18.05.01, Ousterhout, Visualizing Community

Main Article Content

Lynn Jones

The Medieval Review 18.05.01

Ousterhout, Robert G. . Visualizing Community Art, Material Culture, and Settlement in Byzantine Cappadocia. Dumbarton Oaks Studies 46. Cambridge Mass:Harvard University Press, 2017. pp. xxv, 532. ISBN: 978-0-88402-413-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Lynn Jones
Florida State University

Visions of Community is a remarkable and important work, the product of Robert Ousterhout's deep engagement with the field of Cappadocian Studies over the course of a long, stellar career.

The problems confronted by scholars of Byzantine Cappadocia are formidable, as there are no surviving texts that allow for contextualization of the area, the churches, or other rock-cut spaces. The Anatolian plateau contains approximately one thousand rock-cut structures. Of these, several hundred retain painted programs that allow them to be identified as Byzantine. These excavated spaces are loosely concentrated in three valleys. The landscape is a confection of pink, white and green stratigraphic layers, isolated cones created by differential erosion of soft ash, and cliffs of hardened ignimbrite cut through by rivers. Cappadocia is often characterized as surreal, otherworldly, or as a moonscape--all of which are accurate descriptors, but all of which contribute to the view of a place that is unique and, above all, different from any other part of the Empire. The paintings are, with few exceptions, religious in nature. This has created a perception of Byzantine Cappadocia as a land populated by monks and hermits--a Mount Athos, expanded, multiplied, and relocated to the Anatolian plateau.

Scholars have only recently begun to shift this perception. Nicole Thierry and Catherine Jolivet-Lévy, among others, have produced comprehensive, detailed analyses of the paintings, focusing on problems of dating, identification of workshops, and issues of influence. As an architectural historian, Ousterhout brings a different perspective, asks different questions and uses different methods. The volume under review builds upon his extensive earlier work, expanding it to re-define the very nature of Byzantine Cappadocia.

The Preface sets forth the intent: "to visualize the kinds of communities that once formed the living landscape of Cappadocia" (1). Ousterhout presents a concise, introductory historiography that reveals the origins of scholarly biases and misconceptions. He then clearly defines his subject, the "built and carved environment," and lays out the goals for the following four chapters (9).

In Chapter 1, "Architecture, Churches and Chapels," Ousterhout restores built architecture to the landscape, presenting "the first detailed, synthetic overview of the ecclesiastical architecture of Cappadocia" (19). This is a significant contribution, as it resets the common conception of medieval Cappadocia as a land of caves and cones inhabited by monks and ascetics. The chapter presents an analysis of the relation between built and carved structures, and the possible messages conveyed by formal associations between the two.

Chapter 2, "Painting in its Context," examines the medium which has received the lion's share of scholarly attention. Ousterhout refers the readers to the work of other scholars for surveys of the decorative programs; he instead examines questions of workshop practices and the effect of architectural form on these workshops, as they adapted painted programs to "fit" new and/or unfamiliar architectural spaces. Painted epigraphs, most frequently mined for prosopographical data, are here considered as integral to the three-dimensional context of the churches. Ousterhout demonstrates the ways in which their suggested aurality and visual interactions with the painted programs not only reveal much about the function of individual structures, but also provide context for the settlements in which these churches existed.

In Chapter 3, "Visualizing Community. Constructing a Social History of Cappadocia," Ousterhout seeks to "put the people back into the settlements, landscapes, and houses of Byzantine Cappadocia" (271). It is a challenging task, one that the author notes is hampered by a lack of associated texts or basic archaeological data. He analyzes the evidence of the excavated spaces frequently overlooked in Cappadocian studies: unpainted, with associated agricultural elements such as dovecotes, wine and olive presses. He ends with a consideration of the elements related to security--rolling stone doors and the so-called underground cities. Ousterhout thus presents a land in which daily life corresponds to that described in contemporary texts associated with other Byzantine cities.

Chapter 4, "Landscapes of Commemoration. Monasteries and Cemeteries," focuses on the "spiritual landscape" of Cappadocia (371). The author gives a nuanced reading of religious spaces, arguing that many of the spaces previously interpreted as monastic were instead commemorative. He demonstrates the physical accretion of these commemorative sites, such as the re-purposing of a Roman necropolis at Avcilar for Christian burials. He then examines the changes in burial practice during the medieval period, and the rising demand for interment in monasteries and private chapels. Ousterhout challenges the assumption that a refectory carved in proximity to a church indicates a monastery, and notes the absence of many spaces required by monastic life, including dormitories and kitchens. He argues that the refectories served a dual function, as dining halls for monks, and as the sites of funeral commemorations. This latter practice, a distant echo of early Christian ritual, is recorded in typika, in which money is given to ensure intercession on behalf of the soul of the dead. Ousterhout presents a landscape in which small monasteries, each with three or four members, serve this purpose. The chapter ends with an examination of the role of pilgrims and pilgrimage in the area, and a suggestion that the majority of graffiti--the primary evidence for pilgrimage--suggest local veneration.

The Conclusion is brief, but in it Ousterhout leaves the reader with a tantalizing proposition. He revisits the issue of scale, arguing for a "process of intentional miniaturization" (484). Were these spaces "functional"--were they used? Is the architecture, or elements of it, symbolic?

Visualizing Community is indispensable reading. Robert Ousterhout convincingly presents Byzantine Cappadocia as a thriving community of balanced religious and secular components adapted to a specific geology. The author removes the land and its inhabitants from the realm of the exotic, revealing a society that looks very much like other, better-documented Byzantine communities.

Ousterhout's arguments are compelling and clearly set forth, aided by an extraordinary number of color plates--410--as well as 90 line illustrations and 4 maps. The plans and elevations, all drawn by the author, are a particularly valuable contribution. Inaccurate plans have long plagued the field, and Ousterhout's meticulous drawings set a new standard, providing scholars with clear, correct information. Cappadocian studies are often made unnecessarily inaccessible to non-specialists, as place-names are rendered in a variety of transliterations, and churches are identified by several numbering systems. Ousterhout uses modern place names and follows the numbering conventions established by Jerphanion. As a result, the Index is refreshingly easy to use--and is useful. The bibliography is exhaustive and up to date. The publisher is to be lauded for the astonishing affordability--while the volume is required reading at any price, at $90.00 it is certain to find the wider audience it so richly deserves.

Article Details