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Wearing Wonder

Posted On July 28, 2020 | 10:16 am | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Stephanie Caruso reveals how a group of gold pendants created a sense of wonder in late antique viewers

Stephanie Caruso is postdoctoral fellow in Byzantine art and archaeology. Her talk, “Redirecting Gazes: The Design and Reception of a Late Antique Pictorial Motif,” considered how the iconography, form, and materiality of some of the most sumptuous pieces of personal adornment to survive from late antiquity worked together to engender an aesthetic of thauma, or wonder, as it is understood through a reading of contemporary literary sources.


Q&A with Stephanie Caruso

Why did luxury goods matter in the late antique world? 

Late antique society was very hierarchical, and one of the ways people showed their elite status was through adornment of the body and the house. Late antique houses of the affluent were environments full of visual stimuli—colorful mosaic floors, painted walls, and lavish textiles. The inhabitants of these spaces were equally opulently adorned. Household furnishings have often been overlooked because of their traditional categorization as “decorative arts” rather than “fine arts.” The recent Woven Interiors exhibition really helped us to visualize what domestic spaces looked like. And the Dumbarton Oaks Museum has great examples of jewelry that would have been used to adorn the body.

The more you look at it, the more you see how luxury objects affected social dynamics and people’s relationships to one another. In the case of jewelry, late antique laws suggest the existence of hierarchies of materials, of designs, and of workmanship that were applied to adornment and mapped onto the social hierarchy. For instance, only the emperor was allowed to wear a brooch made with pearls or precious stones, and there were specific rules about gold: high-ranking officials were permitted to wear brooches of intricately worked gold, but women of a lower social standing who wanted to wear gold jewelry were permitted by law to wear plain gold only.


What makes the luxury objects you study unusual?

My talk focused on a set of nine beautiful gold pendants; Dumbarton Oaks is fortunate to hold two of them, one circular and the other hexagonal. At the center of these pendants are medallions struck with an image of the emperor’s bust. Medallions were non-circulating coins, usually given as an imperial gift in celebration of, for instance, the anniversary of the emperor’s reign. Commemorative coins are used similarly today to mark important events.

The recipient of these medallions, surely an elite individual, had frames made for them out of gold. While the medallions are impressive, their frames are exceptionally eye-catching and comprise elaborate gold openwork—a specialty of late antique goldsmiths—interspersed with gold busts sculpted in high relief, a technique that pushes them off each pendant’s surface and inserts them into the viewer’s world. Notably, the eyes of these busts are emphasized and delineated with greater detail than other facial features. With their heads turned, these busts appear to be looking off to the side, causing tension in the viewer about where to look. The busts of the frame create a remarkable contrast with the flat, static imperial image on the central medallion.


How do the pendants create wonder?

Scholars have often considered the relationship of art to certain aesthetic concepts as outlined in the theoretical texts of philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. Focusing on texts written in the late antique world, I noticed how authors were frequently using the concept of thauma, or wonder, to describe a viewer’s response to something visual.

 One of the many things that evoked an experience of wonder in a viewer was seeing something paradoxical. In Philostratus the Elder’s Imagines, for instance, a boy’s experience of wonder is triggered by the paradox of seeing fire within water. In an ekphrastic passage from Nonnus of Panopolis’s Dionysiaca, Bacchus is amazed by the decoration of a palace on account of its paradoxical visual effects: wood that looked like ivory and inanimate materials that seemed dynamic.

Artisans could use similar tactics to construct experiences of wonder in viewers. Illusionism was a visual means of producing an aesthetic experience of wonder in viewers. On the gold pendants, the busts are miniature three-dimensional sculptures surrounded by two-dimensional openwork. These busts surround the struck imperial image and are imbued with an animacy lacking in the medallion.  Combined, these features create tension between two and three dimensions that in turn creates a paradox for the viewer in how to view the imagescape before them. Is this a decorated surface that is part of reality or an approach to representation that works to both hide its surface and to create a virtual space that exists beyond it?

This is only one of the ways these pendants generated an experience of wonder in the viewer. As an art historian, I’ve been fortunate to get the philological perspective on these texts from Byzantine Studies fellow Arianna Gullo, the specialist on ekphrasis (the type of text I’ve been looking at). We’ve had a great dialogue.


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.