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Marian Prefigurations in Byzantine Art: Evolution of the Main Types

Svetlana Sobkovitch, École pratique des hautes études, Université Paris-Sorbonne, France, Summer Fellow 2010/11

Old Testament episodes interpreted as prophecies of the Mother of God, Marian prefigurations find their reflection in art throughout the history of Byzantium. Research on this important imagery has mostly centered on particular aspects of it, while my approach is to treat the most important of these types as a system of symbols elaborated for a varied exemplification of a single dogmatic content. The meaning of this dogma being the birth of God and man, the ever-virgin mother can be compared to the Burning Bush of Moses, intact in the divine fire, or to the Closed door of Ezekiel, letting the Lord pass while staying shut, etc.

Revealed by the study of sources reflecting developments in beliefs, the shared meaning of types corroborates the observation that their representations rely upon similar mechanisms for the visualization of this content. The study of examples also shows that the evolution of this iconography follows the general principles of Byzantine art, starting with the continuing close relation of the image to the text and to the overall context of the cult. Finally, these iconographies share elements which contribute to the visualization of the dogma.

The fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks has allowed me to consolidate the content base for my Ph.D. thesis on the subject, concerning its textual sources and examples of iconography. The use of Dumbarton Oaks Library, Rare Books and Images (ICFA) Collections has been an opportunity to study a variety of visual documents, as well as related earlier and recent works including theses, electronic resources and other materials less readily accessible elsewhere. Discussion with scholars has also been helpful in organizing my ideas as to the origins and evolution of the typological imagery related to Mary, as well as to its place in the history of Marian piety in Byzantium.

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