The Oaks News
Sergey Ivanov Reconsiders the Unorthodox Saints’ Lives of the Tenth Century
Sergey Ivanov, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in spring 2017, is a professor at the National Research University in Moscow. His recent research has focused on Byzantine hagiography, specifically the lives of two Constantinopolitan saints, Basil the Younger and Niphon. At Dumbarton Oaks, Ivanov will be working on a critical edition of the life of St. Niphon, a narrative he believes is a long-neglected masterpiece of Byzantine literature.
Brief Q&A with Sergey Ivanov
In your talk, you discussed a ban that was placed on the creation of new saints because there had been a sudden proliferation of narratives. I was hoping you could talk more about why and how this ban was enacted.
This is a multifaceted problem, because it derives both from the function of literature and the function of religion, and, generally speaking, the function of society. So really, we should first ask ourselves, why should a society need saints to begin with? There was a time when there were Christians but no saints, so sainthood as a concept is a relatively late phenomenon. Gradually, there emerged a vague feeling within the Christian community that sanctity exists, somehow, in the air, that it’s unleashed suddenly on an individual, sometimes even a person who doesn’t seem to deserve it. But regardless, he is endowed with sanctity.
For example, there is a very important early Byzantine legend about a robber who tries to rob a nunnery. To get inside, he pretends that he’s a wandering beggar so that the nuns will open the gates for him. And meanwhile his fellow robbers are waiting outside—he has to settle inside and open the gates for them. Anyway, when the nuns see the robber, they say, “Oh, a great saint has visited us,” and they prostrate themselves before him. He’s of course disconcerted, protests that they must be mistaken, but they insist—“We can’t make a mistake, you are a great saint!” Eventually he becomes so fed up that he admits he is a robber, to which they reply something along the lines of, “Such humiliation is only proper to great saints—they always take upon themselves the sins of others.” And they proceed to wash his feet, at which point a blind nun who has touched the water suddenly begins to see. Afterwards, the robber recognizes that something bigger than himself is demanding a different life from him, so he promises to become a monk and organize a monastery side by side with the nunnery—and all of his gang, still waiting outside, become his fellow monks.
What does this story tell us? Sanctity is not a decision—it is something unleashed from above. In my opinion, hagiography as literature is secondary to this intimation of culture, which really comes from a deep abyss of unconscious, that is, the societal imagination, where the idea has its roots. For example, we have the story of St. Isidora, a nun who pretended to be insane at a monastery in Tabennisi, in Egypt, and her story looks very much like Cinderella’s. Which comes first, Cinderella or Isidora? It’s difficult to say, because both of these stories were born in the subliterary folk consciousness. Over time this consciousness begins to take the shape of a text, of literature, and then becomes an independent genre with its own rules. But it’s still relying heavily on the same “anticipation of sanctity,” this feeling that somewhere, though we don’t know where, someone, though we don’t know who, is a saint.
And then, for unknown reasons, this hagiographic habit, this anticipation, begins to wane—it wanes as unexpectedly as it emerged, and we feel in the texts a certain half-heartedness. More and more hagiographers resort to the earlier examples, to the saints of old, to martyrs, to hermits, and they even begin to write in certain lives that the saint, our hero, had read the lives of previous saints and decided to conduct himself in a comparable way. So saints are becoming saints because they read the lives of saints—it’s a self-reproducing system. And this is detrimental for hagiography because the narratives become more and more dry; there is no vivid spirit in it anymore.
Eventually the writers—people who otherwise write with inspiration—begin looking for means to circumvent this lack of inner feeling, so some of them start to write psychological prose under the name of vita. Now they write just as though they’re writing novels—the first one, in my opinion, was Niphon, who was an absolutely literary character. Another means of avoiding this lack of inner feeling would be versification, because it’s easier to say nothing in verse than in prose. A third way was compiling huge anthologies, so the saints then come in scores. In my opinion, these processes, which are taking place in the tenth and eleventh centuries, are all interrelated.
The narrative of Niphon’s life, as you described it, is quite strange when compared to the status quo. He wasn’t born a saint, or it didn’t suddenly come upon him, and he goes through these classic trials of concupiscence and so on. You also mentioned that you consider it a masterpiece of Byzantine literature, so I’m wondering what scholarly opinion you would like to see emerge from a reevaluation of Niphon’s life.
Well, Niphon is not alone. He’s a representative of a group of at least four saints—a group that includes Andrew the Fool and Gregentios—who, though they’re not quite as impressive, are still very unorthodox saints. One of them was published on extensively ten years ago, another was published on about twenty years ago, but the remaining two, Basil the Younger and Niphon, still deserve critical publication. I plan to work on commentaries for the forthcoming editions of Niphon’s life, and I think I’ll also contribute to the new publication of the oldest Greek version of the vita of Basil the Younger.
As a final outcome, I hope this work will add to our understanding of the relations between the ordinary hagiography of the tenth century, which is numerous, and this shocking, outstanding group of vitae. I seriously doubt they are a piece of truly vernacular literature; I think those who wrote these texts were very learned people, intentionally writing in lower style. It’s still an open question, of course, but I think someday we’ll be able to answer it.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Agnieszka Szymańska Discusses the Unlikely Design of the Red Monastery
Agnieszka Szymańska, a PhD candidate in art history at Temple University, is a junior fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. Her research report, “Divine Spectacle: The Early Byzantine Triconch at the Red Monastery in Egypt,” focused on the titular monastery and its extensive and well-preserved wall paintings. While many early Byzantine religious authorities condemned theatrical performances, as Szymańska argued, the Red Monastery actually emulates the decorative facades of open-air theaters. Attempting to determine why a monastic environment would contain such theatrical structural elements, her talk analyzed the church sanctuary as a vivid backdrop for a spiritual performance known, in literary sources, as divine contemplation.
Brief Q&A with Agnieszka Szymańska
How did you get into studying this particular subject matter? How did you narrow your focus both to the Red Monastery as a site, and then to theatricality as an approach?
Well, I was studying Byzantine art history when I went to Egypt and started doing fieldwork. Egypt didn’t feature prominently in my studies, so I actually wasn’t thinking of it in terms of Byzantium before I went there. My first visit involved archaeological fieldwork, which I had no prior experience with, and that’s when I realized there are actually so many archaeological records for the early Byzantine period that have survived in good condition in Egypt. So it hit me at that moment, there in the desert, that I’d been partially blind to this art-historical paradise!
In Egypt, I was working a lot with ceramics and painted plaster fragments, and the process of reconstructing images with these fragments—handling them, being surrounded by trays filled with hundreds of fragments—really drew my attention to the materiality of wall paintings. And of course, it then made me look at wall paintings in situ from a completely different perspective. I began to look for details that I hadn’t even thought of looking for before.
Eventually I went to the Red Monastery for a visit. I’d heard about this monument before I went, but nothing can prepare you for an in-person visit. So I got there, I saw this building that looks like an ancient Egyptian temple on the outside, and then I entered the sanctuary and—it just blew my mind, the richness of color. And it’s hard to see at first what’s underneath the paint, because it really is astounding. You think, as an art historian, “This is a fifth-century monument, the paintings are sixth century, and they’re virtually intact,” and you just can’t get past that realization for many visits. After a while I became interested in the architectural sculpture underneath the paint, and I began to pay attention to the three-dimensionality of the space. One day I was reading a fourth-century monastic text and I started to ask myself why the monks would have wanted that space to look this particular way. And, for me, the idea of theater—of theatricality and performance—was the way to resolve that question.
Another fellow here, Hendrik Dey, recently gave a research report that mentioned the influence of theatrical structures on the Via Triumphalis in Rome. I’m wondering if this theatrical approach is new in the field?
I think so. Especially for the early Byzantine period, when you don’t have a lot of surviving architectural interiors in which you can immerse yourself and see the intended visual impact of the space and experience it. It’s hard to think about theatricality when you interact with a museum object, or with a painting that’s been removed from its site. But when you find yourself actually inside this unique specimen, this site that looks like a theater covered with paintings that represent theatrical elements, it makes you reevaluate your approach.
For the early Byzantine period, people weren’t looking for this for the simple reason that there was no place to look, not enough had survived. But, generally speaking, I think it’s an exciting line of inquiry that’s garnered more attention in recent years because the larger question is how images functioned within visual culture. In the past, a lot of the academic emphasis has been on visuality, that is, the historical construction of sight. That was focused on the way we see, and the way we’re conditioned to see. But that’s only part of the story. The idea of theatricality and performance includes and encompasses visuality, but it’s also about the body moving in and through the space, about the rituals being performed there, and about the sounds, which we can’t hear now, that were part of the experience. So I think it’s a more comprehensive reconstruction that reintegrates the images with the experiences they intended to create.
Dumbarton Oaks recently held a colloquium on Byzantine monumental painting that touched on many of the same issues as your talk. Did you have any thoughts on the colloquium?
