Thursday, October 11, 2012


Mark J. Johnson, Robert Ousterhout, Amy Papalexandrou (ed.), Approaches to Byzantine Architecture and its Decoration: Studies in Honor of Slobodan Ćurčić. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. Pp. xix, 309. ISBN 9781409427407. $124.95.

Reviewed by Vasileios Marinis, Yale University (

Version at BMCR home site


This volume of collected essays celebrates the distinguished career of Slobodan Ćurčić, an eminent historian of medieval architecture who retired from the department of art and archaeology at Princeton in 2010. The fourteen essays, all written by Ćurčić's former doctoral students, are divided into four sections: the Meanings of Architecture (1–4); the Fabrics of Buildings (5–7); the Contexts and Contents of Buildings (8–11); and the Afterlife of Buildings (12– 14). These are supplemented by a tribute and introduction, a list of the honoree's published works, and an index.

The collection opens with a text by the late Svetlana Popović that serves as a tribute to Ćurčić as a person, as well as a scholar. The introduction by the three editors places Ćurčić's contributions, methodological and otherwise, in the wider context of Byzantine architectural history. In the first essay in the Meanings of Architecture section, Amy Papalexandrou discusses the excavated remains of two presumably ecclesiastical buildings in the Cypriot town of Polis/Arsinoë, Basilica A and Basilica B, both built around 500 CE. Papalexandrou is primarily interested in their mortuary contexts: Basilica A had tombs inside and outside; Basilica B had a series of ossuary pits along the north and east walls that all contained secondary burials, an indication that the building was conceived from the beginning as a cemetery church. Papalexandrou's essay is exemplary. The presentation of the archaeological evidence is unburdened by technicalities and her interpretations are persuasive. Next, Ludovico Geymonat investigates several cases of spolia in Thessalonike in a carefully constructed article. Predictably, in a city with such a glorious ancient past, spolia attest to a sense of urban and historical continuity. Yet their conspicuous absence from a building like Panagia Chalkeon (ca. 1028), Geymonat argues, is also significant. By not reusing older material, this church, built according to the founder's inscription in a formerly "impure" (i.e., pagan) place, avoided any chance of contamination, visual or spiritual. Mark J. Johnson next analyzes miraculous accounts pertaining to the construction of ecclesiastical foundations in Norman Italy. Past scholars have customarily treated such accounts as later inventions often intended, among other things, to bring prestige and attract pilgrims. Johnson instead argues that some stories might contain particles of truth; after all, it is possible that people wanted to commemorate a miracle by building a church. Yet he offers little help on how to discern whether a story was totally or partially fabricated. While I would agree that miracle stories offer valuable perspectives on the society and culture that produced them, I am not as sure as Johnson that they "provide important insight into the motives behind church building in Norman Italy." That said, Johnson's careful analysis of these texts will perhaps initiate a broader discussion on the role of foundation accounts in the study of medieval architecture. Christina Maranci presents a succinct review of the historiography of medieval Armenian architecture, making a case for its integration into the canon of medieval art history (presumably she means the "Western" canon). One could not agree more. However, perhaps because of the text's brevity, the reader remains unclear as to why it is seventh-century Armenian architecture and not tenth-century Georgian (or thirteenth-century Seljuk for that matter) architecture that should occupy this coveted place. The essay's lack of any illustrations of the monuments does not help Maranci's otherwise reasonable appeal.

Marina Mihaljević begins the section on the Fabrics of Buildings with an essay that deals with continuity and change in Byzantine architecture. She traces the dissemination, adaptation, and reinterpretation in the provinces of the atrophied Greek-cross type, exemplified by the katholikon of the Chora Monastery in Constantinople as rebuilt by the sebastokrator Isaak Komnenos in the 1120s. Mihaljević's expertise in reading medieval buildings is evident throughout the text but such analysis, useful as it is, tells only part of the story. A Byzantine church—or any other building—was not only the result of workshop practices or knowledge of plans and styles. Location, budget, function (episcopal, monastic, or secular?), and several other factors all affected the end result. Next, Ida Sinkević examines the location of the royal entrance in Marko's monastery, near Skopje, a fourteenth-century foundation that began during the reign of King Vukašin and was completed under the patronage of his son Marko. Sinkević's study is one of the most clearly written and persuasive essays in this volume. By expertly connecting image (the procession of saints on the north and south walls), word (the painted dedicatory inscription above the south door), and the "living image" of the King Marko as he entered the church, Sinkević argues that it was the south and not the west doorway that the king used. As she herself notes, this interpretation raises exciting questions about the definition of "image" in Byzantium. Finally, in an impeccably researched article, Jelena Trkulja investigates the origins and symbolism of Byzantine "rose windows"—a rather misleading term as they differ significantly from their Gothic counterparts. The starting point is a group of fourteenth- and fifteenth-churches in Serbia known as the Morava group. Trkulja argues against interpreting such elements as the result of "Western" influence; rather, she argues, their origins should be traced to the late antique oculus and its reinterpretation throughout the Byzantine period.

