5th Forum Medieval Art

Conference Date: Sep 18, 2019–Sep 21, 2019 Location: Bern, Switzerland Session Title: Art and Crisis in the Late Byzantine Mediterranean Session Date: TBA


Benjamin Anderson (Cornell University)

Portraiture, Prophecy, and Imperial Succession in Late Byzantium

“In Byzantium there never were laws of imperial succession. Nor were there universally accepted rules for succession – a reason for ceaseless plots and rebellions whose purpose was to put a new emperor on the throne” (Dimiter Angelov). However, in late Byzantium, the long-term continuity of the imperial office found expression in series of imperial portraits. A fifteenth-century historical manuscript, now in Modena (Biblioteca Estense Universitaria, α.S.5.5 = Gr. 122), contains marginal portraits of the emperors from Augustus to Constantine XI. A more public analogue, no longer preserved, was displayed in the narthex of the monastery of St. George in Mangana (Constantinople), and contained “eighty emperors” in total, according to a Russian account of the late fourteenth century.

This same account identifies the author of the Mangana painting as “Leo the Wise,” the Byzantine emperor (886-912) who was posthumously transformed into a prophet. Leo would eventually be associated with a different kind of series: not portraits, but “enigmatic letters and obscure signs in the form of images, regarding those who were to reign in future.” The description comes from a historian, Nikephoros Gregoras, who describes the image that foretold the fate of his patron, emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (1282-1328). After Andronikos’s forced abdication and subsequent death, “it immediately became easy for us to understand the interpretation of the oracle, which had previously been unclear to everyone.”

The two types of series are complementary: the portraits portray the continuity of office, while the oracles depict the uncertainty of succession. At the same time, and as Nikephoros writes, the oracles assert the existence of a logic of succession, albeit one that remains opaque until after the plots and rebellions have played out. Gilbert Dagron described this mechanism as “l’affirmation a posteriori d’une prévisibilité.” Visual form is the medium in which generational chaos and millennial stability meet.

Ivan Drpić (University of Pennsylvania)

Co-organizer and session chair

Maria Georgopoulou (Gennadius Library, ASCSA)

Art in a Time of Crisis: Venetian Crete and the Union of the Churches in the 15th Century

The Council of Union of the Churches in Ferrara-Florence (1439) looms large in the relationship between the Orthodox and Latin churches in the 15th century. In a period when religious tensions were high, Crete became a bastion of Christianity offering the possibility to launch a counter-offensive against the Ottomans. What were the repercussions on Crete itself?

The island of Crete was in the hands of the Venetians from 1211 to 1669; gradually the indigenous population developed strategies to overcome the crisis and survive (indeed thrive) under the regime of the Venetians. One of the most important points of friction between Greeks and Latins on the island was the installation of a new ecclesiastical hierarchy of Latin prelates. No Greek Orthodox bishops were allowed on the island and Greek priests had to travel outside Crete in order to be ordained. My paper explores artistic responses to the intended rapprochement between the Orthodox and Latin churches in the 1440s and 1450s around the time of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks.

Although the union of the churches did not take roots in Byzantium, Crete provided a fertile ground for the aspirations of Cardinal Bessarion who, as Latin Patriarch of Constantinople, instituted an academy for Uniate priests in the capital city of Candia (1462-1497). The burial of one of the promoters of the union of the churches, Archbishop Fantinus Valaresso of Crete (d. 1443), provided the impetus for the remodeling of the high altar of the Latin cathedral of St. Titus, while other chapels were refurbished to include the burials of influential Latin families in the 1460s and 1470s. The valuable relics of the cathedral are singled out in the accounts of eager pilgrims who visited Crete on their way to the Holy Land. Renewed religious fervor can be also seen in the activities of the Franciscans and Dominicans in Candia.

What was the response of the Orthodox community? The rapprochement of the two rites may be the reason for the numerous two-aisled rural churches that have been interpreted as signs of double usage churches where both rites would be celebrated, on the model of the Catholic churches in the Cyclades.

