15.09.04, Hilsdale, Byzantine Art and Diplomacy

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Rebecca W. Corrie

The Medieval Review 15.09.04

Hilsdale, Cecily J. Byzantine Art and Diplomacy in an Age of Decline. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. pp. 412. ISBN: 9781107033306 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Rebecca W. Corrie
Bates College

In recent decades historians of medieval art have expanded their analytical tools, adopting the perspectives and methodologies of anthropology, often to great benefit not only to our knowledge of individual works but also to our understanding of the periods themselves. Perhaps no form of anthropological interrogation has been adopted with as much success as gift theory introduced by Marcel Mauss and elaborated on by others, most importantly Arjun Appadurai. At the same time beginning with the 1960s, the study of later Byzantine art, the art of the Palaiologan era, moved forward quite literally by leaps and bounds. Cecily Hilsdale's important volume combines these innovations and the result is a major contribution to the field. She asks essential questions and provides a rich and deep context for consideration of later Byzantine art. Writing this complex volume must have been a daunting task. Reading it is as well, but the persistent reader is amply rewarded. Her discussion of objects leads to questions not otherwise asked and thus to new insights about the function of images. Almost every scholar interested in this period of Mediterranean history will come away with something for his or her own work.

She begins by acknowledging the inspiration for her study. She notes that in visits to the exhibition Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557) mounted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2004 she was struck by the disparity between the decline in Byzantine power, wealth, and territory that characterized the era and the brilliance of the works in front of her. She set out to understand how it was possible for such elements to co-exist through the last centuries of the Byzantine Empire. Her quest underlines the importance of such "blockbuster" exhibitions. Usually intended to bring far-flung works together for an interested but non-scholarly public, they provide important opportunities for rethinking whole fields. Hilsdale poses a simple question: "What new patterns of artistic practice, patronage, and munificence emerge in the face of decline" (22)? But her analysis is anything but simple, and she warns us of a counter-intuitive situation in the first pages: "One way to understand this apparent enigma...is to recognize that later Byzantine diplomatic strategies, despite or because of diminishing political advantage, relied on an increasingly desirable cultural and artistic heritage...power must, out of necessity, be constructed in non-monetary terms within the realm of culture" (3). She explains further: "Drawing on diverse visual and textual materials that have traditionally been eclipsed in favor of the earlier Byzantine period, this book interrogates the manner in which previous visual paradigms of sovereignty and generosity were adapted to suit diminished contemporary realities...prompting us to question how the concept of decline reconfigures categories of wealth and value, categories that lie at the core of cultural exchange...[Through] the analysis of art objects created specifically for diplomatic exchange alongside key examples of Palaiologan imperial imagery and ritual, this book traces the circulation of the image of the emperor--in such sumptuous materials as silk, bronze, gold, and vellum--at the end of the empire" (3).

She observes that objects have agency in their own time, and demonstrates the persistence of that agency into our time providing information not retrievable by other means. She writes that "by taking as a point of departure art objects themselves--their agency, status and social lives--the present study brings conceptual issues of cultural exchange to the concrete level of material culture.... This book assumes that gifts from the beleaguered late Byzantine Empire contain the kind of agency usually associated with individuals rather than objects" (26-27). Her use of gift theory follows the cultural and historical maps laid out by the objects themselves. She observes that "despite variations, all the objects under investigation engage the action of giving, which is inflected with subtle though discernible calibrations of hierarchy," and she reminds us here and throughout her discussion that "gift-giving is neither free nor disinterested, but rather works in complex ways to establish and recalibrate contingent relations of power and hierarchy" (9). To some degree, Hilsdale has set up a series of questions whose answers do not appear until the very end of the book. Her writing is elegant and complex and readers need to touch base repeatedly with the concepts she has in mind, which to some extent she articulates most effectively at the close of the volume. She observes near her conclusion that "The circulation of the imperial images as a gift is central to the production and maintenance of Byzantine ideology, and also offers insight into [the] disjunction between belief and reality" (329). Here she finds her most telling point: "Gifting for Pierre Bourdieu is ultimately a means of denying objective truths" (341). She concludes that "gift exchange, in other words, as the ultimate act of self- and communal deception, constitutes an ideal coping strategy" (342).

