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Portable Micromosaic Icons of the Late Byzantine Period

Edmund C. Ryder, Institute of Fine Arts, Summer Fellow 2006

The vibrant artistic and intellectual activities taking place during the late Byzantine period (1261–1453) stand in stark contrast to the many difficulties facing the empire. The historian George Pachymeres related his sense of general foreboding regarding the condition of the empire in his History: “things have arrived at such a state of misfortune . . . so much that they appear thus stripped of their first flowering under the blow of a heavy winter.”Pachymeres, Corpus scr. hist. Byz. (Bonn. 1835) 1 I, p. 13.

Despite this malaise, artists of this epoch produced many works of art that stand out as some of the most beautiful and accomplished ever produced.

One genre that reached its summit of artistic achievement during this period was the portable mosaic icon. These small panels were created by laying flat, tesserae-coupons into a bed of wax and mastic; the minute size of the tesserae employed imparts an extremely painterly quality to the compositions. The resulting icons served primarily as devotional images for members of the Byzantine elite, and were often embellished with revetments (thringia), textiles (peploi, encheiria), and texts.

My goal this summer at Dumbarton Oaks was to complete the final stages of research for my dissertation, and to complete the first draft of the text. Furthermore, I wished to explore further and translate epigrams by Nikolaos Kallikles (first half of the twelfth century) and Manuel Philes (ca. 1275–1350), two poets whose works graced the frames of icons in varying media. It is possible to glean much information about the display, patronage and use of icons by studying these other elements of their program.

Two epigrams by Philes were specifically written for two portable micromosaic icons. I argue that the author makes this connection clear by his description of the tesserae, as he utilizes the phrases “psephisi leptais euphyos pepegmene”Manuelis Philae carmina, ed. E. Miller, 2 vols. (Paris, 1855–57), I, pp. 9–10, ⅩⅪV. and “psephis se lepte syntetheisa deiknyei,”Ibid. I, pp. 77–78, ⅭⅬⅩⅧ. descriptions that perfectly describe the flat tesserae employed in micromosaics. I explored the connection between these poems, and discussed the lives of their patrons in my informal talk “Two Epigrams of Manouēl Philēs intended for Inclusion on Mosaic Icons,” given at Dumbarton Oaks on July 17.

I have been able to discover many new aspects of late Byzantine art production during my tenure here this summer, and these will be incorporated into my dissertation. The opportunity to use the library and discuss my ideas with scholars has enabled me to accomplish my goal of completing the first draft of my dissertation this summer.