On the other hand, following the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans many artists fled to Crete. The most well-known among them is Angelos Acotanto, an icon painter who created new iconographic types that promoted the cause of the union of the churches; Maria Vassilaki has studied the icon of Peter and Paul embracing is a token of this. Supplying new products that seize the vibe is not only a token of artistic creativity but also a witness to the possibilities that a crisis offers to a refugee artist.

Through specific examples my paper will account for the mixed reception of the union of the churches on the island of Crete, where the necessity of co-existence opened new ways for absorbing conflict, proposing solutions and preserving order that allowed for a modus vivendi between the two communities.

Stefania Gerevini (Bocconi University)

Co-organizer and presenter

Facing Crisis? Art as visual politics in Trecento Venice

Between 1340 and 1354 Venice faced famine, a violent earthquake, the plague, fierce military conflicts against Genoa and against the Ottomans, and dramatic institutional and political tensions. Despite such near-apocalyptic events, during those years the Venetian government implemented a major program of artistic renewal, which significantly transformed the ducal palace and San Marco – the state church of Venice.

These projects, described by Belting as ‘the greatest enigma of Trecento art in Venice’, were fashioned as additions to (or reformulations of) pre-existing artistic palimpsests, and show a persistent (if ambivalent) engagement with Byzantine art. This latter has largely been interpreted by scholarship as the visual manifestation of an ‘ideology of triumph’ that Venice had developed in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, and that the city continued to feed on as its status as an early global power was reinforced in the Trecento.

Examining select aspects of the artistic renewal of San Marco and the ducal palace through the interpretative lens of crisis, my paper questions this master narrative of Venetian art. Instead, it situates these programs and their alleged artistic ‘hybridity’ against the increased geopolitical instability – and social and cultural interconnectedness – of the Mediterranean at this time. And it frames them in the context of the radical legal, institutional and political revision that the Venetian government enacted at this time to offset impending threats to the city’s domestic stability and international hegemony.

In what measure did the visual operate as a means to navigate uncertainty? To what extent did it reflect, or respond, to crisis? How did the programs of San Marco and the ducal palace operate visually, to reinforce, undermine or transform Venice’s networks of cultural affinity - thus both enabling and concealing change?

Cecily Hilsdale (McGill University)

Crisis and the Reinvigoration of Ars Sacra in Later Byzantium

In the later Byzantine world, both at the heart of the empire and its extremities, a diverse range of source material understood conventionally as “foreign” had become so deeply assimilated as to challenge any sense of a dominant or mainstream Byzantine style or aesthetic. To this end, unlike in the middle Byzantine period, “borrowing” and “appropriating” cease to serve as fruitful explanatory models for the startling stylistic eclecticism. Many scholars have pointed out that later Byzantine art drew on its more powerful neighbors in creative ways. To cite but a few examples, Robert Nelson makes this point about Christian painting in Muslim Egypt as has Lucy-Anne Hunt; Antony Eastmond and Glenn Peers have presented similar arguments with material in Trebizond; and Nelson has further explored how even Palaiologan elite culture in Constantinople felt the impact of the “arabesque.” One way to think about this phenomenon is to consider it a response to the changed circumstances of the later medieval Mediterranean in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade and against the backdrop of rising Ottoman powers—that is, in response to crisis or perceived decline. It is certainly no accident that styles and techniques characteristic of western metalwork appear in ars sacra of later Byzantium, which, later still, incorporate visual features drawn from the arts of Islam. Such eclecticism may have once been explained in terms of cultural influence but might now, given recent scholarship, be conceptualized more productively as a coping strategy meant to reinvigorate deeply entrenched traditions. The diversity of the later Byzantine formal idiom may be seen as an experimentation with new forms, forms that modern scholars have called “foreign” but may have registered in their own moment more as “current” or “contemporary.”

In exploring these issues, my paper revisits select ars sacra of the period as a dialectic between continuity and innovation, a dialectic that arises as a measured response or strategy. In these works, we see the assertion of the timelessness of Byzantium but conveyed in the timely visual terms of neighboring powerful cultures. In this way, such works align the liturgical present with a hallowed Orthodox past while simultaneously expressing a finely calibrated sense of historicity.