It was very interesting. The first two talks I think were very relevant to my work. I recall that Robert Ousterhout talked about how, with a lot of Byzantine monumental painting, the artists worked separately from the architects. And not only that, but he could also find painters painting over the architecturally sculpted details inside these churches; in fact, they sometimes concealed carved surfaces by smoothing them over with paintings. But with my work, in the Red Monastery triconch, painters actually enhanced the architectural sculpture by outlining it with red bands. And this richly painted sculpture is so vivid that it sometimes overwhelms other aspects of the design. For example, with any of the niches inside the Red Monastery, there’s a figure, a portrait, painted in the back of them, that disappears, partly because they’re surrounded by an explosion of colors and shapes and partly because, from the back of the niche to the colonnade in front of it, there’s a significant distance.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Hendrik Dey Investigates the Via Triumphalis in Medieval Rome
Hendrik Dey, a professor of art history at Hunter College, is a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. His research focuses on architecture and urbanism in the Latin West in late antiquity, with particular emphasis on the reshaping of Roman urban paradigms by the ideological and practical considerations of late antiquity. Dey’s recent research report, “Walking in the Footsteps of Giants: The Triumphal Way in Byzantine Rome,” analyzed the repurposing of the famous parade route during the period of Byzantine rule at Rome from the sixth to the eighth century. At a time when most of the city was depopulated and decrepit, Dey argued, the church and Byzantine administration sought to preserve and embellish the Via Triumphalis to serve their own purposes.
Brief Q&A with Hendrik Dey
In your talk you mentioned the work of Richard Krautheimer. For the uninitiated, myself among them, who was Krautheimer? What was the significance of his work, and how do you relate to it?
Richard Krautheimer was a German Jew who immigrated to the United States in the thirties, when he was already a distinguished scholar. He taught at various places in America, eventually ending up at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He’s famous for being the lead author of the five-volume Corpus Basilicarum Christianarum Romae, the compendium of all medieval churches in the city of Rome, which was written in Latin. He was the undisputed expert on churches in the city of Rome, and when he was eighty-three, in 1980, he published a shorter, more accessible book, Rome: Profile of a City, 312–1308, which is his kind of synthesis, in some way, of a thousand years of medieval Roman topography and history of art and architecture. Then he went on to live until he was ninety-seven years old, and taught three generations of students—Krautheimer students, and their students, are everywhere around the world.
So he wrote this great book about medieval Rome, and people are still reading it today. But he wrote it in the seventies, which was just before people started doing serious medieval archaeology in Rome, so he could really only talk about the extant remains of the middle ages, in particular churches and monasteries. But forty years of medieval archaeology have told us all kinds of things—the shape of the city, where most people were living, how they were living—that Krautheimer had no idea about. He didn’t know where people were living in medieval Rome; he thought that most people were living on a tiny bend of the Tiber River in the sixth century. They weren’t; they were scattered all over the place. He didn’t know what people’s houses looked like in the early middle ages, because no early medieval houses had been found.
So I don’t want to say anything about churches. Krautheimer forgot more about churches than I’ll ever know. I’d like this to be a complement to Krautheimer. I’d like to do the rest of life in medieval Rome, daily secular civic life: how and where people were living and fighting and working and producing and eating and interacting with each other, outside of the church.
In broad terms, what was the purpose of revitalizing the Triumphal Way?
I think the purpose was to use what you already have in Rome, and what you have is a particularly beautiful, monumental, and architecturally distinguished parade street. In the early middle ages, you don’t have anything like the resources to maintain or even populate most of the city, so the people in charge—the civic administration, the representatives of the Byzantine administration—focus their efforts on the areas where they think that they can derive particular benefit from repairing and reusing. So if you want it to look as though Rome is still glorious, as though the city you minister is still directly tied to the majesty of what it was when it was ancient Rome, then the best place to do that is the Triumphal Way.
So the Byzantine administrators appropriate that space, and when they move the organs of civic government—the prisons, the places for judicial assemblies, the places where judges are, where ceremonial implements are kept—they put them in close proximity to that particular road, so that on the days when you have both civic and religious processions, the spectacle of the ancient city is as close to undiminished as it could possibly be. But if you go behind those colonnades, it’s a different story, and this is why colonnades are so useful; they’re the perfect screen for all the squalor and degradation and depopulation which is happening behind them. But within the monumental contours of the parade route things look like they’re just about as great as ever.
I’m interested in elements of the city that have been forgotten over time. In your talk, you discussed structures and locations—the Tarentum, the Porticus Crinorum—that seem to be symbolic points along the Triumphal Way, but you go about their meaning through etymological routes. How much of the uncertainty as to their true meaning and significance is modern, and how much was present back in late antiquity?
Well, we have to define our periods here. In the fourth century, which is still basically ancient Rome, people still understood the original significance of everything, and in the sixth and seventh and eight centuries, there was certainly more of a direct connection to ancient Rome. But names like the Porticus Crinorum only show up in the twelfth century. Now, that’s not to say they didn’t exist in the eighth century. I think that they probably did. One of the points I was trying to make in my talk is that, by the twelfth century, memories of the ancient city and ancient topography and ancient institutions are sometimes wildly fanciful. Sometimes they’re not, sometimes people remember what these things originally were. But very often they don’t.
We actually have good sources for this. There are guidebooks or compendia of the sights of Rome that are compiled starting in the twelfth century in which you get long accounts of all of these ancient buildings, some of which are identified correctly, and some of which are completely fantastic things. For instance, here was a dining room made entirely out of glass and crystal that spun to mirror the course of the stars through the sky; here there used to be a dragon, and so on. So I have to use a lot of twelfth-century sources because the sources for the tenth and eleventh centuries are basically nonexistent. To get at the seventh and eighth centuries, I need to look at both what was there before and, in some ways more importantly, what was there after, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and see if there are reasons for imagining that the kind of stories and institutions that are described then can plausibly be put further back in time. So you have to put together these chains of conjecture, and some of them will be plausible, and some of them won’t be.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Dumbarton Oaks Acquires a New Collection of Images
There are a few quirky constants that show up in Frank Kidner’s photographs of the Syrian countryside. He snaps errant debris that he describes, in a sharp script penned along the rims of his slides, as “decorative rubble.” He photographs children playing among the ruins. He looks for wild flowers, anomalous blooms in the dry hills of the Belus Massif.
Though none of these is the main focus of the collection. A self-described shutterbug, Kidner made six trips to Syria in the 1990s to document, in vivid color photography, the architectural remains of the country, eventually narrowing his focus to the Belus Massif, a limestone plateau in northwestern Syria. The final collection, which numbers more than nine thousand slides, was recently acquired by the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives at Dumbarton Oaks.
The acquisition of Kidner’s collection is significant for a number of reasons. In addition to more than doubling the ICFA’s current holdings of Syrian images, it documents in rich detail countless sites, many of which have been fundamentally altered or completely destroyed in the years since Kidner’s photographs were taken. The collection’s vast scope also makes it a fundamentally adaptable resource, capable of being utilized in any number of projects, and the images themselves are beautiful and crisp, ripe for perusing.
The images center on the Dead Cities, a group of around seven hundred former settlements situated on the Belus Massif that exhibit a wealth of well-preserved architectural remains. So called for their abandonment in the eighth through tenth centuries, the Dead Cities provide a unique vision of late antique rural life, one that was remarkably prosperous and trade-driven, though not quite urban. As a result, the region serves as an excellent location for the study of largescale transition.
Kidner initially became interested in the Dead Cities after his first trip to Syria in 1993, which was largely a sightseeing excursion. Returning to the states and his professorship at San Francisco State University, where he has taught classes on the early history of Christianity, Kidner began to research work that had been done on Christianity in the area. In the process he stumbled upon a photograph-laden study written by the Princeton professor Howard Crosby Butler in the early twentieth century that catalyzed his interest: “It was very fragile, very brittle, down on a triple folio shelf—I checked it out and kept it at my home for years and years.”
Kidner’s photographic work in the region was driven by a desire to investigate the introduction of Christianity and the ways in which it adapted itself to the region’s preexisting architecture. “I tried to look at the built environment as a source for understanding how it was that Christianity managed to insert itself into these communities,” Kidner says. Since the villages of the Belus Massif were built around the same time that Christianity was making inroads into the region, their physical remains afford a unique perspective on the process of conversion.
Kidner’s fieldwork and photographs eventually resulted in a paper, “Christianizing the Syrian Countryside: An Archaeological and Architectural Approach,” which serves as an illuminating entrée into the collection. In essence, the paper argues that the manner in which preexisting structures were converted into Christian churches quite clearly delineates local attitudes toward the new religion.
Part of Kidner’s anthropological approach posits that architecture is a peculiar form of language, one that is ever-present and wheedling, suffusing the lived space of the environment and sending out ideological information constantly. This sense of totality also pervades his slides, which systematically document structures from every angle and distance; focused attention is given to each tumbled pediment, every shattered column.
St. Simeon’s Monastery, a sprawling complex located about twenty miles northwest of Aleppo, receives just such a treatment from Kidner’s lens. It is captured at a distance, a mere smudge on the horizon; its facades are shot, as well as its baptistery and the innards of these structures; bemas and transepts are painstakingly documented; apses and friezes and narthices are snapped up in turn. Over three hundred slides are dedicated to the compound’s details, many of which are treated from multiple angles and in multiple lights.