In undertaking this project, she has chosen to address a few well-chosen objects in great depth and yet she intends to come to concrete conclusions about the relationship between works of art and politics, economics, and hierarchical behavior. In this respect Hilsdale takes other lessons from anthropology, not only gift theory, but also the use of thick description in order to explicate the world that surrounds these works. Her text is carefully constructed, divided into two parts each with its own clear introduction and conclusion. Each of these two parts is subdivided into sections devoted to individual monuments and each of those discussions includes an appropriate historical setting and analysis. As each new section is launched it is important for readers to keep her underlying goals in mind in order to avoid losing track of where they are in her argument. Yet these historical elements accumulate across the entire volume and provide extensive context, rather than relying on the readers' ability to bring that context to the study of the objects or assuming that material objects are understandable without it. Hilsdale brackets her study by focusing on two eras: the period of the return of the Palaiologan dynasty to Constantinople after retaking it from the Crusaders in 1261 and the decades before its loss to the Ottomans in 1453. The first she describes as a time of "restoration, reclamation, and legitimacy" (336). When she turns to the empire's last century she dramatically reminds us that "the civil wars of the mid-fourteenth century left the empire politically fragmented and financially depleted. [So that] in 1343, having already ensured that the young John V Palaiologos was properly crowned, Anna of Savoy pawned the imperial crown jewels to the Republic of Venice" (199).

The first half begins on a hopeful note, describing the return of the Orthodox Emperor Michael VIII to Constantinople on 15 August 1261, using Byzantine texts to characterize the dire condition in which the Crusaders had left the city and the project of restoring the image of the empire. Although the volume opens with a discussion of earlier imperial images it focusses quickly on the words with which the Palaiologan court orator Manuel Holobolos characterized the power of the emperor's image as a gift, turning to a discussion of the illuminated chrysobulls of Andronikos II. From there she moves to her analysis of the embroidered, red silk textile, the peplos or pallium sent by Michael VIII to Genoa as part of the 1261 Treaty of Nymphaion, an object which has attracted considerable scholarly interest in recent years. Her discussion becomes the basis for extended analyses of related texts, objects, and iconographic motifs among them the now lost monumental bronze image of Michael VIII kneeling at the feet of the Archangel Michael which stood atop a column near the Church of the Holy Apostles and the gold coinage of Michael VIII, each of which provides an opportunity to discuss concepts of gift-giving or prestation. Each analysis has imbedded in it discussions of other similar images and practices, whether in textiles, manuscript illumination, or mosaic. Each work on which she focusses is accompanied by a rich investigation into its own context. Her discussions of the bronze image and of the pallium bring with them extended discussions of largesse, adventus, and proskynesis, and with these come ample bibliography and deep footnotes. Extensive as her discussions are, they nevertheless lead me to other questions. I would like to know more about the pallium. Despite technical discussion of the textile type, she treats the Genoa pallium primarily as a bearer of meaning. How was it likely to have been used? Was it intended as an altar frontal? She cites other Byzantine textiles, but how does it fit with other similar works, the silk at Zadar and the Verial silk at the Victoria and Albert Museum. How broad is the category of object it represents? Similar gifts are mentioned in treaties between Italian cities in the thirteenth century. Is there a still broader diplomatic context for this type of object? Similarly I wonder whether her discussion of the hyperpyra of Michael VIII and Andronikos II points once and for all to identification of the National Gallery in Washington's Mellon Madonna as the Virgin of the Walls (152-197).

