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Blogging Kalamazoo 2021: Session 342 - Byzantine Studies II

Friday, May 14, 2021 - 11:12

I primarily picked this session for the 2nd paper on a clothing topic, which was definitely worth coming for all on its own. I had skipped the first two sessions to work on this week's podcast (which should have been done already!) but may go back and pick up one of them in recorded form next week.

Personifications of Abstract Ideas as Expressions of Donors' Elite Status in Late Antiquity - Prolet Decheva, University College Dublin

[I came in a little late, so I didn’t get the introductory remarks.] Ktisis as personification of “foundation” used in buildings. Female personification shown dressed in chlamys with tablion, a normally male garment that usually only appeared as a female garment on an empress. More examples of personifications: Magnanimity. Personifications more typically dressed according to the figure’s gender. [I missed taking a bunch of notes because my wireless mouse keeps dropping the signal and I had to hunt down a wired one.] The general theme here is the ability to connect the images of personified attributes as “portraits” of a person associated with the building or space in which the personification appears. I’m not trying to take down the details, but I’m finding the arguments fascinating and convincing.

Dress and Historical Imagination: A Case Study - Merih Danali, PhD, Princeton University

14th c. Greek astrological manuscript includes various illustrations including two unique portraits. A female figure sitting in a howdah on the back of an elephant, wearing a turban and a loose blue garment with gold bands. An inscription added later identifies her as “The Grand Lady” using an Arabic title. Facing her is a young man with a beard, sitting cross-legged on a carpet. He wears a white turban and a white garment decorated with red birds. The legend indicates “a sultan” in a calligraphic script but the top of the page has been removed and a legend “Ptolemy” has been added.

We are given some comparative images from Mamluk art of a similar era. The single-headed eagle on the man’s garment is a Mamluk symbol (as contrasted with the double-headed eagle).

Interpretations of these figures include: Islamic royalty (indicating prior ownership), that they are separate from the manuscript’s contents, and that the female figure is related to the male figure. Specific identifications are uncertain.

Some problems: for double portraits, they lack expected features such as indications of relative status, parallelism. But the subject portraits are not symmetric in composition or appearance, the woman physically dominates the space in comparison to the male figure. There is a reversal of the expected gender hierarchy. Proposed: the current arrangement of folios is not original and the two portraits were never intended to be paired visually. [We are given a demonstration with photocopies of how this works.]

In the original composition, the male figure faces a depiction of a map of the world. This is a standard Byzantine composition indicating authorship (Ptolemy’s geography). But why would Ptolemy be depicted as a Mamluk sultan? There was a common conflation of the Greek geographer Ptolemy with the Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty. Thus the depiction of Ptolemy as a (contemporary) Egyptian ruler (a Mamluk sultan) is in this tradition.

The female figure was also originally paired with a different image, now lost. If that image were available, it would presumably indicate her identity more clearly. The speaker suggests Hypatia of Alexandria (Greco-Egyptian philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer). The elephant was a symbol of imperial power and, via association with Alexander the Great & Alexandria, became associated with Egyptian elites. Thus the placement of the female figure on an elephant could simply indicate a “wise Egyptian woman” by which the viewer would understand Hypatia.

Ptolemy and Hypatia were both from Alexandria and had other connections as well. Therefore the connection between them in the text has many different underpinnings, but indicating an intellection connection, not a familial one. We get a review of Hypatia’s symbolic role as a pagan female intellectual martyred by Christian fanatics.

Donors in Their Built Context: A Reexamination of Village Donor Portraits - Mark James Pawlowski, University of California, Santa Cruz

Examinations of donor portraits typically focuses on identifications, etc. but this paper looks at the “built” context in which they appear, and how that speaks to their relationship to the community. The two images analyzed here appear within a church in Marathos. [I’m not sure I have enough basic background to follow this one well.] We are given a description of the physical circumstances of the village. A fairly ideal location for a medieval village. A small community with remains of houses and churches, possibly 100+ inhabitants. Houses are built of local stone and there is no differentiation in style. [We’re looking at heaps of undifferentiated rock and being given interpretations that are far from obvious!] In the first phase of building, there is one significantly larger house, though otherwise not much variation. Some size difference is from later additions to the original structures. Indication that families may have shifted in prosperity.

One house near the church does stand out somewhat, being set slightly apart physically but not significantly different in size. The church itself is better preserved, is unique in using masonry, and includes wall paintings. High vaulted ceiling and other signs of “better quality” than any other building in the settlement. There are other signs that the isolated house is connected physically to the church. There is a suggestion both of separation of the church and the house, as well as association between them. But the church does not appear to be intended for private access by the family in the house. Also, there are two cisterns located between the two buildings which are clearly intended for communal access. Further, when the house was expanded, it reoriented access to the house away from the church. Examples of similar situations were a house and church in close proximity created deliberate separation between the two.

Much of the painting in the church has degraded, with maybe half a dozen figures being identifiable. The donor images are part of a later renovation of the church, ca. 13th c. So the donors cannot be associated with the original creation of the church, but may have been recognize for some smaller amount of expansion or renovation. Thus, artistic features of their clothing that appear to represent luxury features may have been symbolic representations of status, rather than major differences of wealth. The features of their dress do not correspond to aristocratic fashions, but rather more ordinary styles. [Note: although not specifically proposed, it sounds like there’s a suggestion that the donor portraits may be of the family living in the associated house.]

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