Beyond the temples and farmsteads lie the fields, which Kidner captures now and again, snapping the deeply lichened stretch of an old stone wall or handing the camera off to pose by a beaten track running along and through the stony heights of the massif. There is a timelessness to the landscape and its simpler elements that at times runs counter to Kidner’s other errant shots, which often capture fleeting phenomena embedded among the ruins.
“There are two things that are sort of off the track as far as the built environment is concerned,” Kidner says. “You have the hollyhocks and pictures of wildflowers—I’ve been a gardener all my life—and then you have the kids. And looking back now, I think in a way they’re the most poignant aspect of the collection. God knows they’re all grown up now; God knows what has happened to them.”
In the course of his travels, Kidner met the children—or, as the scribblings on his slides deem them, “moppets”—of the region. “I’d start photographing, and these kids would pop up, and trail around after me, and ask if I could take a picture of them.” Often enough, his visit to the site would end with an improvised shoot, the kids bunching themselves together against ancient walls buttressed with concrete or else standing aloof and alone, a little wary of the man with the camera, a little curious about the device itself.
All in all, Kidner’s collection straddles the gap between the personal and the historical. Images of St. Simeon’s Monastery rub shoulders with those of thick-stalked, vibrant hollyhocks, while imposing stone walls contrast with the sunsets Kidner describes as his “Condé Nast” photos. Even in the collection’s ostensible focus—the architectural images—it’s not simply academic thoroughness that drives the photographing of the built environment, but curiosity, and a predisposition to the contemplation of ruins.
Look even briefly at Kidner’s shot of arcosolia (recesses, typically above ground, used for entombment) in the mortuary chapel at St. Simeon’s monastery, and it quickly becomes clear that a somber mood has overtaken the documentary drive; the gaping hollows and the mineral stains bearding the walls evoke a sense of ancient emptiness, one that is both difficult to fathom and hard to shake.
Kidner’s own old preoccupations emerge in these moments. “I certainly had an interest from the time I was quite a small kid in seeing old things, and not necessarily old things in museums,” he says. “I would pester my parents, when we were out on a drive, to stop if there was an old Wells Fargo station, or, in California, a few Gold Rush things.”
It’s not difficult to picture Kidner pausing over the crossed lintels and intricately carved stonework strewn about the grounds at Qirqbizeh, a site west of Aleppo. The images that emerge are of stones among stones, singled out more than anything else for the delight they give, the mandala-like finery set into their weathered faces.
In short, Kidner’s collection is alternatingly comprehensive and composite; it obsesses over monumental arches one moment and drifts off among the flowers in the next. The vivid reality of its shots, charged with an almost unearthly color, brings to life a moment in time that is frequently undercut by a sense of absence.
In a distant image of St. Simeon’s taken from the nearby site of Takleh, the zigzag of a road dominates the background, while a stone wall interrupts the foreground. In the middle of the image spread fields that were once worked and might be worked still. It is a view of many worlds held together by space and the miracle of a well-composed shot.
We are pleased to welcome Tristan Schmidt, who joins Byzantine Studies as a short-term predoctoral resident from December 1 to 14. Schmidt is a doctoral student in Byzantine studies at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. He is currently working in the Research Training Group 1876, “Early Concepts of Man and Nature,” on his doctoral thesis about animal imagery in the discourse about the emperor in court literature under the Komnenoi, Angeloi, and early Laskarids. The work is supervised by Johannes Pahlitzsch and Sabine Obermaier.
Prior to this, Schmidt studied history and political science at the University of Mainz and spent half a year at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. He has also worked on Byzantine hospitals and philanthropic institutions, law of inheritance in eleventh century testaments, and the Mediterranean policy of the Holy Roman and the Byzantine Empires in the twelfth century. He is also interested in the cultural, economic, and political function of middle and late Byzantine aristocracy.
We are pleased to welcome Anthi Andronikou, who joins Byzantine Studies as a One-Month Research Award recipient from November 16 to December 15. The award at Dumbarton Oaks will grant Anthi access to material in the Byzantine Collection and the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, and will ensure the successful completion of her project on “Venice before Venice: Serenissima's Visual Culture in Pre-Venetian Cyprus.”
After completing her BA (ptychion) in art history and archaeology from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in 2004, Andronikou received an MPhil in Byzantine art history and archaeology at the same institution. Andronikou also holds an MLitt in late medieval and Renaissance Italian art from the School of Art History at the University of St Andrews. In 2015, she completed her PhD at St Andrews with a thesis entitled “Italy and Cyprus: Cross-Currents in Visual Culture (Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries).”
During her studies, Andronikou participated in several excavations in Cyprus and Greece. For her doctoral thesis, she traveled widely across Italy and Cyprus and took part in several conferences and workshops. She received the Rome Award from the British School at Rome in 2014, and she is currently participating in the early-career research grant on “Art of the Crusades: A Re-Evaluation,” led by the SOAS Institute and the Getty Foundation. Currently, she is working as a tutor at the School of Art History at St Andrews and is coediting, with Peter Humfrey, a volume dedicated to the mythological works of a private collection.
We are pleased to welcome Raf Praet, who joins Byzantine Studies as a short-term predoctoral resident from November 3 to November 15, 2016. Praet is a doctoral student at the University of Groningen, under the supervision of Jan Willem Drijvers and Peter Van Nuffelen. His dissertation, “Finding the Present in the Distant Past: The Cultural Meaning of Antiquarianism in Late Antiquity (476–602 AD),” explores why antiquarianism became such a popular way to deal with the distant past in late antiquity, especially in the works of John Lydus, John Malalas, and Cassiodorus.
Praet studied classics at Ghent University, after which he worked, from 2011 to 2013, as a research assistant under the supervision of Kristoffel Demoen for the Database of Byzantine Book Epigrams, a collaboration between the University of Groningen and Ghent University. In addition to his doctoral research, he is also a member of the Late Antique Historiography research group.
Andrea Cuomo on Greek Scholia and Byzantine Pedagogy
Andrea Cuomo, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17, is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Byzantine Studies at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. On November 2, he delivered a research report entitled “The Editing of Greek Scholia and the Study of Medieval Greek Literature,” in which he examined elite educational practices in Byzantium during the Middle Ages.
An essential component of elite education was learning to read, write, cite, and allude to Attic Greek, a task that was aided by editions of the classics bearing detailed scholia, or annotations. In his talk, Cuomo described the production of scholia and their use as learning mechanisms in the Byzantine Empire. Contending that the Byzantine schooling system represented neither sterile erudition nor a cult of the past, he questioned how Byzantines used and related to this tradition, and how modern scholars might go about producing critical editions of these texts.
A Brief Q&A with Andrea Cuomo
In your talk you spoke about the grammarian Manuel Moschopoulos. For the layperson: who was Moschopoulos?
Unfortunately, Moschopoulos—the author whose textbook I am trying to edit—is a shadow figure. He’s known to classical philologists because we know that he worked on all the classics, and we can infer something about his life from his work. So we know he was teaching at the school at a monastery in Constantinople, when suddenly, in the first decade of the fourteenth century, he disappeared. And we don’t know what happened. We know that he was probably involved in some conspiracy against the emperor, because he was imprisoned, and in 1306 he disappears, either because he died, or . . . well, we really don’t know. Like I said, he’s really a shadow figure, and we only know what we can infer from what’s left.
What exactly are scholia and why are they important?
They are important for two reasons. At that time, for the Byzantines, scholia were central because the Byzantines wanted to learn Attic Greek—the Greek of the Greek classics. Since they were learning it as a foreign language, they needed the scholia—just like if you want to learn Shakespeare, you need not only the text, but also a gloss for every word. Unlike glosses, though, scholia were a little bit longer than just a synonym. They sometimes rephrased difficult passages, but always with the aim of providing students with good examples to imitate when writing on their own. So really, they were useful tools with the pragmatic, tangible, concrete target of learning.
Sometimes, and this is probably what’s more interesting for our sensibility, these scholia give us parallels, or they’ll say, for instance, “Don’t imitate the style of this person,” and they quote an author. So we can also begin to grasp Byzantine aesthetic judgment on literature.
For us, they’re important because they tag a lot of words and a lot of syntactic constructions, so to speak, and if we follow the tagging as a contemporary Byzantine tagging system, we can end up interpreting Byzantine texts in an interesting way. For instance, if I have the text of a Byzantine author, who I know used scholia to learn Greek, then we can verify whether he was following these rules. And we can also tell whether he was switching into a lower or a higher register, always following this contemporary tag. So, our interpretation will be not anachronistic.
And the scholia can even help us classicists, or other people in the humanities, to understand the status of education: Whey would a grown-up society like Byzantium in its last two centuries learn this language? They knew that they were studying the past, but they actualized it, and they said, “It’s important for us; we are that.” So in a way, we can also use this kind of research to explain the importance of classics nowadays—I don’t necessarily like this approach, but at least I understand it can be useful.
