17.09.13, Theis, et al., eds., Female Founders in Byzantium and Beyond

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Diliana Angelova

The Medieval Review 170913

Theis, Lioba, Margaret Mullett, Michael Grünbart, Galina Fingarova und Matthew Savage, ed. Female Founders in Byzantium and Beyond. Wiener Jahrbuch für Kunstgeschichte. Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 2014. pp. 464. ISBN: 978-3-205-78840-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Diliana Angelova
University of California, Berkeley

This formidable volume (30 essays, 464 pages, many color and black-and-white illustrations on glossy paper, 4.1 pounds) comprises select peer-reviewed essays from a conference on female founding in Byzantium held at the University of Vienna in September 2008. The conference was the culminating event of a 2007-2008 Gastprofessur in Gender Studies bestowed on Margaret Mullett (now Professor emerita of Queen's University Belfast, and recently retired as Director of Dumbarton Oaks). Mullett, Lioba Theis (Institute of Art History, Vienna) and Michael Grünbart (now at the University of Münster) were the principal organizers of the conference and editors of the volume. Many more scholars, in Vienna and beyond, contributed their talents. The spirit of scholarly camaraderie permeates the acknowledgements, Theis's brief introduction, and Mullett's conclusion. A labor of love, the volume is proudly dedicated to Dr. Irmgard Hutter, "a resident genius of Vienna and the Institute of Art History" (10, 417).

The editors' assessment, "it was no ordinary conference," (9) stands true for the collection of essays that represents it. The risks of undertaking a volume of such an ambition are formidable. It is the first one entirely dedicated to female giving in all its shapes in Byzantium and its commonwealth. The thirty studies, each between 7 and 18 pages, written in English, German, and French, offer a capacious view. They span the entire Byzantine period (300s-1400s), join subjects rarely discussed together, and deploy a variety of methodological (historical, art historical, archaeological, philological) and chronological approaches. One essay examines a noncognate period, "the case of ancient Greece" (M. Meyer). Two are conceptual (M. Grünbart; D. Stathakopoulos), one deploys quantitative methods (Herl), two explain the history of the project (L. Theis; M. Mullett) and one summarizes its conclusions (Mullett). J. Herrin's minimally annotated and avowedly non-comprehensive bibliography of relevant publications, reflecting the "personal appreciation" of the author, serves as a coda.

The collection defines founding broadly with Grünbart's essay providing a loose conceptual framework, though a number of other contributors dwell on various aspects of founding and its meaning (J. Radlegger, L. James, M. Whiting, L. Safran, S. Herl, M. Mullett, D. Stathakopoulos). Grünbart argues that as a concept "founding" (Stiftung) is to be preferred to "patronage" for its wider semantic range and for its more faithful rendition of the Greek terms for female and male donors and giving. Founding, in Grünbart's definition, describes religious as well as secular structures, the construction of buildings, but also the donation of presents (manuscripts, icons, money) to an existing institution, or the renewal or decoration of a standing structure; founding could be accomplished in one's lifetime or posthumously (21-2).

Although three essays remark briefly upon secular founding (S. Herl, E. Jeffreys, and A.-M. Talbot), the volume's focus is Christian founding. Grünbart considers the concern for one's soul as the generative drive behind the foundation of monasteries, churches, tombs, or gifts (24; see also S. Herl's essay, 254). Yet it seems that more self-centered concerns propelled imperial founders. Theis's essay on the portrait of Anicia Juliana in the Vienna Dioscurides compellingly outlines the human founding's similarity to cosmic harmonies created by God. A similar line of interpretation we likewise find in Fingarova's study on the Stifterin par excellence, the Virgin Mary.

The volume's unexamined focus on religious foundations can partly be traced to the organizers' scholarly muses: Mullett's work as well as J. Thomas and A. Constantinides Hero's five-volume publication of Byzantine monastic foundation documents (Grünbart, 23). [1] Still, the overall relationship between Christian and secular Stiftungsakten deserves more robust attention. S. Herl's study of Palaiologan founders provides a striking number: ninety-seven percent of the 1,623 male and female Palaiologan Stiftungsakten are related to the Christian sacred (255). She clarifies that this distribution does not merely track the nature of the sources. Her sample includes inscriptions, records of Stiftungsakten, manuscripts, donor portraits, speeches, etc. (253). Herl's analysis generates more follow-up questions: Was religious founding always a priority? Or should we think of it as contingent on particularly circumstances? Could it be a question of sources or realities? In my recent monograph, I've traced the ascendance of Christian founding in the early Byzantine period. [2] Still, more work needs to be done on the periods that followed. It would be useful to know the distribution of founding acts according to type throughout the Byzantine period.

