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In Search of the “Eastern” Image: Sacred Painting in Eighth- and Ninth-Century Rome

Annie Labatt, Junior Fellow 2010–2011

During my year as a junior fellow, I wrote the majority of the dissertation that I will defend in October 2011. My project focuses on the sacred iconography—specifically the Anastasis, the Transfiguration, the Maria Regina, and the image of the Sickness of King Hezekiah—of early medieval Rome. Previous scholars interpreted the eighth and ninth centuries by distinguishing between native “Roman” iconography and alien “Eastern” imports. But in many ways this was a period not of clear binary distinctions but of flux. Entirely new iconographies emerged. Some had a powerful resonance in Rome and appeared on all varieties of church decoration, from apses to small devotional niches to portable icons. Others appeared once, only to disappear from the canon of church painting for centuries. More mysterious yet were those iconographical types that had a brief moment of popularity before vanishing altogether. The “deductive tinkering,” to use current evolutionary language, at work in these iconographies shows that early medieval sacred painting in Rome was a whirlwind of inventiveness, experimentation, and innovation and was not simply a warehouse for Byzantine iconography, as was once thought.

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