When you have this group of people, almost a workshop, producing one set of scholia, what does that do to the idea of authorship? Is it a joint authorship? What is interesting or exciting about trying to discern the individual scholiasts behind the words?
It’s a very difficult question, because we all imagine the idea of authorship, and for many kinds of works it is easy to understand the concept—for a historiographic work, for a novel—but for this material it’s very difficult. So there are a couple of things we need to consider. First, they were comments that originated in a school—and as I tried to point out in my talk, this school had a chair, who was Maximos Planoudes, and he had his assistant, and they all surely promoted and contributed to the creation of this scholiastic corpus. Books were very rare then, and I think that if there was one, they annotated it jointly. That’s the first part: already at the very beginning of this corpus there was a joint authorship.
But really, for us, it doesn’t matter who wrote exactly which scholia. What’s more interesting to know is how they were transmitted, which is the second part of authorship. Scribes were more autonomous when they had to copy material. For example, when they copy Herodotus, they are very faithful, as if they were copying the Bible; but when they copy scholia, they may decide to omit or add one scholion, and so in a sense the scribes are also our authors. The question is: If I produce a critical edition, should I publish only what is original, or should I give you the idea of every single manuscript? To answer your question, I don’t believe the individual authorship matters with scholia. The point is how these scholia worked and their impact on learning.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Adam Goldwyn Pushes Ecocriticism Back to Byzantium
Adam Goldwyn, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17, is an assistant professor of medieval literature and English at North Dakota State University. His intellectual interests include classical reception and comparative approaches to medieval literature, though recently he has begun to work with a new theoretical approach to the past: ecocriticism.
As Goldwyn explained in his talk, “Byzantine Ecocriticism: Humans, Nature, and Power in the Medieval Greek Romance,” he first came to be interested in ecocriticism while teaching a literary seminar. After analyzing Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad, a student asked Goldwyn whether the Greeks had had greater imaginations than modern people; it was difficult for him to imagine the cosmos carved on a shield, and when he looked at the stars he saw only dots. In attempting to answer the student’s question, Goldwyn read up on light pollution and its effects on the night sky; the melding of literary and environmental concerns catalyzed his interest in ecocritical studies.
Goldwyn began his lecture by explaining the basic tenets of ecocriticism and the related school of ecofeminism. As an approach to literary analysis, ecocriticism seeks to interrogate the ideological underpinnings of humanity’s interactions with the natural environment. Though initially developed as a framework for understanding industrial and postindustrial societies Goldwyn has sought to push its reach backward in time by applying an ecocritical approach to classical and medieval texts, including Ho Polemos tes Troados, a Greek translation of the Old French Roman de Troie, in an attempt to develop an understanding of Byzantine environmental ideology.
A Brief Q&A with Adam Goldwyn
During your lecture, you did some rereadings of myths from an ecocritical perspective: Medea as an environmental shaper, Jason as a pillager who steals the natural resource of the golden fleece. Are there other myths or texts that you’ve had intriguing ecocritical readings of, or that you thought lent themselves well to the theory?
One of the things that makes myths so interesting is that they’re often about these very early human-nature encounters, before the relation has been solidified by society. So you have things, for instance, like the labors of Hercules, which is a man wearing a lion skin, going around and imposing a human, civilized order on the world through, among other things, the killing of really powerful monsters or unusual kinds of creatures. So I think that the Hercules myth, as the human conquest of nature, is one. I certainly think that Ovid’s Metamorphoses is quite interesting—and recently controversial, because of some of the issues around divine-human sex and the issue of consent. But people transforming back and forth between animals and humans, and between humans and plants, makes you think about the borders between humans and gods. It turns out the borders between these seemingly fixed categories are very fluid. I think that that opens up a lot of space for thinking about ideologies, value systems, and what it means to be a plant, an animal, a certain kind of animal—a monstrous animal or a cute animal or a dangerous animal—or a god or a human. I mean, what’s human about animals, and what’s divine about humans?
One of the main tenets of ecofeminism as you described it is that oppression based on things like race, class, gender, and sexuality stems from the tendency to oppress nature. Is there a goal in ecocriticism to return to a state where the boundaries between humans and nature aren’t as clear?
That’s a tough question, and I think it’s helpful to talk about humanism. Before, you had God at the center of the universe—this is like the geocentric model of the universe—and then Galileo comes along as a humanist, and humans become the center of the epistemological world. Humanism is, in a sense, the study of humans at the center of things. Ecocritics point out that we can move away from thinking about humans as the center, and instead think about humans as part of a linked network of equally important and equally autonomous creatures. And we come to realize that something as small as a honeybee turns out to be a cornerstone of global ecology. So, post-humanist thinking, or transhumanist thinking, decenters the human and thinks of the world more as a networked web of symbiotic interconnections.
You’re pushing ecocriticism into the past and using it to study Byzantium. What is the backflow? How can Byzantium end up affecting ecocriticism?
There are a couple of things I can think of. One: Ecocriticism has largely been a project of the West, and predominantly of Anglophone scholarship. So even in ecocriticism, you have mostly scholars in the U.S. or England writing about ecocriticism from their own perspective, and writing mostly about contemporary or even medieval English literature. So we can end up bringing in a comparative context.
I think another thing that’s really important is to see how much ecocriticism suffers from a presentist view. Of course we’re in a new environment, or moment, because of anthropogenic climate change, but when we push back and develop Byzantine and medieval ecocriticism, and ancient ecocriticism and Biblical ecocriticism, and see how far we can push it back, we begin to see that the ideologies that underlie these things in fact go quite far back. We’ve inherited a system of environmental beliefs and attitudes that may not have been so bad when they developed, when you only had a couple hundred thousand humans and all they had were stone tools. You could have an ideology of deforestation then because you didn’t really have the technological means to accomplish it. But now, we have the same ideology, but the consequences are radically different, because you can cut down hundreds of acres of rain forest in a day or a week. Trying to push back the chain of ideologies that got us to where we are is really important for thinking about the contemporary moment.
A lot of the textual excerpts you read that were about Medea mentioned her education in magic—I believe one even referred to “liberal studies.” I’m wondering if you could talk about this connection between education, magic, women, and ideologies.
The etymology of liberal arts is, basically, the education that a free person would have needed, so in some sense of course education is that which a free man—and emphasis on the man when we’re talking about Rome—would need. One of the things that ecocritics and ecofeminists often discuss is the different environmental ideologies between men and women, and how nature itself is often given a feminine gender. And there’s a problematic but somewhat commonplace binary that men have an environmental ideology of exploitation (think hunting), whereas women have an environmental ideology of sustainability or care (think of gathering, or gardening, as opposed to hunting). I mean, it’s a little bit of a gender-essentialist perspective, but by educating women, by bringing them into environmental discourse, I think that we can shift from a certain kind of male-dominated narrative about how we should treat the environment to one that’s dominated more by care, nurture, and sustainability.
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Florin Curta on Byzantium and the Nomads
On the outskirts of empires, history is harder to come by. As cities give way to wilderness and stonework cedes its place to weaker materials, traces become rarer, stories disappear. But then, what about the people who won’t settle down, who have no homes at all?
Though Florin Curta admits nomads have long been the bugbears of historians everywhere, he’s still determined to investigate their interactions with the Byzantine empire. On October 13, Curta, a professor of medieval history and archaeology at the University of Florida, delivered the Byzantine studies program’s annual public lecture.
At the beginning of his talk, “An Uneasy Relation: Byzantium and the Nomads,” Curta foregrounded broad epistemic concerns centering around the issues of naming and identity. What, he asked, constituted “Europe” in the age of Byzantium? How was it understood and imagined? Deceptively simple questions followed: What, after all, is a nomad? And what does it mean to be nomadic?
Curta’s lecture first sought to answer these questions on Byzantine terms. Utilizing contemporary written sources that documented imperial interactions with nomads from the steppe lands, Curta evoked the Byzantine conception of nomadic peoples while emphasizing a key difficulty in studying them.
These external accounts of nomadic culture, as Curta showed, were often content to record with the broad brush of stereotype. Descriptions of nomadic peoples produced in Byzantium often drew from a long history of depiction, cribbing from the writings of older authors. Herodotus’s descriptions of the Scythians, for instance, were frequently used as a template when writing about nomads; Procopius’s descriptions of the Huns were often similarly recycled.
Whether this distorted image of steppe nomads served a political purpose or was simply a failure of established interpretative tools, it remains a misrepresentation that in recent years has been more and more belied by archaeological evidence. In the course of his talk, Professor Curta delineated the advances in bioarchaeology and the changes in methodology that have led researchers to question the clear-cut classification of nomadic peoples into preconceived ethnic categories.
Opposing the supposition that nomadism makes people disappear from history, Curta emphasized a nuanced approach to the study of nomadic peoples, one that benefits from uneasiness. Just as simplified ethnographic classification in Byzantine times had done away with the nuances of nomadic life, an emphasis on clear boundaries between Byzantium and the nomads in modern scholarship has frustrated the study of nomadic peoples. Processes that might not typically be associated with nomads—sedentization, conversion, and assimilation—are in fact rich terrains of study, Curta contended.
