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The Art of Death in Byzantium: Funerary Art and Architecture, 1204–1453

Sarah T. Brooks, James Madison University, Summer Fellow 2010/11

Drawing of fresco in niche tomb, Church of Hagios Phanourios, Rhodes, Greece
Frescoed niche tomb commemorating the deceased Konstantinos (back wall, left) and a young woman (right intrados), joined by six family members including the church restorer, dated 1335/1336, Church of Hagios Phanourios, Rhodes, Greece. Drawing by Karen Rasmussen, Archeographics.com. © Sarah Brooks.

Commemorations for the dead were central to the spiritual and social life of the Byzantine faithful. Whether laid to rest in monumental tombs or in unmarked graves beneath the church floor, the dead were present in nearly every church of Late Byzantium. Despite the centrality of death and burial to Byzantine religion and culture, there exists no focused study of how burial and these important practices honoring the dead shaped art and architecture in the empire’s final centuries. My study explores the rich and fascinating history of funerary art and building, tomb patronage, and commemorative ritual during this period (1204–1453).

During the summer 2010 at Dumbarton Oaks, using especially the library’s extensive holdings of literary and historical works, I made significant progress towards refining my analysis of tomb patronage. Diverse family, social and economic ties attracted tomb patrons to particular institutions and bound these individuals together in a network of giving that often began before death and could extend for decades thereafter. In the case of families supporting a single institution, these ties could last for several generations, even in the face of desperately declining financial resources. The relationships between church founders/restorers and subsequent tomb patrons are especially interesting and can be explored in both the archaeological and literary records, often with the two providing complementary information. Especially helpful to my research were the publications of the Athos Archives, including the many Late Byzantine wills and related primary source documentation that they contain, as well as the extensive prosopographical reference works that shed light on specific individuals of the Palaiologan period. Collaboration and discussion of this material with my summer colleagues in Late Byzantine literature, religion and history yielded some very fruitful results which enriched my work significantly.

 

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Byzantine Studies Fellows, 2010/11