As she moves on she underlines the complexity of gift theory thus allowing readers to negotiate the numerous threads of her argument. She recalls that according to Mauss, "Society always pays itself in the counterfeit coin of its dream" and that "Gifts carry the burden of ambiguity even contradiction: they must disguise their indebtedness in order to be freely given" (152). In the second half of the book, she refreshes her methodology as she turns to look at works made and reworked and whose meaning was refashioned in the last decades of the empire including, most brilliantly, a deluxe copy of the works of Dionysius the Areopagite which arrived in Paris in 1408 and is now in the Louvre, and vestments sent to Moscow between 1414-1417. She introduces her discussion of this late period clearly: By "using the letters of Manuel II as a rhetorical framework or architecture, this chapter disentangles key strands of a thick network of mobility: the imperial body, the written word, and material gifts" (217). She traces the efforts, including the travels of emperors and envoys, as the emperors sought ways to preserve their empire and Constantinople's role, "as the source of spirituality and ecclesiastical and dynastic authority" (325).

Like the first part of the book, the second section focusses on the image of the emperor in the context of diplomacy and gifting. Here we find her most beautifully constructed discussion, one that uses theory to elicit telling answers to questions about the lives of objects. She considers the image-laden vestments of the Metropolitan Photios, sent to Moscow by Manuel II at the time of the marriage of John Palaiologos, heir to the Byzantine throne and Anna of Moscow, daughter of Vasily I Dmitrievič, ruler of Moscow, and Sophia Vitovtovna, daughter of the ruler of Lithuania. She provides a rich explication of the meanings of the "major" and "minor" sakkoi. Her text is a model of the way in which a complex but carefully structured art historical analysis can lead to historical issues that might otherwise be missed. Her comments on analyses by John Meyendorff and Dimitri Oblensky expand our understanding of the period and provide an example of the instability of the meanings of objects. Asking her readers to be alert to the optative voice, the voice of the wish, Hilsdale reminds us that "The circulation of the imperial image as a gift is central to the production and maintenance of Byzantine ideology, and also offers insight into this disjunction between belief and reality. From the Byzantine perspective, the gift of the imperial image expressed the desire for allegiance. Receiving such as gift, however, does not necessarily imply acceptance or subservience" (329). The gift of the "major" sakkos, which she describes as "drenched in iconographic complexity and encrusted in silver and gold," was "a gesture of desire on the part of the authorities in Constantinople" (330-331). She writes: "The sakkos mediates such a dense network of allegiance on multiple levels as only a gift can. It is deeply entangled in ritual systems of reciprocity and is neither free nor disinterested" (332). With this analysis she makes a convincing case for the necessity of complex theory as a bedrock of art historical practice.

Effective as this format is for the distinctive group of works she has chosen, the reader needs to remember that Hilsdale's approach is aimed at this limited group of works. These are works intended for export and for diplomatic contexts. Moreover, so far as we can tell they were bankrolled from the failing imperial coffers. Her discussion tells us little about projects bankrolled by wealthy adherents or by other Orthodox dynasties. Thus she provides little information about the later Byzantine style shared among different inter-connected cultures, or even about frescoes we know were commissioned by members of the imperial family. How does her approach fit with the production of works such as frescoes and mosaics throughout the Orthodox world including those at Thessaloniki? She mentions the role that frescoes and mosaics play in the restoration of churches in Constantinople, including those supported by Michael VIII and by other aristocrats and imperial family members. When we come to her conclusion at the end about the complexities of gift exchange in an era of self-delusion, we might conclude that some of these other commissioners were participating in the same process and we should consider where else this complex processes of export, reception, and self-delusion functioned. Are there other places in the Mediterranean where what she calls her "more nuanced and dynamic account of medieval artistic exchange" might expand our understanding? Are there places where this analysis would not be helpful? What would an economist say? We might ask who had money in this era. If the imperial coffers were empty, did everyone lack funds or was wealth dispersed differently through the population?

Finally it is important to note that as with other recent Cambridge publications the images in the volume leave something to be desired. Happily in part owing to the author's acknowledged inspiration from the 2004 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition, the catalogue for Byzantium: Faith and Power offers high-quality color reproductions of many works that appear here in black and white. Readers should consider having a copy of the exhibition catalogue at their sides as they read Hilsdale's text. With it her emphasis on the brilliance of these works in contrast to the economic decline becomes all the more clear.

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