At the end of his talk, Curta obliged the audience with a moment of crowd service. After deconstructing common perceptions of nomadic peoples, he displayed a stock image of a Pecheneg warrior astride a horse, his outflung arm straddled by a vicious-looking hawk, his mount’s head adorned with a leather chanfron. The image hovered on the screen, colorful, striking, and questionably real.
Byzantine Studies Fellow Eleni Kefala on Byzantium and America before and after the Age of Reason
Eleni Kefala, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–2017, is associate professor in the School of Modern Languages at the University of St Andrews. Though her previous research has centered on Spanish American literature and the visual arts, her work at Dumbarton Oaks will attempt to bridge, for the first time, Pre-Columbian and Byzantine studies in the context of her new interdisciplinary project “Byzantium and America before and after the Age of Reason,” which itself builds on her latest monograph, Five and One Theses on Modernity.
In her research report, titled “The Vanquished: Byzantium and America before and after the Age of Reason,” Kefala first established a complex and guiding theoretical framework. Citing a long list of writers, philosophers, and cultural theorists that included Immanuel Kant, Fredric Jameson, Enrique Dussel, and Edward Said, Kefala provided a cultural critique of concepts like modernity, progress, and enlightenment, and of discursive constructions of Byzantium and Pre-Columbian America in order to explain the rationale of her project.
A Brief Q&A with Eleni Kefala
In your presentation you displayed a complex theoretical apparatus. Now that you’re at Dumbarton Oaks, how do you come down from that apparatus and start digging around in the particulars?
The idea of a comparative study of Byzantium and America came as I was writing two theoretical chapters on “modernity” and its “others” for the purposes of a monograph I’ve just finished, Five and One Theses on Modernity. What I presented at Dumbarton Oaks was a rough summary of the most relevant findings of the first part of the book, which I call “Excursus on Modernity.” So what I was aiming at, and basically what I’m interested in, is what the moderns, while trying to define their own “modernity,” had to say about Amerindians, on the one hand, and Byzantium on the other. The ultimate end of this investigation is to explore the discursive mechanisms whereby these civilizations were epistemically and culturally subalternized, especially (but not only) during the Enlightenment, and seeing to what extent these mechanisms are actually with us today. What I will be doing here at Dumbarton Oaks is something slightly different, which is going to be, hopefully, the first chapter of a monograph on Byzantium and America before and after the Enlightenment. Although the book will be about how the west discursively constructed those “premoderns” from the Renaissance on, the first chapter will actually look at the point of view of the Byzantines and the Amerindians—that is, the point of view of the defeated, how they saw the conquest. For instance, the Aymara in what is today Bolivia and Peru referred to the so-called “discovery” of the Americas as Pachacuti, meaning “the world upside down.” So I want to look at the perspectives of the people who were conquered in both cases.
You talked about trauma theory and memory studies, a lot of which seems to develop in the twentieth century. So how do you adapt these studies to the fifteenth century, to very foreign cultures?
You always have to be very careful. If we go back to the term theory, what does it mean? Theōria—from theōreō, meaning to consider, to observe, to theorize—gives you the opportunity to look at something in a more comprehensive way. Theory, as Deleuze once said, is a box of tools. So I would like to look at particular instances of “postmemory”—Hirsch’s idea, which she’s using with reference to the Holocaust to explain how cultural trauma or memory can be transmitted from generation to generation through texts, images, and behaviors, but which I think could be a useful tool when it comes to looking at poems written by scholars or anonymous people after these conquests. For instance, I’d like to look at issues of cultural trauma, memory, and postmemory in the thrēnoi, or laments, for the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and in the Cantares mexicanos, especially the icnocuicatl, the “songs of sorrow,” which were composed by Mexica poets soon after the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521. The same applies to theories of hybridity and cultural translation.
We should use these terms with caution, but we can use them, because the mechanisms of cultural production—whether this is now or during the Roman Empire, or the Byzantine Empire, or the Ottoman Empire, etc.—the way that culture is produced, has not changed much. Culture can be the product of dialogue, or clash, but it’s definitely the product of the encounter between different cultural systems, which produces something new. This “new” is then essentialized, its identity becomes identifiable, and then it meets and clashes with something else to produce some other newness, etc., etc. Of course, each case comes with its own specificities, both in terms of time and space, but this is how culture moves, how culture changes, let’s say. So yes: caution. But I don’t think that we should be terrorized by the idea that one could use contemporary theorizations to shed light on previous periods, in the same way that we are not terrorized by the idea that theories of the past can still be useful and relevant to us today. For example, during the discussion I borrowed Borges’s theorization of “thinking” as selection and abstraction. I could see that many colleagues in the audience immediately appreciated the reference. Borges talks about this in a story called “Funes the Memorious,” which was published in 1942. Is what he says less useful or relevant to us today just because he said it in 1942?
There was a lot of focus in your presentation on scientific advances, medical advancements, and the idea of progress. Where did that emphasis come from?
If you are interested in the concept of “modernity,” as I was when writing the “excursus,” you eventually have to look at what comes before it, and what comes before it, in time, is the middle ages. In terms of space, it’s the non-European cultures—in this case, obviously, the Amerindian civilizations, since I agree with scholars like Dussel that modernity begins in 1492 with the conquest of America. Now the idea of progress is fully fleshed out during the Enlightenment, with thinkers like Kant and Fontenelle, who eventually breaks with the cyclical notion of history, and progress is seen in the future, not in the past. And then you start looking at the real notion of progress—what did they mean by progress? Even a strong supporter of the idea of progress like Fontenelle says that he doesn’t believe in the idea of moral progress—who can ever argue that we’re morally more advanced than people that lived in previous times? And then the notion of artistic or aesthetic progress also is very difficult to grasp—who can say that our aesthetic tastes today are more advanced than, for instance, the abstraction of Byzantine art? So once you try to disentangle this whole literature about progress, then you can only end up with the notion of technological and scientific progress. And then you have to problematize the moderns’ view that the idea of scientific and technological progress, or sometimes even the thing itself, was absent from premodern or non-modern cultures, as was supposedly the case of Byzantium.
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Dumbarton Oaks’ New Director of Byzantine Studies
“Strange images find me,” says Elena Boeck. She pauses briefly before continuing: “I think I have a natural affinity for outlying images.”
“Strange” and “outlying,” “liminal” and “borderline”—these words crop up frequently when Boeck, who recently began her five-year tenure as director of Byzantine Studies, speaks of her work. Perhaps because her research centers on the odd, out-of-place, and oftentimes mysterious visual clue, her way of speaking is staunchly investigative; her sentences advance steadily and logically, extended every now and then by a favorite phrase: “This is why . . .”
Professor Boeck comes to Dumbarton Oaks from DePaul University, where she holds a professorship in art history. She received her BA in that subject in 1996 at Boston University, followed by an MA and PhD at Yale. After completing her PhD in 2003, Boeck quickly settled at DePaul, where she has taught in various capacities since 2004. In addition to her scholarly work, Boeck brings strong administrative experience to her directorship at Dumbarton Oaks; she served as principal organizer of the 2011 Byzantine Studies Conference, and as a member of the governing board of the Byzantine Studies Association of North America between 2008 and 2012. (Having reassumed this position in 2015, she will now serve until 2019.)
Boeck, who hails from Riga, Latvia, originally intended to study physics before coming to the United States to pursue her undergraduate studies. But once she arrived, a natural inclination to the study of images drove her to major in art history. (Her conversion to Byzantine art history came later, during a trip to Istanbul).
Despite what might seem a jarring shift, she insists there are strong parallels between the fields: “In physics, one studies laws which have been made manifest in physical form . . . and the same thing applies to art history. Objects have a created reality, but there are laws and rules and there are structures—the creator’s intellectual processes—which bring them into existence.”
Boeck’s fascination with the hidden origins of images, and her belief that precise ideological structures often stand behind the art that surrounds us, are perhaps not so surprising, given the environment of her youth. “The other side of the story,” Boeck says, matter-of-factly, when explaining her proclivity to art history, “is that I grew up in the Soviet Union; I’ve seen images and the way images are used for political purposes—and one understands how to read these kinds of narratives, and what to do with them.”
Boeck’s approach to the visual is undergirded by a healthy skepticism, a natural corollary to recent trends in Byzantine studies. Although Byzantine culture has long been recognized as a “distorting mirror,” Boeck writes in her 2015 study Imagining the Byzantine Past that “only recently have that mirror’s characteristics started to fascinate as much as its distortions.” Though the positivist fact-mining that dominated manuscript studies in the first half of the twentieth century can still yield useful historical information, Boeck’s work arises from the more subjective sphere of rhetorical nuances and narrative strategies.
As a result, her work can be both precise and expansive, detail-oriented and theoretically minded. In her own words: “I’m an art historian, but I think about myself as doing intellectual history.” In line with this self-assessment, Imagining the Byzantine Past showcases her method of working backward and outward from discrete visual curios to develop a convincing revision of historiographical approaches to Byzantium.
