94th Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America

Conference Date: Mar 7, 2019–Mar 9, 2019 Location: University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA 19104 United States Session Title: Byzantine Art as a Global Endeavor (Session VI.6) Session Date: Mar 9, 2019 (9:00 AM - 10:30 AM)


Alexander Brey (McGill University)

Byzantine Material and Visual Culture in the Umayyad Caliphate

Almost fifty-five years ago, Oleg Grabar published the pioneering article “Islamic Art and Byzantium” in which he argued that “it was not Byzantine art but the themes of Byzantine art” that enjoyed popularity within the Umayyad caliphate (the first dynastic Islamic empire, ca. 661- 750). This paper reconsiders the Umayyad understanding of both the art and the artistic themes associated with Byzantium.

Early Arabic chroniclers employed a variety of overlapping imperial, religious, and regional categories to evoke current and former Byzantine territories, architectural forms, and artistic styles, including “Roman,” “Christian,” “Coptic,” and “Egyptian,” among others. This multiplicity of “the Byzantine,” I argue, is echoed in the Byzantine (and Byzantinizing) materials, techniques, and iconographies employed within the caliphate. For instance, the glass used in the mosaic tesserae that adorned the famous eighth-century princely bath house of Quṣayr ʿAmra in eastern Jordan was produced by at least two different workshops: one following Anatolian traditions, the other Egyptian. Anatolia remained a territory of the Byzantine Empire, and tesserae from that region may have been part of an official diplomatic gift. Egypt, on the other hand, was wrested from Byzantine control in the mid-seventh century; by the time Quṣayr ʿAmra was founded, it had been one of the most important provinces of the caliphate for over fifty years. Rather than eliding distinctions among these – and other – categories of “Byzantine” art so as to conform to modern art historical frameworks, this paper highlights their distinctiveness in order to reveal the varied intentions and meanings behind Umayyad use (and re-use) of Byzantine artistic forms, materials, and concepts.

Cecily Hilsdale (McGill University)

Co-organizer and co-chair

Meseret Oldjira (Princeton University)

Illuminating Christ’s Ascension in Medieval Ethiopia: A Question of Byzantine ‘Influence’?

The historiography of medieval Ethiopian illuminated manuscripts has been dominated by the quest for foreign sources and by a genealogical method in which Late Antique and Byzantine models are given priority. The earliest publications on the illuminated manuscripts of the four gospels, for example, conventionally argued that the miniatures reflect a sixth- to eighth-century “Byzantine” archetype that reached Ethiopia through Syriac, Armenian, or Christian Arabic intermediaries. Noticeable differences between the Ethiopian miniatures and their supposed Byzantine models are often attributed to misunderstandings on the part of the Ethiopian artists or to local assimilation of foreign elements, while iconographic and stylistic parallels are ascribed to the Byzantine “influence” on Ethiopian art. In this case, the use of the term “influence” suggests a unilateral process by which artistic forms and ideas flow from what are considered to be more innovative foreign cultures to Ethiopia, where they are copied and imitated, often less skillfully and at a chronologically later stage. Overlooking Ethiopian artistic agency and motivations, such an approach obscures the specific meanings that artistic features acquired in the Ethiopian context.

In this paper, I shift the focus away from questions of “influence” and offer more critical perspective on Ethiopia’s role within the milieu of Eastern Christian art. More specifically, I focus on the iconography of Christ’s Ascension as it is rendered in a group of 14th- and early 15th-century illuminated Gospels. This analysis will show how Ethiopian artists actively participated in the wider world of medieval Christian iconographic tradition while remaining faithful to the visual articulation of local religious and cultural concerns.

Alice Isabella Sullivan (University of Michigan)

The Refashioning of Byzantine Artistic Traditions in the Monastic Mural Cycles of Medieval Moldavia

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the principality of Moldavia assumed a central role in refashioning Byzantine artistic traditions under the leadership of Stephen III (r. 1457-1504). Following his marriage to Maria Asanina Palaiologina of Mangup in 1472, Stephen began to redefine his princely image and assert his role as protector of his domain and of Christianity at large. He also transformed the sacred landscape of Moldavia by building numerous Orthodox churches inspired by Byzantine and western Gothic architectural and iconographic traditions adapted alongside local developments. These churches display brightly colored exterior murals that reinterpret Palaiologan stylistic and iconographic patterns. Painted by both local and traveling artists, these vast wall paintings were designed in dialogue with the distinctive architecture of the buildings and their interior image programs.

Although expansive mural cycles were found on the exterior of medieval Orthodox churches from the Byzantine and Slavic cultural spheres, I argue that the Moldavian corpus reinterprets and amplifies this phenomenon of visually sanctifying the exteriors of religious edifices. In so doing, these Moldavian churches transformed Byzantine traditions of church building and decoration in the crucible of the post-1453 world. The decorative programs of these Moldavian monastic churches reveal princely ideological changes at a moment when Moldavia, situated at the very eastern borders of Europe, was emerging as a powerful leader and protector of the Orthodox Christian faith.

Alicia Walker (Bryn Mawr College)

Co-organizer and co-chair

John Lansdowne (Princeton University)

The Old World: Byzantium in Quattrocento Italy

This paper reconsiders the appropriation of Byzantine art by cultural and political elites in quattrocento Italy. It interprets this phenomenon within the context of ecumenical union––the broad movement to unify Eastern and Western Christendom into a single, undivided, universal church centered in Rome. With the decline and eventual collapse of the Byzantine Empire, ecumenical union was, more than ever, within the realm of possibility. In response, Rome’s conceptualization of Byzantium changed.

Whereas the styles and trappings of the “Greek” rite had long been posed in contrast to local norms, in the fifteenth-century, Italian elites began to interpret works of Byzantine art as artifacts of a history that was estranged but nonetheless their own. I attribute this development to a newfound desire to embrace the diversity of the universal church––an attitude that only recently had become safe to assume. My primary case study is the micromosaic icon of the Man of Sorrows at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome. Though conspicuously “Greek” in style, medium, and epigraphy, the icon accrued a local, Roman origin- myth that attributed it to Pope Gregory the Great, the Roman pontiff par excellence. The reception of this icon in the second half of the fifteenth century affords new insight into how the Roman Church conceived of its heritage––and the visual forms this heritage assumed. Central to my analysis is the sense of discovery experienced in Italy after the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1436–39 coupled with the sense of loss after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.