Considering the general reticence of the historical record with respect to women ("Well-behaved women seldom make history" [3]), the nature of the sources--their rhetoric, fixations, preservation, limitations, opaqueness or clarity--limits what can be known about female founders in Byzantium and beyond. Therefore it is how the essays in the volume reflect the available sources as well as how they address source biases to promote a better understanding of female patronage that this reviewer found most intriguing and broadly applicable to other fields.

The most obvious impact of the types and number of surviving sources concerns the visibility of female founders. In terms of chronological distribution, of the thirty articles, fifteen focus on the late Byzantine period, the late medieval Balkans and Russia. This clustering, an inversion in proportion to the actual time span of the late period, stems in part from chronological proximity and therefore preservation. Consequently, later Byzantine sources (textual, material, visual) allow for more textured understandings of female founders from that period. The kind of studies on late Byzantine noblewomen (in essays authored by Talbot, S. Brooks, F. Gargova, E. Mitsiou, P. Melichar) as well as female founders from Bulgaria (T. Kambourova), Serbia (A. Vukovich), Russia (A. Michalowska), Macedonia (S. Bogevska), the Greek islands (L. Neville), and Cappadocia (N. Karamaouna, N. Peker and B.T. Uyar) are virtually impossible for the earlier Byzantine centuries. This is not to underestimate the difficulties. They are obvious: exacting and demanding analyses of partially effaced images, inscriptions, letters, and overall fragmentary record. Nevertheless, by comparison to the earlier Byzantine eras, these are rich offerings.

In matters of preservation, the higher the social standing, the more remembered the founder over time. Contributions by the women in the imperial family and aristocrats remain better known and longer lasting. It is unsurprising that women founders from early Byzantium featured in the collection include well known imperial names: Anicia Juliana (Theis), Eudokia (K. Klein), Theodora (U. Unterweger), and Sophia (J. Radlegger); or elite women, such as the two Melanias and Paula (M. Whitting). These women enjoy greater prominence in the written record and surviving material remains. That there were other, humbler, givers is attested by C. Römer's essay on the donation of children. The chance survival of papyri from the monastery of St. Phoibammon in the Egyptian town of Jême, dated from 600-800, presents a case of extreme giving: single mothers gifting their children to monasteries (121-28). As an antidote to the entrenched elitism of patronage studies, Grünbart points to the work of J. P. Thomas on Byzantine private religious foundations, and himself draws attention to ways in which to recover the legacy of less exalted founders: a confraternity document from Nafpaktos in Greece, icons, textiles and other liturgical objects inscribed with the names of the donors that would have been displayed prominently in the interior of churches. [4]

Yet, the visibility of aristocratic women presents its own dangers, as E. Jeffreys cautions in her examination of the attribution of gifts to the sebastokratorissa Irene. Irene's specter may be casting too long of a shadow. A different take on the problem of visibility presents Herl's richly illuminating quantitative analysis of female founders mentioned in the Prosopographischen Lexikon der Palaiologenzeit. Although the male donations far surpass the female ones, Herl calls for caution. Factors such as the virtual inconspicuousness of perishable donations (254) or the summary inclusion of women in family gifts are likely skewing the picture (244-45).

Many of the essays note the profound gender bias of the sources. Much of our knowledge about women is transmitted through male mediators. As the essays by Unterweger, Herl, S. Gerstel and S. Kalopissi-Verti demonstrate, women were frequently silenced when co-founders with men. But gender bias is not solely restricted to the distant past. Meyer's incisive article on Greek founders shows that the overall lack of women founders in the ancient sources is compounded by a "disposition" for ignoring them in modern scholarship (40). S. Constantinou's study offers a remedy to male chauvinism. Her study deftly compares male-authored Greek lives of foundress-abesses with female-authored typika. Still, tempering the male view with sources written by women proves for the most part difficult to attain. For instance, Michael Psellos's correspondence and orations are key to E. Limousin's subtle analysis of female imperial patronage and its ties to the authority of four empresses. However, we lack those imperial women's voices. Likewise the writings of Gregory of Cyprus and Maximos Planoudes allow greater depth in highlighting the literary talents, giving, and work as copyist of the remarkable Theodora Raulaina (A. Riehe). Of Theodora's own writings only a saint's life survives, but none of her letters (309). F. Leonte skillfully reconstructs the political dimensions of Helena Kantakouzene Palaiologina's giving from "allusions in letters addressed by her protégés" (346). Again, none of her own letters survives. In her tightly-argued article on small gifts, A.-M. Talbot cautions that the epigrams inscribed on presents to monasteries by late Byzantine women were likewise penned by men and therefore how to interpret them remains speculative (260).

