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22.05.19 Baboula/Jessop (eds.), Art and Material Culture in the Byzantine and Islamic Worlds

22.05.19 Baboula/Jessop (eds.), Art and Material Culture in the Byzantine and Islamic Worlds

Erica Cruikshank Dodd is one of the leading art historians of the arts of the Eastern Mediterranean, and this volume is a fitting tribute to the range and innovative nature of her scholarship. Dodd first made her name as a scholar with her PhD on silver stamps on late antique and early Byzantine silver, and then shifted her focus to the Eastern Mediterranean as her career led her to work in Beirut. The editors of this volume asked contributors to write on topics that reflected on the work Dodd carried out later in her career, but her work on silver stamps should not be forgotten: her 1961 book is still of fundamental relevance.

Whilst the chapters all address the central theme of the volume, their approaches, materials, and aims are all very different--the result is an interesting, if eclectic, assembly of topics. I suspect readers will want to pick on individual chapters rather than consume the book as a whole. The editors point out this diversity of material and approach in their introduction (“Diversity and Identity in the Medieval Mediterranean and Beyond”), which does most of reviewers’ work for them--and deflects from any potential criticism. They work hard to bring out the common themes in the papers that follow. They also set the volume in the context of other recent publications on cultural interactions in the eastern Mediterranean, which makes for a useful overview and bibliography. The book opens with Lesley Jessop’s review of Erica Cruikshank Dodd’s life and career, “Passion, Serendipity, Curiosity, and the Making of an Art Historian,” a fitting tribute to the breadth of Dodd’s scholarship that demonstrates that she has continually made incisive and important contributions to previously under-recognised fields of study. It is followed by a bibliography of Dodd’s extensive writings, in which it is easy to trace the shifts in direction as her career developed and new opportunities, objects, and monuments came into focus.

The opening chapters look at icons, and images of icons, and both consider their ambiguities. For Anthony Cutler the ambiguities lie in the relationship between icons and their referents. Looking once more at the image of the Mother of God at the head of the charter of the Marian confraternity at Naupaktos (now kept in Palermo) he reflects on the medieval fluidity of icons and their epithets and the contrasts between this and modern (i.e., nineteenth-century) desires to catalogue icons in a systematic way. Jaroslav Folda also returns to familiar ground in considering that most ambiguous of groups, crusader icons. Looking at two icons from Mt. Sinai with images of the Mother of God Hodegetria, he reassesses Kurt Weitzmann’s use primarily of stylistic criteria to categorise them. He argues that the use of chrysography around the Virgin comes from western ideas about the Virgin as the queen of heaven. He is concerned not only with formal qualities of style and iconography, but also with how these relate to the different ways in which the relationship between man and the divine is conceived and visualised in Byzantium and the West.

John Osborne’s “The Thirteenth-Century Expansion of the Narthex of San Marco, Venice--A Space for Dead Doges?” is perhaps the least obvious fit for this volume, but it is the most rewarding paper in it. This is a magisterial review of the state of knowledge of the development of the narthex, which he links to Dogal burials. With a critical review of other explanations about the building, decoration, and function of the narthex he proposes that it was created as a burial site for the doges after the conquest of Constantinople in 1204; but also that it failed to establish this as a long-term site, as burial in the great mendicant foundations elsewhere in the city offered a better chance for continual prayers for salvation.

The next three papers look more squarely at questions of cross-cultural artistic exchange. Glenn Peers concentrates on the recently discovered paintings from the refectory of the monastery of St. Mary in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, Jerusalem; Annemarie Weyl Carr on Orthodox monasteries on Cyprus under Lusignan Rule; and Mat Immerzeel and Bas Snelders more broadly on the decoration of churches across medieval Egypt, Syria, and Cyprus. The chapters work well together, particularly the latter two. The monastery of St. Mary in Jerusalem was probably a Cluniac house, and Peers sees the wall paintings--which combine an image of the Deesis with a quotation from the vita of St. Augustine--as a site of negotiation where cognitive geographies are mapped out. Annemarie Weyl Carr concentrates on patronage and memorials in Cyprus, concentrating on the information provided in the annotations added to the synaxarion of Agia Mone. These chart the range, status, and numbers of those engaged with the monastery, particularly in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Immerzeel and Snelders take a broader canvas that includes Coptic Egypt and Orthodox Syria as well as Cyprus to consider the range and nature of patronage in these different areas and the relationship between the indigenous Christians and their Muslim or Latin Christian overlords. All three papers tease out the complex network of relationships involved in cross-cultural exchange and the ways in which this changed over time and space. They show the need to map these relationships out on a microhistorical level in order to understand the larger picture.

The next two chapters look at individual buildings and their histories: the Great Mosque in Diyarbakir and the Great ʿUmari Mosque in Beirut. Angela Andersen’s studies the histories and myths surrounding the history of the Great Mosque in Diyarbakir, particularly those relating to whether it originated as a Christian place of worship (a thesis she finds to be unsupported by the archaeological evidence of the site). She seeks to cut through the legends to find when and why such stories arose. What emerges is an engaging study of the reception of the mosque. May Farhat’s study examines the Great ʿUmari Mosque in Beirut. In this case the mosque definitely had an earlier life as a church--in this case one built by the crusaders. She concentrates on its later history and the role of the building as a mosque in the city since the fourteenth century. She devotes a large part of the essay to its treatment since the civil war in Lebanon in 1990. The changing narratives applied to the monument make for an interesting study.

The final two chapters stand further outside the main themes of the volume. Marcus Milwright investigates the evidence to be found in the writings of European and North American travellers about craft practices in the middle east. He is alert to the persistent biases of his authors, and the limits of their interests; but he is also aware of their potential value, and the information (for example about the costs and prices, and the employment of children) that they give.

Rico Franses’s chapter is a response to Erica Cruickshank Dodd’s 1981 book, The Image of the Word, and considers the perennial issue of how to find meaning in Islamic ornament. Franses defends those who argue that Islamic ornament has a spiritual meaning relating to the infinite nature of God. His reading is plausible and attractive, but without external support; and that is his point. His concern is to try to establish a new way to argue for the idea of visual theology, that is not simply a non-verbal equivalent of written theology. Reading the essay becomes an interesting test of what kind of art historian you are: do you accept arguments and conclusions drawn entirely from the visual evidence, or do you require some kind of textual source to support your interpretation?

The papers are well produced, and largely well illustrated--with one exception. Glenn Peers’ article is severely undermined by the publishers. The mural he discusses is 9m wide and 2.7m high, Brill have reproduced it less than 6cm wide. None of the nuance and detail that Peers relies on can be seen. As part of a series dedicated to Art History this literal marginalisation of the visual evidence is really disappointing. Brill really need to re-think how they reproduce images.