequently overlooked are the ways in which the placement of an inscription contributes to the messages conveyed by a work of art. To illustrate this, I focus on the placement of names on two Byzantine reliquaries—one, a small enkolpion, and the other, a large cross. A closer examination of these objects and their inscriptions reveals sophisticated visual interactions between inscribed name, iconography, and relics; these interactions demonstrate the different ways in which these reliquaries functioned for their owners.

The first reliquary is the 12th–13th century gold and enamel enkolpion of St. Demetrios at Dumbarton Oaks. This small personal object, worn on the chest, features a bust image of the military saint and a four-verse epigram, which asks for the owner’s protection in both life and death. I demonstrate that the request expressed in the epigram is reinforced by the meaningful position of the owner’s name, Sergios, in relationship to the imagery. The talismanic properties of the enkolpion are thus activated by the coordination of the exterior visual elements and the interior sacred contents. The second reliquary is the 10th–11th century double-arm cross, now at the Vatican. The front displays the relic of the True Cross and the back is a gold revetment inscribed with an eight-verse epigram that names the Emperor Romanos. The ends of the cross feature five medallions with images of Christ, the Virgin, the Archangels, and St. Demetrios. I show that these holy figures visually engage with the text, transforming the emperor’s inscribed name into an imperial portrait.

Sophia Kalopissi-Verti (University of Athens)

Prose and Verse Foundation Inscriptions Co-existing in the Same Monument: Functions and Interpretation

The rich evidence of inscriptions related to Byzantine monumental architecture has been studied on several occasions. Material, technique and spatial arrangements of the inscriptions in interaction with the iconographic program and the viewer are issues that have been discussed.

The present paper will focus on certain middle Byzantine examples of monumental architecture in which foundation inscriptions, written in prose and in verse, co-exist in the same monument. Characteristic examples are found in the interior of the ruined church of St. Gregory the Theologian in Thebes (871) and in the church of the Virgin at Skripou in Boeotia (873/4), immured in its facades. In addition, a double foundation inscription in both verse and prose originally found in the monastery church of the Virgin Bytouma near Kalampaka in Thessaly (1161) and known thanks to a 17th-century copy in a manuscript of Meteora (Transfiguration monastery, cod. 141), testifies to the same phenomenon, although the placement and material of the inscriptions remain unknown.

In comparing the co-existing foundation epigrams and prose inscriptions in each monument several issues will be discussed, such as differences or identity in material, in handwriting, in language (current or scholarly), in richness of information conveyed.

The attempt to interpret this phenomenon of an epigram duplicating a prose foundation inscription  raises several questions. Did these duplicated inscriptions and epigrams serve a special function towards the viewers? What were the messages they intended to convey? Could a connection to certain rituals or commemorative prayers be detected? Do they complement each other, with regard to the information offered, thus reinforcing the documentary evidence? To what extent do they reveal the aims and pretensions of the ktetor and contribute to his prestige?

We hope that by trying to discuss the questions raised, this paper will contribute to our understanding of the function of the inscriptions and epigrams placed in monumental architecture and will shed light on the intentions of the commissioners.

Sean V. Leatherbury (Getty Research Institute)

Reading the Poetry of Sacred Interiors: Ekphrastic Epigrams in Early Byzantine Churches

While epigraphers and historians of literature have begun to pay more attention to the nuances of ancient and medieval building epigrams, texts written onto and into early Byzantine buildings have been largely overlooked as they intersect with the surfaces and interiors of those structures. This paper examines Greek epigrams of early Byzantine churches (c. 400–700) that are ekphrastic in character, describing features of interiors and (often) encouraging audiences—clerics as well as congregants—to respond in certain ways. While these inscriptions contain tropes that conform to the requirements of the genre, they also had the power to influence the thoughts and actions of audiences. First, this paper (briefly) considers the relationship of these texts to classical traditions of ekphrasis and ekphrastic epigram. Second, this paper focuses on a small number of “speaking” inscriptions from churches in Constantinople, Arabia (Jerash), and Palestine (Apollonia) that play with voice and orality in order to get the reader’s attention, texts that literally allow the church itself to speak in order to praise the patron, encourage emotional responses (especially wonder, thauma) as well as physical ones (e.g. movement), and, importantly, ask the viewer to perform and reperform them. While we do not have evidence that all readers did what the texts told them to do, the prominent placement, choice of materials, and visual character of these epigrams would have made them stop, look, and read aloud. Finally, this paper reads an epigram from a church at Kanatha in Arabia against a secular building epigram of the period, from a building at Sardis in Asia Minor, revealing the similarities of and differences between the responses that poems in sacred and secular buildings demanded from their readers. By recontextualizing these poetic interiors as spaces to be read, viewed, and responded to, this paper reveals early Christian epigrams as active and material texts within their buildings, texts that (on occasion) also functioned as images.

Foteini Spingou (Princeton University)

The Logistics of Writing Epigrams: ‘Producers’ and ‘Products’ in Later Byzantium

Although epigrams were frequently attached on objects of ‘Constantinopolitan origin’, little is known about their production. This paper aims to form a comprehensive picture of the production of epigrams. The lack of direct sources makes such a discussion problematic. However, following indirect, but complementary, sources can provide evidence: inscribed epigrams, letters, the text itself, and the much-unexplored poetic anthologies. The main questions to be addressed are: What is the relation between the instigator, the artist, and the poet? What are the sources of poetic ‘inspiration’? And, finally, how is the ritual aspect of the epigrams on works of art reflected in their production?