“Byzantinists love the Skylitzes manuscript so much that they don’t want to look at it critically,” she says of one of the central object-studies in Imagining the Byzantine Past. “Because it is so vivid and so rich, it has to be the reality.” And yet Boeck concludes that the Skylitzes manuscript, commissioned by Roger II of Sicily in the mid-twelfth century, is in fact a purposive construct, designed in opposition to the Byzantine cultural model.
Setting the Skylitzes manuscript against another, more laudatory manuscript—an adaptation of the Manasses chronicle, produced for Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria in the mid-fourteenth century—Imagining the Byzantine Past attempts to display the deliberate and exploitative nature of both works. One is valedictory, one denunciative; one aims to condemn, the other to incorporate—and yet, as Boeck insists, both are suffused with a creative energy, both fundamentally aware of the power to be gained in co-opting history: “They take the foundation—the texts—and they completely transform them.”
Disjunction—between image and text, between truth and narrative, between cultural centers and their peripheries—orders much of Boeck’s scholarship. At the most particular level, this disjunction is evident in the befuddling images that offer glimpses of obscured ideologies: a saint who should know better raises his robes and exposes himself; an iconoclast, denounced by the accompanying text, appears, improperly haloed; a Virgin figure, holding her child, sprouts, for no obvious reason, a third hand.
But more broadly speaking, these visual oddities offer a portal on conflicting historical frameworks that Boeck has worked tirelessly to unearth and interrogate. “As scholars, we all operate with a sense or set of assumptions . . . we create our own versions of Byzantium, and our own interests drive us,” she says. “When we come across images or objects which defy these cultural assumptions—that’s when people have to articulate what they expect from images.”
Boeck is open about her own expectations, as well as the sympathy for peripheral things that often structures her work. (Imagining the Byzantine Past acknowledges its genesis is owed, in part, to its author’s youthful experiences “on the fringes of a collapsing empire.”) Her theoretical background shines through in her choice of words; the language of obliquity—“decenter,” “othered,” and, of course, “periphery”—reigns when she muses on narratives of Byzantium.
And while, couched in these terms, Boeck’s concerns may seem intimidating, they translate easily into her coming work at Dumbarton Oaks. As Boeck sees it, Byzantine studies today is frequently interested in cross-cultural discussions that in turn reevaluate the very meaning of “Byzantium.” Though Boeck can cede that Byzantium has been consistently “othered” in the past and left out of “standard narratives of history,” it is an observation that is quickly tailed by further questions: “What do we call the center? And how do we define the margins, or the borderlands of Byzantium?”
“A simple example: there are modern-day countries which claim Byzantium as part of their national heritage, so in these countries Byzantium is in some ways written into history—it becomes part of standard textbooks. And people who come to it when it’s not part of their tradition, of course, will focus on other aspects of Byzantium—and so, we get different versions of Byzantium.”
One of the most valuable aspects of Dumbarton Oaks, Boeck acknowledges, is its ability “to get different people with different views of Byzantium together, to get them talking more.” In many ways Boeck’s work can be seen as an effort at disentangling—but in order to disentangle, one first has to recognize there’s a tangle at all. At Dumbarton Oaks, Boeck hopes to continue the healthy confluence of different constructs, narratives, and “assumptions” that abets scholarship of all types. In addition, she’ll aim to maintain the institution’s current spate of programming and fellowships—initiatives that Boeck herself can be thankful for.
Boeck previously spent time at Dumbarton Oaks as a junior fellow in the 2001–2002 academic year, an interval she remembers fondly: “It was such a good environment. You put books all around yourself, and you know Hector provided lunches—so it’s life completely worry-free, and you just write.”
More than a decade later, her office space has increased, though she is still surrounded by books, folders, files. Right now, in between her manifold duties—editing the Dumbarton Oaks Papers, working on budgets, coordinating programming—Boeck is composing a cultural biography of the Column of Justinian, which stood in Constantinople from the sixth to the fifteenth century. She’ll be attempting to prove that the column was the “greatest” monument of Constantinople throughout its long existence.
In the midst of describing this study, she pauses for a brief aside that seems telling: “Byzantinists,” she allows—with an air that seems to add, so it goes—“will not necessarily be happy with it.”
We are pleased to welcome Roxanne Radpour, who joins Byzantine Studies as a short-term predoctoral resident until the end of September. Roxanne is a doctoral candidate in the materials science and engineering department at the University of California, Los Angeles.
She works in the Archaeomaterials Group at UCLA with Professor Ioanna Kakoulli studying archaeological and cultural heritage materials using analytical imaging and spectroscopy techniques. Her PhD research is focused on the application of advanced imaging technologies to characterize the surfaces and subsurfaces of objects in order to understand their materials, provenance, and condition. In October 2016, with the support of a Fulbright Fellowship and the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute, Roxanne will be embarking on a research project in Cyprus to conduct an extensive analytical study of ancient rock-cut tomb wall paintings from the Hellenistic and Byzantine time periods.
Dumbarton Oaks Welcomes Syriac Summer School
The ten students who comprise the inaugural session of the Syriac Summer School descended on Dumbarton Oaks from July 21 to 24 for a long weekend exploring the scholarly resources of the institution as well as the city of Washington, D.C. The program, sponsored and funded by Dumbarton Oaks, is hosted at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML), located on the campus of Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. At Dumbarton Oaks, students explored the Byzantine collections and the gardens, attended sessions on coins, seals, and bibliographic resources, learned about the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, and met with staff and scholars.
“We had a very difficult time choosing from among the applicants to the summer school,” admits Scott Johnson, professor of classics at the University of Oklahoma, who teaches Syriac at the summer school. “The two primary criteria we used were that the students chosen could not get Syriac at their home institutions, and that they were starting from scratch. We wanted to offer Syriac to students hungry for it who would not be able to add it to their repertoire otherwise.”
The Syriac Summer School began when Jan Ziolkowski, director of Dumbarton Oaks, contacted Father Columba Stewart, director of HMML, to propose an intensive summer course on Syriac modeled on Dumbarton Oaks’ Byzantine Greek Summer School. The new program includes instruction in the Syriac language, taught by Johnson, as well as Syriac paleography and manuscript study, taught by Adam McCollum, formerly HMML’s lead cataloger of manuscripts. The summer school’s visit to Dumbarton Oaks highlights important connections between Syriac and Byzantine Greek and their respective literatures. “Greek and Syriac have a close historical relationship through late antiquity,” explains Johnson. “Many Greek texts were translated into Syriac, and Syriac texts were likewise sought out by Greek speakers. Syriac scholars were responsible for preserving and translating ancient Greek texts.”
The students’ backgrounds range from classics and medieval studies to liturgical studies and classical Arabic. In the past, Syriac was often housed apart from Greek—the former grouped with Middle Eastern languages, the latter in classics departments. Yet the insights that Syriac affords into late antique, Byzantine, and Islamic research have become increasingly apparent to specialists in those areas in recent years. Consequently, the Dumbarton Oaks Library has been actively acquiring Syriac resources so that scholars of Syriac and other eastern Christian cultures have more opportunities to conduct research at Dumbarton Oaks. “I think the motivation for bringing the students to Dumbarton Oaks is to show them the resources Dumbarton Oaks can offer Syriacists,” says Johnson. “I hope that their visit will broaden the horizons of late antique, Byzantine, and medieval studies and further contribute to the exciting conversation about where these fields are going.”
A Conversation with Translator Suzanne Abrams Rebillard
The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML) was launched in 2011 with the goal of providing high-quality facing-page texts and translations of major medieval literary works to both general and specialist readers alike. Since 2014, DOML has offered short-term residencies for translators of volumes to visit Dumbarton Oaks and use its resources. Suzanne Abrams Rebillard, an independent scholar who is translating Gregory of Nazianzus’s Poemata de Seipso for a forthcoming volume, sat down with us at the conclusion of her residency for a wide-ranging interview about her work, career, and Gregory of Nazianzus. (Interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Can you tell me about your DOML residency—what the residency entails, what you’ll be working on, and how this relates to your interests or fields of study?
I’m working on the introduction to my DOML volume, Gregory of Nazianzus’s Poemata de Seipso, and it’s just about done. It has been a useful three weeks. Besides the work, it has been useful to think about things other than [small] details, especially when you’re translating, and to just sit down and write the introduction and describe the author’s style on translating poetry—to describe the meters he uses and the lines. It’s helpful to put things in a bigger picture and to get away from whether the text you have has the right grammatical form or not, or if you’re using the right word to translate this word. So that has been good, and it has also made me go back and read some things again that I haven’t read for a long time. You think you know what authors are saying because you’ve used their texts so many times, but you don’t always go back to look at them again. It has been good to go back and say, “Oh, yeah, this author also says that, and that’s helpful.”
Can you tell me about Gregory of Nazianzus and his Poemata de Seipso?
Gregory of Nazianzus was a bishop. He lived in the fourth century, from 329 to 389, and he came from a wealthy family—his father was a bishop. His career was marked by periods of working in a church and then just retreating or performing contemplations; he was always complaining about being sick, so he went off on these rest cures for years, and then he would get called back to service again. He lived at a time of a lot of theological debate, and there were a lot of breaks within the church over the nature of the Trinity, so he eventually got called to Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, where he presided over the church council and acted as bishop of the capital.
