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See Something, Say Something: Toward a New Reading of Mesarites’ Description of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople

Beatrice Daskas, Milan, Junior Fellow 2012–2013

My project at Dumbarton Oaks focuses on an old acquaintance of Byzantine art historical studies, the thirteenth-century Description of the Church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople by Nikolaos Mesarites. This text has attracted considerable scholarly interest, mostly if not exclusively in connection to its alleged monumental referent, the now lost church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. Yet work still has to be done to critically evaluate the text, as a literary product belonging to a specific historical and cultural context. The aim of my dissertation, which I successfully defended at the Università degli Studi in Milano just before the end of my fellowship period, was to provide a revised translation and commentary of the text, so as to clarify a number of problematic passages overlooked by previous interpretations and to offer an overall assessment of the text.

For this purpose, it has been crucial to move beyond the main reading canon of the text, namely as an ekphrasis intended “to describe a work of art.” A broader inquiry into Mesarites’ writings has proven instrumental in generating a better understanding of his poetics of ekphrasis and its implications in the context of the Description. Rather than a simple description, the work is an encomiastic discourse dedicated to the church of the Holy Apostles as a symbol of the Church of Constantinople.

An in-depth analysis of the text has also led me to discern allusions to contemporary historical events, namely the issues between the Greeks and the Latins in the aftermath of the fall of Constantinople to the crusaders in 1204. Consequently, I have been able to narrow the date of the text, limiting its composition to the years between 1205 and 1206.