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99.08.02, Eastmond, Royal Imagery in Medieval Georgia

99.08.02, Eastmond, Royal Imagery in Medieval Georgia

In this volume Antony Eastmond presents the surviving examples of medieval Georgian royal imagery, comprising fourteen monumental paintings, coins, and icons. For scholars of both eastern and western medieval art, the importance of Georgian royal imagery has been too frequently obscured by difficulties of access--the material is now divided between Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan--and by publication in languages not commonly read by western scholars. Eastmond's study is the first comprehensive analysis in English of this material. He not only rescues his subject from relative obscurity, he also peels away centuries' accumulation of mythology and polemic to reveal the dynamic nature of Georgian royal art. The book is well written and thorough, and its usefulness to scholars is enhanced by its appendices. These include a catalog of royal imagery before 1050, a discussion of the dating and identification of the donor images in the Sioni church of At'eni, and an excerpt (in Georgian and English) from The Rule and Order for the Blessing of Kings. There are also a helpful genealogical table of the ruling Bagrat'ioni family, a map, good black and white photographs, and splendid color plates.

The first chapter deals with royal imagery predating the 1008 unification of Georgia. Four sculptures, of which only two remain in situ, depict an assortment of local princes from diverse regions of what would become unified Georgia. For these works even the most basic issues have generated much scholarly debate. Eastmond does much with the limited material; his analysis of the church of Osk'i is the most comprehensive and convincing interpretation of this important monument to date. His comparisons of the pre-unification sculptures with contemporary Byzantine and Armenian royal portraits show Georgia's indebtedness to outside influences and effectively demonstrate that there was no consistent manner of incorporating these influences, nor any consistent method of visually depicting rulership.

The second and third chapters address the royal imagery of united Georgia; with two exceptions (coins and an icon), the images discussed here were originally components of painted church programs, and all depict members of the Bagrat'ioni family. Chapter Two, "The Imagery of United Georgia: 1008- 1184," highlights both the strong influence of Byzantine imperial art on Georgian royal art and the desire of Georgian rulers to establish a visual expression of kingship specifically identified with their nation and family, a desire which spurred the development of dynastic royal imagery. Eastmond also considers the audience for whom these images were produced. The reconquest of Tbilisi gave Georgia a large Muslim population whose continued presence in the city was vital to its economic stability. The coins of Demetre I and his son, Giorgi III, clearly document the need to present an image of strong Georgian rulership to the country's Muslim population. These coins feature Arabic and Georgian scripts, Arabic titles, and iconography derived from the Islamic cycle of princely entertainments. A very different audience viewed the wall paintings in the church of Macxvarisi at Lat'ali, in Svaneti. According to inscriptions the church was funded by the eristavs, or local governors. Eastmond demonstrates that the depiction of Demetre's coronation celebrates the creation of royal power, emphasizing the role of the eristavs, who are shown girding the king with a sword. Eastmond also investigates how the royal image at Macxvarisi influenced the placement of other scenes in the cycle--an issue considered for each royal image that is part of a larger decorative program. His comparison of Macxvarisi with the Cappella Palatina offers an excellent example of how similar juxtapositions of similar scenes in apparently similar contexts may nonetheless convey very different messages. The reader will benefit from consulting William Tronzo's The Cultures of His Kingdom. Roger II and the Cappella Palatina in Palermo (Princeton, 1997), published while Eastmond's book was in press, rather than the cited bibliography.

In 1178 Giorgi III crowned his daughter Tamar as his coruler. There was no precedent for female rulership in medieval Georgia, and upon the king's death Tamar was faced with opposition and open rebellion. The third chapter focuses on the royal imagery produced during Tamar's rule (1184-1213), a period of stability and prosperity. Eastmond shows how the unparalleled combination of Tamar's sex and rank required her portraits to visually convey two seemingly contradictory messages: her authority and power, and her feminine virtues. The latter was easily achieved by the use of existing artistic practices that were neither restricted to, nor necessarily reflective of, royal power. Her face, for example, is always depicted according to the current "Persian" ideal of feminine beauty. Her image is also frequently juxtaposed with those of female saints, thus favorably comparing her with these models of feminine piety. It was considerably more difficult to convey Tamar's power and authority, as these royal qualities had previously been embodied by male rulers only. At the beginning of her reign Tamar was forced into marriage with a proven military leader, as women were forbidden from participating in military campaigns. It is therefore not surprising that, unlike her male predecessors, she is never shown with a sword. She is, however, frequently juxtaposed with the images of military saints.

