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The Politics of Narrative: The Byzantine and Italian Narrative Icons

Paroma Chatterjee, University of Chicago, Junior Fellow 2005–2006

My research deals with the emergence of narrative icons in Byzantium and Italy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The most influential study by Nancy P. Ševčenko suggests that the very mode of the narrative icon originated in the monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai, and was expressly intended to cater to a multicultural audience of the sort that the monastery attracted during the Crusader period. My study uses Ševčenko’s valuable observations but places the narrative icons within both a physical and visual context in order to determine their specific value for the cultures in which they functioned.

Using the resources of Dumbarton Oaks, I was able to construct a physical sacred space in which the narrative icons may have been displayed, and also to gauge their specific position within the broader visual and cultural history of images in Byzantium. In my chapter on the Byzantine icons, I conclude that the narrative panels were considered to be cult images of saints analogous to cult images of the Theotokos, such as the Hodegetria, Blachernitissa, and others. The narrative icons of saints managed to juxtapose a static image of a saint with narrative images in a manner that recall the moving images in miracles associated with the Theotokos. The most famous example of the latter is the Blachernai miracle witnessed by Byzantine and Latin audiences. Furthermore, I argue that the narrative icons take their cues from templon beams which adorned the iconostasis—a structure that developed in the same period as the icons. On the basis of these observations, I challenge Ševčenko’s proposition by showing how the Byzantine narrative icons functioned in extremely specific ways in resonance with the concerns of Byzantine visual culture. They were not, therefore, intended as multicultural vehicles for a homogenous audience.

In the next chapter, I explore the narrative icons of saints in Italy, particularly Francis, and the fresco cycle of Francis painted in the narrative format on the walls of the Kalenderhane Camii (Kyriotissa Monastery) in Constantinople. I conclude that the narrative icons followed at least two trajectories in Italy: one in the south which closely imitated Byzantine examples, and one in a specifically Franciscan milieu which departed consciously from Byzantine icons as a means of asserting Franciscan identity. I argue that the Franciscan fresco in Constantinople continues this trend by affirming ethnic and religious differences between the Orthodox and the Catholics via the Franciscan use of the narrative format.