The Medieval Review 13.03.22

Walker, Alicia. The Emperor and the World: Exotic Elements and the Imaging of Middle Byzantine Imperial Power, Ninth to Thirteenth Centuries C.E. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xviii, 260. $95.00. ISBN: 9781107004771. . .

Reviewed by:

Warren T. Woodfin
Queens College, City University of New York

Alicia Walker has written an insightful and thoroughly erudite work about the role of exotic elements (motifs of Sassanian, Chinese, and Islamic origin) in the construction of Byzantine imperial identity from the period of Iconoclasm to the Fourth Crusade. Her work brings to light hitherto neglected aspects of works of art--both preserved objects and works known only from texts--to argue that these played their part in articulating what it meant to be "Byzantine" in the ninth through thirteenth centuries. The role of the exotic in Byzantine art forms a complement to the much better-known framing of the emperor within the Orthodox Christian world view as the vicegerent of Christ on Earth and the visual expression of this ideology. In contrast to such "official" imperial imagery, the Sassanian, Chinese, and Islamic elements appropriated into works of imperial art function by a variety of channels to exalt the emperor on a global stage.

As a work concerned with imperial imagery, Walker's book is indebted to one of the foundational studies of Byzantine art, André Grabar's L'empereur dans l'art byzantin (1936). Unlike other scholars who have critiqued Grabar's work in recent years, Walker is refreshingly free of polemic, recognizing both the contribution and the limits of Grabar's approach. Walker sets up her study not as a challenge to received understanding of official imperial portraiture, but as a complement to it (a point that she underscores again in the conclusion of the book). Grabar's major failing, according to Walker, is in relegating Islamic and other exotic motifs in Byzantine art to the realm of the "pleasurable" and "decorative." Walker, in contrast, is at pains to wring every available bit of interpretive information from these motifs, marshaling an impressive array of primary and secondary sources to this task. Furthermore, Walker sees exotic motifs not as an undifferentiated stock of courtly artistic vocabulary, but as a tool kit capable of expressing a number of distinctly differentiated messages according to their context. While she sees these messages following a general trend over time from a more open to a more exclusivist vision of Byzantine power, she is careful never to reify this into a single evolutionary trajectory. The variety of meanings conveyed by the exotic elements give shape to the organization of the book, divided into the categories of "emulation," "appropriation," "parity," "expropriation," and "incomparability." Each use of the exotic is centered on a case-study of one or more major exemplars; in many cases, these examples are texts, ekphraseis of works of art no longer extant. In mining these sources, Walker makes a strong case for using these textual descriptions not as mere frameworks for the reconstruction of lost works of art, but as means of access to the attitudes of Byzantine viewers towards what they saw.

The first chapter, "Emulation," concerns the second period of Byzantine Iconoclasm, in particular the reign of the emperor Theophilos (r. 829-842). Walker regards this period as one in which a vocabulary of Sassanian motifs was borrowed by the Byzantines from their neighbors, the newly ascendant Abbasid caliphate. The central monument of this chapter is the lost Bryas palace, which is recorded in the chronicle of Theophanes Continuatus--a source hostile to the Iconoclastic emperors--as based on Arab models "and in no way different from the latter either in form or decoration" (41). Unfortunately, the text lacks a detailed description of the building, so an argument for emulation of Islamic sources is furthered by the evidence of silks from the Iconoclast era that utilize Sassanian, or, more precisely, post-Sassanian decorative motifs. As Walker fully acknowledges, the chronology of early Byzantine silks is much disputed. She relies heavily on the chronology established by Anna Muthesius, which does not withstand close scrutiny in all respects. While it is almost certain that at least some of the silks with hunting scenes discussed in this chapter date from the first half of the ninth century, present evidence does not permit the precise dating of any one of them to Theophilos' reign. Walker adduces the evidence of the Liber Pontificalis in order sharpen the focus on silks likely produced under Theophilos, but even here, as she notes, the evidence is somewhat equivocal. The detailed discussion of Theophilos' relations with the Abbasid court, therefore, risks being read as a circular argument for dating the silks with Persian motifs. Furthermore, the identification of motifs such as the hunt as "iconoclastic" risks overshadowing the extent to which these represent continuities with earlier Byzantine art. Despite these reservations, Walker's overall point stands: Abbasid and Byzantine courts alike used the motifs of post-Sassanian Persia as a visual language of rule that was distinct from their respective religious means of legitimation. This shared vocabulary was used to express political and military rivalry with the Abbasids in the period of Byzantium's ninth-century revival.

The second chapter, "Appropriation," centers on the Troyes casket, an ivory box that juxtaposes scenes of imperial hunters, an imperial adventus, and, on the box ends, a pair of Chinese phoenixes, or feng huang. Of the exotic motifs treated in the book, these have traveled the furthest from their source. Walker argues persuasively that, rather than being related to the Christian phoenix, the symbol of resurrection, they are recognizably foreign forms whose presence on the Troyes casket is meant to represent the notional reach of the Byzantine oikoumene even to the farthest East. Walker explored the Byzantine appropriation of the feng huang bird as a motif in a 2010 article in Ars Orientalis; although publishing that material separately allows a certain streamlining of her argument in the book, one can regret that much of the rich visual material that she adduced there is not reproduced here in The Emperor and the World. Walker convincingly reads the ensemble as a deliberate combination of motifs favored in the Late Antique (referred to throughout the book as "Roman-Byzantine") and Iconoclastic periods with the exotic element of the feng huang in order to universalize the message of imperial supremacy.