While many representations of Tamar follow the established convention of dynastic imagery, Eastmond demonstrates that Tamar's sex necessitated alterations in this traditional form of royal representation. Tamar is depicted in four dynastic portrait groups that strongly convey her legitimate right to rule, but in each image she is pictorially supplanted by a male relative. Only in the church of Bertubani is Tamar shown without what Eastmond calls "a male front" (p. 133). The date of the church is uncertain; Eastmond sides with those who assign it to the period just prior to Tamar's death but agrees that it is possible that the image was painted after she died. While these aspects of Tamar's imagery reflect obvious discomfort with the depiction of female rule, Eastmond also sees pictorial evidence of her increasing power and confidence. He notes a new sense of Georgian superiority vis-a-vis the Byzantine empire in the portraits painted after 1204, in which both Tamar and her father are shown in Byzantine-derived regalia. Eastmond also suggests that Tamar's reign was increasingly interpreted through national symbols, such as the image of St. Nino, who as the apostolic saint of Georgia provided an exemplar of a pious and divinely-recognized woman.

In the fourth chapter, "The Function of Royal Imagery," Eastmond examines the ways in which the images gave visual expression to Bagrat'ioni power and prestige. He again stresses the flexibility of Georgian royal imagery, noting that there was no "overall consistent policy for the depiction of Georgian rulership, but rather a series of policies designed for different audiences, locations, or purposes, each of which required its own formulation of power"(p. 195). Here, as in the preceding discussions of individual monuments, Eastmond effectively distinguishes the differing messages conveyed by text and image. While inscriptions accompanying royal and non- royal portraits all emphasize secular power, pictorial devices such as scale, spatial arrangements, and framing devices were, he suggests, designed to present the Bagrat'ionis as a "focus of worship" (p. 204), and reflect their reliance on the Byzantine cult of the emperor. He further suggests that the nearly uniform placement of royal images on the north wall of churches may reflect some as yet unexplained liturgical function.

In the fifth chapter, "Patronage," Eastmond underscores the range and variety of royal Georgian imagery. This is an important rejoinder to the picture of Georgian rulership presented by the official contemporary histories, most notably Kartlis Cxovreba [the Annals of Georgia], which depict a seamless progression of largely undifferentiated monarchs. Eastmond restates here the thesis introduced in the preceding chapters, that there was a "fragmentary and diverse notion of the control of patronage" (p. 206). He suggests that the great variety in depictions of medieval Georgian royal power argues against any direct royal control of such images, and reflects the presence in the royal court of a range of "views and interpretations of the Georgian monarchy" (p. 217). Eastmond reviews the limited surviving textual information on Georgian patronage, royal and non-royal, noting that in these sources patronage seems responsive rather than independently motivated. The comparative Byzantine material is briefly discussed; here Eastmond's argument would have been strengthened by a consideration of the important material analyzed by John P. Thomas, Private Religious Foundations in the Byzantine Empire (Washington DC, 1987).

There are few faults to be found in this book. The first chapter, covering the sculptural portraits of rulers from the period before unification, seems much less comprehensive and cohesive in its arguments than the chapters dealing with later works. This is primarily due to the decision to relegate to an appendix discussions of debates concerning identity, translations of inscriptions, and other facts important to the context of the sculptures. In contrast, opposing theories pertaining to Tamar's imagery are fully considered in the body of Chapter Three. In the first chapter the reader will also note an inconsistent application of the use of scale as an indicator of rank and status--while the princely donors on the exterior of Osk'i are larger than the figures of the Deesis which they flank, this is neither noted nor discussed.

Eastmond effectively uses comparative material from Byzantium to show how Georgian royal imagery was innovative, and how it responded to developments in the wider orthodox world. Comparisons with Islamic visual expressions of power demonstrate how the depiction of Georgian kingship was responsive to more immediate regional traditions and to the newly incorporated Muslim population of Georgia. Yet Eastmond limits his use of Armenian royal comparanda to the first chapter of the book--perhaps in an effort to use only contemporary comparisons--and thus precludes any discussion of possible Armenian influence on Bagrat'ioni royal imagery. A comparison, for example, of Tamar's image at Natlismcemeli with the manuscript portrait (c. 1050) of the Armenian ruler Gagik of Kars presenting his daughter as his heir would show the degree to which Tamar's imagery was a participant in the larger Caucasian tradition of royal representation. Certainly Georgian and Armenian rulers were divided by Christian confession and political influences, but they were related by blood and geographical proximity, and as Eastmond himself notes (pp. 63-65), the incorporation of former Armenian lands into Georgia may have influenced Georgian royal imagery.

These are minor quibbles. Eastmond is to be commended for presenting a comprehensive and clear view of the evolution of Georgian royal imagery and its relationship to the artistic traditions of the eastern medieval world.