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Light, Surface, Spirit: Phenomenology and Aesthetics in Byzantine Art

2009 Colloquium. November 12-13 Colloquiarchs: Ioli Kalavrezou and Bissera Pentcheva

Light, surface, spirit: phenomenology and aesthetics in Byzantine art

Byzantine liturgical and luxury objects were set in rich spaces of mosaics, marble, fragrance, and changing light. They possessed polymorphous appearances, which were set to perform when the vessels were carried in space or when shifting ambient light or density of air ruffled their variegated textures. The Byzantines called this spectacle of change poikilia (phenomenal presence effects experienced by the senses). Photios wrote about it in his ekphrasis of the Pharos chapel:

It is as if one had entered heaven itself with no one barring the way from any side, and was illuminated by the beauty in changing forms (polymorphos) shining all around like so many stars, so is one utterly amazed. […] It seems that everything is in ecstatic motion, and the church itself is circling around. For the spectator, through his whirling about in all directions and being constantly astir, which he is forced to experience by the variegated spectacle (poikilia) on all sides, imagines that his personal condition is transferred to the object

(Photios, Homily X, sect. 5,1, & Photiou Homiliai, ed. Laourdas, 101, tr. Mango, The Art of the Byzantine Empire, 185).

The phenomenological effects gliding over the surfaces of objects stirred a sense of motion in the spectator, who in turn projected his psychological state, his pathema, back onto the object, transforming it in his perception into an empsychos graphe.

We have tended to study Byzantine objects in isolation and under steady electric light. As a result, we no longer have access to the Byzantine poikilia of phenomenal effects. By contrast, nineteenth-century scholarship right at the advent of photography and electricity was keenly aware how the mutable and polymorphous presence of Byzantine art could be drained by these new technologies. Nikodim Kondakov remarked on the emerald-jewel-like effect of green enamel, filled with the energy of iridescence. He observed how this same shimmering 'fish-scales' quality vanished in the steadied photographic snapshot.

This colloquium focused on the poikilia of changing appearances of icons and luxury vessels set in shifting ambient conditions and explore the power of this spectacle of phenomenal changes to generate a sense of animation. Following are some of the main questions this colloquium addressed: how did Byzantine objects perform in space; how was the spectacle of poikilia staged and experienced; to what extent was the Byzantine poikilia culture-specific especially when compared to Western or Islamic objects and their display?

Group Photo



  • 3.00 Welcome: Jan Ziolkowski and Margaret Mullett
  • 3.15 Introduction: Bissera Pentcheva (Stanford University)
  • 3.45 Tea
Aesthetics of Sound
  • 4.15 Michael Roberts (Wesleyan University): Light, Color, and Visual Illusion in the Poetry of Venantius Fortunatus
  • 4.45 Stratis Papaioannou (Brown University and Dumbarton Oaks): The Rhetorical Aesthetics of Poikilia
  • 5.15 Bissera Pentcheva (Stanford University): Byzantine Aesthetics: Hagia Sophia and the Acoustics of the Sea
  • 5.45 Discussion
  • 6.15 Speakers' Reception and Dinner in the Refectory


  • 8.30 Coffee
Aesthetics of the Material
  • 9.00 Herb Kessler (Johns Hopkins University): Images Borne on a Breeze
  • 9.30 Ioli Kalavrezou (Harvard University): Pearls for an Empire
  • 10.00 Coffee
  • 10.30 Rob Nelson (Yale University): Gold Grounds: Aesthetic, Symbolic, Functional, Perceptual?
  • 11.00 Gerhard Wolf (Max-Planck-Institut für Kunstgeschichte): Response
  • 11.30 Discussion
  • 12.00 Lunch in the Orangery
  • 2.00 Coffee in the Founders' Room
Aesthetics of Light
  • 2.00 Nicoletta Isar (Copenhagen University): ΧΟΡÓΣ: being moved by light. Towards a Phenomenology of Vision in Byzantium
  • 2.30 Liz James (University of Sussex): Light and color in Byzantine mosaics
  • 3.00 Cynthia Robinson (Cornell University): The Light of Reason: 'Neo-Platonist' Aesthetics and Power in the Medieval Mediterranean, 11th–12th centuries AD
  • 3.30 Discussion
  • 4.00 Tea in the Study
  • 4.30 Conclusion and final discussion