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Weaving Christ’s Body: Clothing, Femininity and Sexuality in the Marian Imagery of Byzantium

Maria Evangelatou, University of California, Santa Cruz, Fellow 2009/10

The research project I undertook as a Dumbarton Oaks fellow explores the extensive use of spinning, weaving, and clothing as symbols of Christ's Incarnation in Byzantine art and literature, especially in relation to the Annunciation of the Theotokos. I aim to contribute to a better understanding of the rich theological symbolism of Byzantine iconography and to examine the sociocultural function of Marian imagery. This year I focused on the latest scholarly literature on the basic components of my project: Marian iconography, gender studies, and textile production and use. The last is an especially rapidly growing field with numerous publications on the social and cultural functions of textiles and clothing, and familiarizing myself with these topics has broadened the scope of my research with significant comparative material. Another concept that became increasingly important in my analysis is the projection of multivalent and often ambivalent or ambiguous gender ideals in Byzantine iconography, allowing for very different and often contradictory messages to be included or read into the material. This implies that the construction of femininity in Byzantium was a very dynamic process, in which submission and empowerment often went hand in hand. Therefore, exploring the variety of human experience and the coexistence of different ideologies have become central goals in my research. During this year I also developed a new project that focuses on the art of El Greco. This research will culminate in the publication of three articles that will shed more light on the role of the artist's Byzantine background, focusing on the treatment of space, the symbolism of color, and the use of signatures as statements of the artist's mediation in spiritual illumination.

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