But it was a disaster. Gregory couldn’t manage to get the different parties to agree, he had to deal with all sorts of political problems, and finally he retreated back home to retire. He got to the capital in 379 and left in 381—so he was only there for two years. But during the time he was there, he preached five orations that became, for the Orthodox Church, a definitive statement on the nature of the Trinity. His success was recognized later, but not during his own lifetime, so he disappeared—whether he chose to run off or whether he was driven out, we don’t know, because we only have his account of it, which is in these poems.
And he wrote a lot. The poems about himself, the Poemata de Seipso, are about 6,600 lines, and the whole collection of all his poetry is over seventeen thousand lines. Thankfully, not all of it is about himself. He complains a lot in his poems about what happened in the capital, he complains about being sick; but then he also has many beautiful prayers, and he mixes the Bible and classical literature together, so it’s kind of a big jumble of subcultures of his own world. The poems are also important for understanding church politics, the role of bishops, and the theology behind all these battles, which Gregory wrote all this poetry about when he went home in 381. And that’s another thing that he’s known for: coming up with a way to absorb classical learning and literature into a Christian literary tradition. So he’s very important for that and his poems are very important for that.
Did the orations influence a lot of the modern Orthodox Church?
Yes, they have really influenced the modern Orthodox Church all the way down. Gregory of Nazianzus was an exceptionally good speaker, so we also have forty-four of the orations he gave. I mean, they were not the form in which he necessarily gave them at church—but in those ten years of retirement between his departure from the capital and death, he worked with two deacons in his church. The three of them went off to some place on one of the family estates, where Gregory wrote and edited his own works and the other two men helped him edit. So we have 250 letters, forty-four orations, and seventeen thousand [lines of poetry]. And even today, because his writing is so beautiful, there are passages from his orations that are in the Orthodox liturgy—if you go to church now, you can still hear them. Some of his poetry was used as hymns, too, very soon after his death. (I mean “soon” by ancient standards—within 150 years of his death.) Within a decade or two of his death, his orations had been translated into Latin, and we also have Armenian, Syriac, Coptic, Latin, and ancient Georgian translations of his writings. I’ve actually heard that in the Orthodox tradition, his texts are the most quoted writings after the Bible.
Speaking of the Latin translations—did Gregory of Nazianzus cross over into Roman Catholicism?
Yes. He is a doctor of the Church, so his theological arguments are important in the Catholic Church as well.
What initially sparked your interest in late antique poetry?
I was trained as a classicist. I went to Greece one summer during college, and I was really excited when I saw the temple to Hephaestus in the middle of Athens—it was turned into a church in the Byzantine period, and that was part of what had preserved it. So then I started to think about how classical traditions get preserved. From there, I started reading more and more late antique literature, and then, when I got to graduate school, I took a seminar about early Christian asceticism in the eastern part of the empire, and my professor suggested that I look at Gregory of Nazianzus’s poems. And I’m still doing it. I think what also interests me about late antique poetry is that there’s still a lot of work to be done, and there aren’t necessarily editions or translations of even the basic texts, which is why DOML exists. It’s exciting to be able to make an important contribution in that way.
Can you talk about some of your previous work and your experience with translation?
Well, I never thought I would do a translation. When I started work on Gregory of Nazianzus’s writings, I was looking at how he presents himself in the autobiographical poems. There were a few of them that had been translated, but I was interested in the ones that hadn’t been, because through those you got a very different picture of him. But when I sat down to look at them, I got tired of flipping through all the Greek, and I just said I couldn’t do it. I told myself: “This is really time consuming; it would be much easier if I could just work with a translation.” So I did—I just sat down and started translating it. I never intended it to be anything other than my own crutch, but then a friend who was also working on Gregory’s writings came into the office and saw my translation on my desk and said, “Suzanne, what is this?” And I said, “Oh, I did a translation of the poem so I can do my stuff,” and he was shocked. He said something along the lines of, “Just slap an introduction on it and turn it in—you’re done, your dissertation is finished.” But I had just seen it as a tool, you know.
Now I’m trying to make it something a little lovelier than a tool. Mostly because somebody needed to do it, and I needed it done. It’s sort of a frustrating thing to find a balance between being accurate and being readable, which I think is probably true for all translators, but especially with ancient Greek and English, because the two languages work very differently. With the structure of ancient Greek you’re going to have really long sentences in a way that the structure of English can’t handle—the grammar just kind of collapses on itself. And I guess that, as classicists, we’re trained from the beginning to translate, and as a classicist, you spend years translating. But it’s frustrating, because you’re always leaving something out: there’s always some connotation of a word or a phrase that doesn’t cross over. But translating this is a good start, which is satisfying.
How did you hear about/get involved with DOML?
I had organized a panel at Brown University, and Stratis Papaioannou, who’s teaching at Dumbarton Oaks’ Byzantine Greek Summer School, was a reader for my panel for this conference. I had lunch with him, and he said, “Why don’t you submit a proposal to DOML for your work?” And I thought it was a good idea. I had initially thought that what the poems needed was a really thorough commentary, but as I started that project, I realized I would be like a hundred years old by the time I finished it, so I decided that my translation platform was more practical. I could just focus on the translation and get it out there, and then people could work with it. The reason translation is so important is because the Greek in the poetry isn’t easy. Even in the Byzantine period there are paraphrases of his poems—so even back then, you would have a book, and you would have his poem in one column in Greek, and then a second column, also in Greek, but in Greek that made more sense to people at that time. After you’ve spent years with him, though, his Greek actually starts to become easier and make more sense. The poetry is underused because it’s not immediately accessible, so I’m hoping the translation will change things.
What have you enjoyed the most about your DOML residency?
What has been great is that I will have a draft done! Aside from that, everybody here has been very helpful, and it has been great—it has been easy to work. Working on the translation has also enabled me to get to some stuff I’ve been wanting to read, but never had time to. It’s been great to have that time, and everything is so well set up at Dumbarton Oaks that there’s not even any settling-in time. I just got to work, and everything was set up for me. You don’t even have to wait for books to come; it’s all right there. And outside my door, on the top of the library, is a reproduction of an icon of Gregory; so every time I leave my office, he glares at me. That has been inspiring, keeping me at my desk, because I get scowled at every time I leave the room.
There has been talk of you starting a conference panel with Jeffrey Wickes, a summer fellow specializing in Byzantine studies.
Jeff and I noticed a number of similar trends in the Syriac poetry he works on and the Greek poetry I work on. We were talking about how poetry might have been expected to affect people when it is not intended for a liturgical context—or even if it is intended for that context, but is experienced outside of the liturgy. Scholars are just now starting to think about not just political and economic forces across the geographical span of the Roman Empire, but about literary movements as well, and we would like to contribute to that discussion. We hope to get a panel together for the next North American Patristics Society conference in May 2017.
Classical Art Historian Will Wootton Speaks at Dumbarton Oaks
On July 19, the Dumbarton Oaks Museum invited Dr. Will Wootton, lecturer on Roman art in the classics department of King’s College London, to deliver an informal talk to a group of docents, staff, summer fellows, and interns about mosaics in antiquity. Wootton offered an engaging overview of the medium and its history, approaching from two angles: the aesthetic experience of an ancient observer, as well as the technical procedures employed by the original artisans. He concluded his talk with an in-person examination of the Apolausis Mosaic in the vestibule of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum, pointing out that in the bath house where it was excavated, water would have run over the surface into the sunken room that held it: “The point was showing that the water was so clear and pure that you could see the mosaic perfectly beneath it,” he said.
A Dumbarton Oaks Panel at the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies
Dumbarton Oaks will be sponsoring two panels on “The Individual in Material Culture” at next year’s International Congress on Medieval Studies, to be held May 11–14, 2017, at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. One panel will cover the years 400–1000; the other will address 1000–1400. Both invite papers that use surviving elements of material culture—for example, coins, seals, textiles, and jewelry—to discuss questions relating to the individual in the medieval European, Byzantine, and Islamic worlds. Topics can include self-presentation and the creation of one’s own identity; the imposition of an identity on an individual by others; social and familial relationships; and religious and ethnic identities. Authors are encouraged to take approaches that will allow discussion of such themes across the entire medieval period and a broad geographical range. Please submit proposals to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.
A new ICFA online exhibit
The Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) presents a new online exhibit entitled A Truthful Record: The Byzantine Institute Films. ICFA stores and preserves motion picture films, created by the Byzantine Institute between the 1930s and 1940s: one of the Red Sea Monasteries in Egypt and, in Istanbul, eleven of the Hagia Sophia and one of the Kariye Camii. The online exhibit presents the films together with archival records from the collection of the Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers to reveal the context of the films’ creation.
The color films created by the Byzantine Institute’s photographer Pierre Iskender provide significant testimony of the mosaics at Hagia Sophia and Kariye Camii and the techniques employed to uncover and conserve them. When combined with notebook entries written by Byzantine Institute fieldworkers such as Ernest Hawkins and the brothers Richard and William Gregory, the history of the films’ creation truly comes alive. Thomas Whittemore, who founded the Byzantine Institute in 1930, made wide use of the moving images, screening them for donors and patrons (such as Robert Woods and Mildred Bliss), the Byzantine scholarly community, and an interested general audience in the United States and Europe.