Visual sources, particularly donor portraits, likewise overall privilege men. As is the case with textual sources, the artistic ones are far from transparent. L. Safran's essay on images of female "donors" in South Italian churches challenges their deceptive legibility and makes a convincing case for interpreting them as "simulacra" (145). But images also offer suggestive clues about the patrons and their social circle and aspirations. In an essay on thirteenth-century wall paintings in Cappadocia, the authors interpret the saints framing a female donor in Cappadocia as a mark of "female influence" (Karamaouna et al., 238), whereas the familiar iconography of a donor with a church model they see as denoting a "primary donor" (214). F. Gargova's study of an unusual fourteenth-century icon of the Incredulity of Thomas in Meteora brings to light the social ambitions of Maria Palaiologina, a fourteenth-century basilissa of Ioannina of Italian descent, and with it the political and artistic connections between late Byzantium and Italy (381).

A somewhat less examined inflection of the historical record is the one of documentary provenance. Much of what we know about late and post-Byzantine female founders comes from monastic texts. The current volume would have been inconceivable without the late A. Laiou's pioneering work on women, work itself grounded in Mt. Athos' collection of documents. By Grünbart's admission, the magisterial five-volume compilation of Byzantine monastic documents by John Thomas and Angela Constantinides Hero was foundational for the symposium (23). Likewise inspirational and frequently cited are A.-M. Talbot's scholarship and two edited volumes with a monastic focus: Mullett's Founders and Refounders of Byzantine monasteries (Belfast, 2007) and J. Y. Perreault's Les femmes et le monachisme byzantin / Women and Byzantine Monasticism (Athens, 1991).

Monastic documents inform a number of the essays on female founders: Neville's gem of an article on the widow Glykeria, Römer's striking exposition of female "donors," or Talbot's recovery of portable gifts. The monastery and its world, many times in conjunction with entrepreneurial widows, are palpably present in other essays. In her examination of the lives of female founders of monasteries, Constantinou concludes that the foundress-abess was "the most powerful female saint outside the virgin martyr" (57). Widows of various means and social standing, who founded monasteries, decorated their churches, or donated icons, manuscripts, or money, form the largest social category of female founders presented in the volume. Essays discussing widows' donations include those by Neville; Jeffreys; Gerstel and Kalopissi-Verti; Talbot; Riehe; Statakopoulos; Michalowska; Brooks; Vukovich; and Melichar. It can be concluded that widowhood factored significantly in female giving as well as visibility throughout the Byzantine centuries.

In conclusion, the essays in this volume have laid a robust groundwork--methodologically, chronologically, and in terms of subject matter--for future scholarly investigations into Byzantine women's history, female giving, religious donations, and founding more generally. The editors and the organizers are to be commended for their meticulous work. The heavy lifting required for ensuring even quality, for balancing chronology, subject matter and disciplines, along with the more mundane tasks of name transliteration, securing high-quality illustrations or peer-review and editorial work in three languages, deserves to be recognized as a remarkable achievement. This volume stands as a testimony that such herculean tasks are worth undertaking, and most importantly that the subject of female founding in Byzantium was well worth these scholars' time and creative energies.

-------- Notes:

1. John Thomas and Angela Constantinides Hero, eds., with Giles Constable and John Thomas, Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents: A Complete Translation of the Surviving Founders' Typika and Testaments, trans. Robert Allison [et al.], 5 vols., Dumbarton Oaks Studies, 35 (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2000).

2. D. Angelova, Sacred Founders: Women, Men, and Gods in the Discourse of Imperial Founding, Rome through Early Byzantium (Berkeley, 2015).

3. The quote comes from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

4. J. Thomas, Private Religious Foundations in the Byzantine Empire (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1987).

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