The following chapter, "Parity," concerns itself with the exchange of gifts between Byzantine and Islamic courts, particularly as documented in the Fatimid Book of Gifts and Rarities. The discussion centers on descriptions of two extraordinary objects no longer extant: the reputed saddle of Alexander the Great, presented by the Byzantine emperor to the Fatimid caliph in the tenth century, and a vest adorned with the seal of Solomon in rubies, given to the emperor by the ruler of the Great Seljuks in the eleventh century. These gifts, at once works of art and relics, find a common ground of ideal rulership in figures from ancient and biblical history and demonstrate the esteem in which Byzantine and Islamic rulers held one another in the period of Byzantium's greatest might. Such gifts express an attitude of mutual respect--if not constant peace--between the Byzantine court and its Islamic neighbors that contrasts with the more condescending attitude evident in Byzantium's contemporary relationship with Christian Europe.

The two final chapters shift the focus towards Byzantine use of exotic motifs in a more censorious mode. In the chapter entitled "Expropriation," the ivory plaques of the Darmstadt casket are used to build a convincing case for a negative view of Islamic rulers on the part of the patron. The plaque with the ascent of Alexander (chosen as the front cover illustration of the book) provides a properly imperial model, complete with the Byzantine imperial attributes of stemma and loros. The opposite end panel juxtaposes Alexander with a caricature of a "Persian" ruler: nude, cross-legged, and amusing himself by playing a lute. The knife-wielding assassins who approach from the sides--a visual rhyme with the flying victories who flank Alexander--make clear the evil fate that awaits him. Walker rightly stresses that this work was likely "unofficial," the commission of someone in the imperial court, but not destined for public ceremonial purposes. If, as she suggests, the plaques date to the twelfth century, might it not also be possible to read the Darmstadt plaques as an internal Byzantine Kaiserkritik, using Islamic imagery to take a coded jab at the rather louche court of Manuel I Komnenos? While I agree with the author that the conventional, tenth-century date is unconvincing, one issue that might have been addressed more thoroughly is that the Darmstadt ivory shows the ascending Alexander's loros worn crosswise in the style prevalent before the eleventh century. While the ascent of Alexander is depicted both on the Innsbruck Bowl and on the silver cup in St. Petersburg that Walker compares to the Darmstadt ivories, the crossed loros features in neither one. While Walker acknowledges the anomaly in a footnote, it perhaps deserved an examination equal to that given the other iconographic details of the plaques.

Walker's final chapter, "Incomparability," treats the use of exotic artistic styles and motifs as a foil for the reaffirmation of the traditions of "official" imperial art and its claims to reflect a divinely-ordained universal order. Again, the centerpiece of the argument is a lost work of architecture, the Mouchroutas Hall of the Great Palace in Constantinople. Nicholas Mesarites' brief but incisive description of this building is presented in an appendix, both in the original Greek and in Walker's translation. In an exegetical tour de force, Walker reads Mesarites' passage describing the hall and its occupant--the would-be emperor John "the Fat" Komnenos--as an exposition of the distinction between the transcendent dimension of "official" Byzantine imperial art and the Islamicizing décor of the Seljuk-style hall. John is condemned as un-imperial by association with the leisurely drinkers and lute-players depicted on the painted muqarnas ceiling of the hall in an implied comparison with the properly Byzantine throne room, the adjacent Chrysotriklinos, in which the mosaic of Christ appeared directly over the emperor's seat.

A number of recent studies that have focused on issues of artistic hybridity in regions around the periphery of the Byzantine Empire, and Walker acknowledges their contribution in her conclusion. Her own work, in contrast, tackles the incorporation of the exotic into the artistic productions of the Byzantine court itself, stressing that such motifs were available for internal consumption and not merely as gestures towards foreign recipients of Byzantine gifts. The book demonstrates a strong awareness of the recent theoretical developments--stimulated primarily by post-colonial theory--around artistic hybridity and synchresis. Nevertheless, theory is seldom in the foreground, nor does it ever displace a thorough reliance on the objects and primary texts.

The mining of the primary sources is particularly impressive, both in its thoroughness and its sensitivity to their nuances. Time and again, this reader was surprised by little-known texts and important nuggets of information from both Greek and Arabic writings. The modern bibliography is similarly extensive. As is understandable given the long timelines for production of academic books, coverage of the most recent scholarship is somewhat uneven. Gaps are most evident in subjects that have seen particular flurries of activity over the past several years, such as gift exchange, relics, and the occult sciences. Any shortcomings in this regard, however, must be considered the hazard of casting such a broad net with a bibliography that covers a multitude of subjects.

Walker places her work firmly in the context of the more traditionally accepted presentation of the emperor as reigning through divine appointment and as a member of a hierarchy that united heaven and earth. Operating alongside the official image of the emperor as the earthly representative of Christ, exotic imagery in imperial art allowed Byzantine patrons to introduce further nuances to the unchanging claims of imperial authority. Although the number of surviving objects with "exotic" motifs is relatively few, surely others will come to light as scholars begin to question the assumption that hybrid works must always be associated with the peripheries of empire.