November 2014 Uncategorized

Material Matters and the Power of Byzantine Things


History of Art Professor Alicia Walker with ’94 and her graduate student Shannon Steiner M.A. ’13

Sharing the stage—and a common research interest— Assistant Professor of History of Art Alicia Walker ’94 and her graduate student Shannon Steiner M.A. ’13 addressed the idea of materiality in the art of the Byzantine Empire.

Walker’s and Steiner’s scholarly interests extend beyond the traditional art-historical focus on the aesthetic qualities of objects or the means of their production. As Walker put it, art history is “not just about beautiful things; it’s also about science and technology and history and gender and diplomatic relations and a whole host of other concerns.

The materials from which Byzantine artisans crafted objects can be sumptuous—lapis lazuli, for example, or cloisonné enamel—but what intrigues the two art historians is the social and supernatural powers of things, their perceived ability to act in the world. In the Byzantine worldview, certain objects and the materials from which they were made were understood to possess agency.

As one example, Walker looked at a medallion necklace featuring a depiction of Aphrodite against a lapis half-shell. It is, she explained, twice empowered: once by its iconography and again by its material.

The highly eroticized iconography—the goddess, nude from the chest up, rises from the ocean and raises her arms, twists at her hair, wringing the water from it—would have imparted that sensual charge to the wearer. And Walker asked her audience to imagine the medallion hanging on a woman’s chest, where it would have drawn “a bold parallel” between Aphrodite and the wearer.

Beyond its iconographic reference, the medallion also drew meaning from the very material from which it was made. Lapis lazuli was associated with the goddess and thought to be particularly empowered by her. Iconography and material worked together, Walker explained, to imbue the necklace with a capacity to influence, which it in turn passes on to the woman who wears it.

Where the lapis in Walker’s necklace was essentially in its natural state, the cloisonné enamel that is the focus of Steiner’s interest—and her dissertation research—was manufactured. “My research asks an additional question,” she said. “What happens when Byzantine craftsmen, technicians, and scientists find ways to manipulate natural materials and direct them toward their own social ends?”

In Byzantium, the production of enamel was part of a larger technological enterprise—and a secret one at that. As Steiner explained, many alchemical texts include recipes for dyeing and fusing glass to metal alongside recipes for creating Greek fire (a sort of Byzantine napalm)and for transmuting base metals into gold. By association then, enamel was an aestheticized technology that could broadcast Byzantine material power, Byzantine control over the natural world. And as evidence of imperial might, it wasn’t shared with just anyone.

One of the most beautiful surviving examples of Byzantine enamel, the Holy Crown of Hungary, “tells a good story about how this material power worked,” Steiner continued. A composite construction, the crown includes an upper hemisphere of enamel in the Western European style, but the bottom is executed in sophisticated Byzantine cloisonné. Scholars argue that the base is in fact a Byzantine woman’s crown, characterized by a series of pinnacles and a lunette-shaped compartment. They further posit that this lower crown was part of the bridal trousseau of a Byzantine princess who married the Hungarian king Géza in the late 1070s. The crown reflects this dual diplomatic-marital role in its iconography, being decorated with enamel depictions of Christ enthroned, the Byzantine Emperor, his son Constantine, and the Hungarian groom.

The marriage itself was no small event: Steiner cited a contemporary imperial document that named Byzantine princesses as one of the most valuable—and closely guarded—of the Empire’s “raw materials.” They were not typically married off to just any foreigners.

As Steiner explained, “If we think about a Byzantine woman—presumably wearing robes of state topped by this Byzantine crown made of enamel that announces Byzantine technological achievement—then her presence in Hungary becomes a very tangible and powerful material statement of Byzantine supremacy: cultural supremacy, technological supremacy, and even individual supremacy in terms of her body as a place where this message is conveyed.”

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