The exhibit is divided into three sections that investigate how the films were made and how they were received by contemporary audiences: “Style and Content,” “Technique,” and “Purpose and Reception.” You can also explore the archival materials chronologically using a detailed timeline.
Professor Brown discusses his impressions of Dumbarton Oaks and the transformation of late antique and Byzantine studies over the last four decades.
Peter Brown, Rollins Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton University, visited Dumbarton Oaks in November with his wife Betsy, who, while she was with us, was looking for patristic origins of Puritan spirituality. Peter worked in the library, and engaged in discussions with fellows and staff. In our discussion we asked him about his current work, the writing up of two lecture series he gave in the year after his retirement as the Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History at Princeton. Both develop his work on wealth, published as Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD (Princeton, 2012). The Page-Barbour and James W. Richard Lectures at UVA were entitled “‘Treasure in Heaven’: Wealth, Labor and the ‘Poor Among the Saints.’ Christian Giving from Paul to Pachomios,” and the lectures for the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna were entitled “For the Ransom of the Soul: Wealth, Death, and Afterlife from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages.” In addition to discussions about his current projects, we also wanted to hear how he first came to Dumbarton Oaks and what his reactions were on returning this fall, as well as his views on the subject of Byzantine Studies and how it has been reconceived since Peter first came to Dumbarton Oaks, nearly forty years ago.
Peter Brown: In one way, my impression of Dumbarton Oaks has never changed. It has always been one of continuous, unbroken gratitude, as solid as the yearly return of gold to the trees in the garden.
I first made contact with Dumbarton Oaks in 1976, through Professor Liz Kennan, while I gave a seminar in the newly founded Center for Early Christian Humanism—as it was then called—at the Catholic University of America. At this seminar, I gave the first version of my book, The Cult of the Saints. There was no part of this book that was not enriched by reading in your library—and enriched beyond my dreams when it came to matters pertaining to the Byzantine and Eastern Christian world. It was my first glimpse of the very top of the world as far as scholarship in my own field was concerned. And it has remained this for me, as my subsequent visits have proved to me on every occasion.
The library has always been like a dream. Previously, it was a somewhat surreal dream made up of delightfully incongruous mixtures—of Louis Quinze boudoirs filled with copies of Pauly-Wissowa. One felt like a bee surrounded by honey stored in innumerable little cells. Now, the dream is quite futuristic. I have never seen such long shelves. They give a message that is very much part of Dumbarton Oaks. Here is God’s plenty. At the touch of one green button (and after a wait of five beeps!) an entire tract of history, an entire discipline, an entire region swings open. It is all there.
But what really lingers in my mind from that time was the museum. It rendered visible to me all that was most fascinating and enchanting about late antiquity as I then thought of it. Objects which, in photographs and in learned monographs, seemed somehow frozen, took on new life for me as I viewed them, for the first time, face to face in the quiet of the museum. The Hestia Polyolbos, the Seasons Sarcophagus, the choice pieces of late classical ivory work and silverware: these radiated an almost remissive beauty which dissolved the somewhat tired categories of sacred and profane, pagan and Christian, classical, post-classical, and Byzantine. This was the living world of late antiquity come true.
I now realize that what I thrilled to instinctively at the time, when looking at the works of art in your museum, was a visual manifestation of the aspirations of an entire generation of Byzantine scholars. To trace the continuity of Byzantium with the classical past, and to study the transmutation of this classical heritage into a distinctive religious civilization that, for centuries, had joined Europe to the Middle East and the Mediterranean to the wide spaces of Eurasia as far as Novgorod, the Caucasus, and the Silk Road, was the inspiration and the joy of the great scholars of that age. In Byzantium, a legacy from the ancient past had been preserved, transmuted, and elaborated for over a millennium, leaving its imprint on peoples and on regions of which the ancients themselves had barely dreamed. Dumbarton Oaks was the place where unparalleled resources of scholarship and a unique atmosphere of patient learning was brought to bear on the study of a precious legacy and its mutations.
Among the great Byzantine scholars whom I had absorbed by the time of my first visit to Dumbarton Oaks, no one had understood this better than Norman Baynes:
“The defense of a way of life. Yes, really that essay must be written. It would even have its relevance for us today.”Norman Baynes, The Hellenistic Civilization and East Rome (Oxford University Press, 1946) in Byzantine Studies and Other Essays (London: University of London Athlone Press, 1960), 1-23, at 23.
In postwar Europe and America, the theme of the survival of a way of life rooted in the classical world, as it took on its novel, Byzantine form—often in the face of bitter defeats and recurrent crises—had a sharp taste to it that made the quiet beauty of the objects in the museum seem all the more poignant to us.
How has this changed? In many ways, not at all. The books are still there. The skills are still needed. The artifacts continue to demand care and interpretation. If anything, it is we who have changed. We, in Europe and America, find ourselves in a wider world than we had dreamed of, even forty years ago. And Byzantium has changed with us. We have come to see Byzantium less as a treasure house and more as a crossroads. For a student of late antiquity, the mutation of the classical legacy in Byzantium has come to be seen as one of a wider constellation of mutations of the ancient heritage. These mutations stretch from the medieval Latin West, through the cultures of the eastern provinces, to Iran and to the very roots of the civilization of what would become (always more gradually than we think) the world of Arabophone Islam.
This new outreach is possible because entire linguistic zones and cultures are no longer seen as alien to a Byzantine core. Rather, the intervisibility of the regions has come to be stressed. This is shown in the ever-widening horizons of the study of late antiquity (many aspects of which have come to demand, as never before, knowledge of Oriental Christian languages and, eventually, of Arabic) and (at the end of the story) in the intensive, revisionist study of the transformation of the legacy of Byzantium in Ottoman Turkey, quite as much as in the Orthodox countries of the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Instead of an embattled world, we are faced with a constellation of regions and cultures that we now see as fellow-participants with Byzantium in the vast experiment in civilized living that makes the study of the pre-modern Mediterranean and the Middle East both exciting and necessary for our understanding of these regions in our own times. If for different reasons, the study of Byzantium has become no less relevant than it was for Norman Baynes at the beginning of the postwar period.
What was perhaps most rewarding of all, for me in this last week, was to make contact with so many young scholars from different lands. For many of them an “open” Byzantium can now be taken as a matter of course. This is shown by their enthusiasm not only for Greek but also for oriental languages, such as Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, and Arabic. For others, our understanding of the long and exquisite debate of Byzantium with its own classical past is heightened by greater awareness of the parallel cultural modes of Byzantium’s neighbors both to the west and to the east. Furthermore, the new interest in material culture widens our inner image of Byzantium itself. It reveals a mighty imperial system coming to grips with the tenacious, “vernacular” traditions of its varied regions.
What struck me most was the basic coherence of the historical culture of these young scholars. We now live in an academic oikoumene of far greater diversity, but also of far greater intervisibility, than we had done in the 1970s. The results of the academic integration of the varied countries of Europe are now showing to best effect in our fellows. Whether from America, Europe, or elsewhere, we have the pick of a remarkable generation produced by a very different system from that to which we were accustomed in the 1970s.
But there is a risk in this new academic culture. The system which now prevails, especially in Europe, puts a high premium on collaborative effort. Even when young scholars are not attached to specific teams in pursuit of specific projects, they are subjected to a discipline of constant interchange through the expansion—one might say the explosion—of conferences and workshops. And it is here, I think, that Dumbarton Oaks can do most to contribute to the young scholars who have emerged from this new system. It gives them something that they do not always have. It gives them leisure and prolonged access to an unparalleled collection of material, so as to develop a voice of their own. Lonely hours in those long stacks, and the ease of interchange in an institution long dedicated to the unhurried pursuit of truth, is what they need most to develop that voice. We give them this unstintingly at a crucial moment in their careers.
And so, with voices of their own, nurtured in the rare hesychia of Dumbarton Oaks, they can speak to us all of a world that is quite as exciting, as widening to the mind and, for that reason, as relevant to our own times, as it ever was in the days of Norman Baynes and of those who first made possible the Byzantine Center.
The book that first brought Peter to Dumbarton Oaks, The Cult of the Saints, is being reprinted by Chicago University Press, and, while he was with us, Peter was writing a 7,500-word preface to bring the four lectures up to date.
Dumbarton Oaks in the news
- The role of Dumbarton Oaks—and of Director of Byzantine Studies Margaret Mullett—in the continuity of Byzantine Studies and in fostering the field is mentioned in G. W. Bowersock’s review of two recent books by Judith Herrin, “Storms Over Byzantium,” in The New York Review of Books 60, no. 18.
- The Friends of Music concerts of November 3rd and 4th by pianist Joel Fan were recently reviewed in the Washington Post.
- The October symposium on "The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century" and Linda Lott's Four Seasons of Flowers were reviewed by Patricia Jonas in the Newsletter of the Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries, no. 131 (November 2013).