The Contexts and Contents section opens with two essays that investigate late Byzantine and post-Byzantine towers in northern Greece. Nikolas Bakirtzis identifies the tower near the village of Hagios Vasileios in Lake Koroneia as part of a monastery of Saint Basil, known to have existed in the hinterland of Thessalonike. Bakirtzis does an admirable job with the admittedly thin evidence and calls for scholars to take seriously local folklore and oral histories in addition to traditional methodologies. In a field that has learned to mistrust even primary sources, this is a tough sell.1 In fact, neither of the two cited oral histories (which claim that the tower was built by a "king"), nor the two Ottoman sources (which do not even mention the tower) help the author's arguments even if they do provide some general information about the area. In a related essay, Jelena Bogdanović offers a survey of seven towers in northern Greece, including Hagios Vasileios. Most of her text is devoted to useful and accurate architectural observations and comparisons; the rest examines of the role of the towers within settlements and the identity of their founders and residents. In both cases Bogdanović offers some tantalizing suggestions that deserve to be further developed in forthcoming publications. Next, Katherine Marsengill argues that funerary panel portraiture did not cease after the rise of the icons. This is not terribly surprising as scholars have known for quite some time the passage in the Kosmosoteira typikon in which the founder, Isaak Komnenos, asks that his portrait not to be transferred to his new foundation. More interesting is Marsengill's suggestion that the form of a panel portrait, comparable, if not identical, to that of a panel icon of the Theotokos or Christ, was intended to present the depicted "worthy of admission among the heavenly hierarchies." In the final essay of this section, Matthew J. Milliner makes a smart contribution to the ongoing debate about Manuel Panselinos, the legendary late Byzantine painter of the Protaton church in Karyes, the primary church of Mount Athos. Milliner diligently avoids the by now nonsensical question of whether a painter named Panselinos ever lived (the meticulous research of Maria Vassilaki, whose work is duly noted throughout this essay, has largely settled this matter).2 Milliner instead turns his attention to the meaning of the painter's name (Panselinos translates as "full moon") and argues that it can be understood as a metaphor "for the perfect painter who reflects the sunlight of Christ or the Virgin," the same way, as some Byzantines knew, that the moon reflected the light of the sun. But if true, this compelling interpretation seems to me a late, post-Byzantine, development. The name Manuel Panselinos is unattested before the early seventeenth century, when such a glorified position for a painter would fit better anyway. Furthermore, the paraphrase from the ninth-century iconophile Theodore of Stoudios offered as a parallel ("Just as the seal imparts its impression while retaining the prototype, so an icon reflects the prototype without becoming it") refers to the object, not to the painter.

Opening the section on the Afterlife of Buildings Robert Ousterhout, in a chapter that reads almost like a crime story in its fastidious presentation of archaeological and documentary evidence, offers new insights into two now-lost churches in Silivri, in Turkish Thrace. Ousterhout expertly combines travelers' reports, archival photographs (some newly discovered), and previous publications to suggest that the church of Saint John, constructed in the first half of the fourteenth century by the then parakoimomenos Alexios Apokaukos, was very likely built by the same workshop as the monastery of Chora in Constantinople; it was indeed domed; and it underwent significant alterations during Byzantine times. Ousterhout dates the second church, Saint Spyridon, to the eleventh century and connects it convincingly with the Nea Moni, an eleventh-century imperial foundation on the island of Chios. Both cases reinforce Constantinople's role as a broker of architectural styles throughout the Byzantine world. In an informative essay Nicola Camerlenghi surveys the complex history of repairs to the old basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura—21 in total between 442–450 and 1823, all but the earliest partial repairs. Camerlenghi offers interesting observations about the economies of purchasing, transferring, and installing in Rome long timbers from outside the city. The author also corrects historical misinformation due, ironically, to "the merger of folklore and nascent archival research." The book's final essay, by Asen Kirin, discusses Catherine the Great's use of architecture and topography in order to underscore Russia's assumed role as the inheritor of both ancient Greece and Byzantium. Political propaganda of her time called Catherine the "New Justinian"; indeed, she sought to draw parallels between herself and the sixth-century emperor in her legislative work, her plans to reconstitute the Christian eastern empire, and in her ambitious architectural projects. The Kekereksinen palace, built to commemorate the Russian naval victory over the Ottomans in Chesme in 1770, was a "re-creation" of the Hebdomon, a suburban palace in Constantinople rebuilt by Justinian. Kirin unravels a host of associations with Byzantium, mainly topographical; on the other hand, the palace's plan and Gothic features were nods to Russia's relations with the West, particularly England. Kirin's essay is a fine example that proves that tracing of origins and investigation of symbolism in architectural language can be revelatory.

Because this is a book of collected studies, the usual caveats apply. The quality of the papers is uneven; some do not quite fit the premise of the book; there are some misspellings, especially of Greek names and titles; and the price is high. However, the editors have done an admirable job in pulling together from disparate sources a coherent collection of essays that provides much food for thought. Beyond the specific issues dealt with in each contribution, the book is a valuable overview of many current and traditional methodological approaches and as such it might serve as a useful teaching tool. There is nothing here of the nowadays obligatory "avant-garde" methodologies, and I mean this as a compliment.

This Festschrift has another role that is not immediately apparent. Ćurčić taught at Princeton for twenty-eight years and during his tenure that university was one of the world's most influential and populous centers for the study of Byzantine architecture.3 This collection, therefore, is also a reflection of scholarship at Princeton and, as such, it is of great historiographical interest for the field. Far it be from any single reviewer to pass a judgment so early; current and later readers will have to decide for themselves.


1.   See, for example, Anthony Kaldellis's assessment of the tenth-century Vita Basilii in BMCR 2012.04.25: "In fact, the contents of this text are largely fictitious, as are many its individuals and events."
2.   "Υπήρξε Μανουήλ Πανσέληνος;" in Ο Μανουήλ Πανσέληνος και η εποχή του (Athens, 1999), 39-51.
3.   Of all the contributors only Ousterhout studied with Ćurčić at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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