09.07.07, Cutler/Papaconstantinou, eds., The Material and the Ideal

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Michele Bacci

The Medieval Review baj9928.0907.007


Cutler, Anthony and Arietta Papaconstantinou (eds.). The Material and the Ideal: Essays in Medieval Art and Archaeology in Honour of Jean-Michel Spieser. The Medieval Mediterranean. Leiden: Brill, 2007. Pp. 240. ISBN: 9789004162860.

Reviewed by:
Michele Bacci
University of Siena

As hinted by its title The Material and the Ideal, the book is a collection of essays by scholars of different training, including art historians, archaeologists, philologists, and specialists in urban history, book illumination, iconography, and decorative arts. All of them have been connected with and/or inspired by the decade-long research work led by the book's dedicatee, Prof. Jean-Michel Spieser (Fribourg University), in such different fields as the study of the evolution of the town landscape in late Antiquity and the early Byzantine era, the social context of ceramic production, the interaction of liturgy and art, the iconographic development of early Christian themes, and the conceptual construction of Byzantine art in the 19th and 20th centuries. The sequence of articles in his Festschrift mirrors both his wide range of interests and the constant tension between fieldwork, material analysis and theory which always underlay his scholarly activity, here evoked by a complete list of his publications (9-14).

As the editors stress in their introduction (1-8), each essay focuses on the tension between the materiality or objectuality of things and the historical, social, cultural, spatial, and religious contexts in which they are inserted and also proves to scrutinize the gap between the significance attributed to this relationship in the past and the meaning we are now led to project on it. The book is opened by Beat Brenk's thoughtful remarks on the role of the apse as "a site of images" in late Antiquity (Zur Apsis als Bildort, pp. 15-29): contradicting the art-historical commonplace of monumental painting in the tribune as a Christian innovation, he points out that the new religion actually appropriated the Roman use of the apse as visual focus for the worship of either the Emperor and the statues of deities and that this evocative structure could occasionally be decorated with frescoed images, especially when it was meant to display large compositions with many Gods which could not be properly expressed by means of three-dimensional images. Not differently, the following article by Arietta Papaconstantinou (Divine or Human? Some Remarks on the Design and Layout of Late Antique Basilicas) argues against the use and abuse of ancient ekphraseis as sources for architectural history and discusses the few valuable documents which allow us to glimpse into late antique builders' concrete methods of planning and designing.

The contribution of an Albanian archaeologist, Etleva Nallbani (Urban and Rural Funerary Practices in Early Medieval Illyricum: Some General Considerations, pp. 47-61), stands out because of its innovative interpretation of excavation data as sources for reconstructing the development of funerary practices and their social and cultural implications in the Western Balkans between the fifth and the seventh centuries, and investigating how the new ways of burying the dead and organizing cemeteries had an impact on the shaping of both urban space and rural landscape. An interdisciplinary approach is also adopted in the following article by Brigitte Pitarakis (L'orfèvre et l'architecte: autour d'un groupe d'édifices constantinopolitains du VIe siècle, pp. 63-74), devoted to the parallelisms between the treatment of jewels and monumental decorations in Constantinople during the era of Justinian, as revealed by the architectural remains of the basilicas of Saint Polyeuktos, Saint Euphemia and St John of Hebdomon, where polychrome marble incrustations and ajour-sculpted plaques replicate the technique and ornamental repertory used by contemporary goldsmiths, probably as an outcome of the high reputation attributed to deluxe objects. Metalwork and jewels were often used as diplomatic gifts by the Imperial court, especially on such occasions as the reception of foreign delegations; the descriptions of three such events included in the Book of Ceremonies--the embassy of the amirs of Tarsos and Amida, that of the Umayyad Caliph of Cordoba, and that led by Princess Ol'ga of Kiev in mid-tenth century--are published by Jeffrey Featherstone in his article Di'endeixin: Display in Court Ceremonial (De cerimoniisII, 15), pp. 75-112), who also provide an English translation and a thorough reconstruction of their ritual setting and development.

The two following essays are devoted to iconographic analysis. The first one, by Anthony Cutler and Nancy P. Sevcenko (A Recently Discovered Ivory of St. Ignatios and the Lions, pp. 113-127), focuses on a recently discovered Byzantine ivory plaque, dating from the 10th or 11th century, and displaying the rare subject of Saint Ignatios of Antioch's martyrdom; the authors reconstruct the historical and religious context in which this tiny work was created. In the second (Le nouvel ordre du monde ou l'image du Cosmos Lesnovo, pp. 130-148), Ivana Jevtic interprets the complex composition used in the 14th century murals at Lesnovo, Serbia, to illustrate the first verses of Psalm 148, where the representation of heavens, stars, and angels praising God also includes the signs of the Zodiac; their iconography is here analysed in its connections with Classical tradition, Medieval interpretation, Serbian folklore, funerary practices and an individual donor's quest for his soul's sake.

There follow three contributions focussed on the social history and symbolism of material objects, mirroring Prof. Spieser's interest in Byzantine realia. Sharon Gerstel (The Sacred Vessel and the Measure of Man, pp. 149-156) explores the significance attributed in Byzantine hagiography to clay pots as both social symbols and metaphorical hints at holy people as recipients of Divine Grace. An even more deceptive task is pursued by Maria Parani's thoughts On the Personal Life of Objects in Medieval Byzantium (pp. 157-176), that of glimpsing into Byzantine lay people's attitudes and feelings towards personal objects. Since only very scarce clues are offered by most of the literary texts, the author turns to extant legal documents (especially last wills) in order to provide some grounds to work out a reconstruction of the patterns of behaviour associated with specific objects. However, we cannot help recognizing that much of the evidence collected by Parani relates, not surprisingly, to icons, which should be treated as special cases with respect to other objects used in ordinary life. At last, Véronique François (Des potiers de Nicée aux faïenciers d'Iznik: tradition maintenue ou fausse continuité?, pp. 177-187) wonders about the possible continuity between the production of ceramic bowls in Byzantine Nicaea and the industry of faïence established in the same town in the Ottoman period: her conclusion, supported by archaeological and historical data, is that the latter had no direct connection to the earlier production.

The issue of Byzantine interaction with neighbouring cultures is the fil rouge of the three last contributions. Elizabeth Yota (Un tetraévangile provincial d'origine syro-palestinienne: Florence Bibliothèque Laurentienne Conv. Soppr. Gr. 160, pp. 189-203) examines the illuminations of an hitherto neglected manuscript of the Four Gospels, whose iconographic choices, showing no direct connection with the art of Constantinople, point to Syria-Palestine as the more probable context of production; of special interest is the choice to make use of full-page miniatures which, far from being meant as illustrations to the text, are presented in an autonomous way at the beginning and at the end of the book--a solution determined by the involvement in an individual's devotional practices.

Even less known is the curious artwork discussed by Jannic Durand (Une prétendue relique de Constantinople: la 'Véronique' de Corbie, pp. 205-218), an image of the "holy Face" formerly worshipped in Corbie, France, and said to have been painted by the hand of the Evangelist Luke. The author brilliantly reconstructs its cultic history, by pointing out that it probably originated as an ex-voto replica on leather of the Roman Veronica--analogous to many which were sold to pilgrims around Saint Peter's in the Late Middle Ages--and was later transformed into the object of a collective phenomenon of public worship, whose alleged antiquity was suggested by its material oddity and archaistic appearance.

In the last article (À propos des influences byzantines sur l'art du Moyen Âge occidental, pp. 219-231), Jean Wirth tries to deconstruct the view of Byzantium as "stepmother" of Medieval Western art which was shaped in 1960s and 1970s by the late Otto Demus and Ernst Kitzinger, who emphasized the role played by the art of Constantinople in transmitting its Classical heritage tradition to Latin Europe, especially in the field of painting [1]. Disputing this view, Wirth wonders about the truthfulness of the conceptual background used by those scholars: both Demus and Kitzinger had been trained in a cultural milieu where such general terms as classicism or humanism were almost self-evident and assuming a special meaning when opposed to the brutality of the 20th century; it is now time to consider if such notions can still be considered to be "more effective than the ideological constructions of Nazism and Marxism they were contrasting" (226). Their fallaciousness is evidenced, in the author's view, by the fact that the most important phenomena of imitation of ancient art in the Medieval West are connected to the medium of sculpture, instead of painting; the latter's more enduring fascination for Eastern models diverted artists from the appropriation of Classicism already pursued by sculptors and proved so to act as a retardant agent.

Probably this view, which is curiously akin to that expressed by Roberto Longhi in his crude Giudizio sul Duecento [2], demonstrates a too sharp use of Ockham's razor and underestimates the need to widen the focus from the East-West question to the complex dynamics of cultural interactions in the Late Middle Ages, when Latins were a well established presence in the Levant, a wealth of goods, artworks, and artists travelled along the sea routes of the Mediterranean, and the painters of the early Palaiologan era started investigating new realistic ways of representing nature and the human being.

In general, it is our traditional notion of "influence", borrowed from either astrology or medicine, that needs being revised or substituted by new, more dynamic concepts, as has been recently stressed by Jean-Michel Spieser in his Art byzantin et influence: pour l'histoire d'une construction [3].



[1] Ernst Kitzinger, "The Byzantine Contribution to Western Art of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 20 (1966): 25-47. Otto Demus, Byzantine Art and the West (London 1970).

[2] Roberto Longhi, "Giudizio sul Duecento," Proporzioni 2 (1948): 5-54.

[3] In M. Balard, É. Malamut, and J.-M. Spieser (eds.). Byzance et le monde extérieur (Paris, 2005), pp. 271-288.

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Author Biography

Michele Bacci

University of Siena