Thursday, August 20, 2015


Ingela Nilsson, Paul Stephenson (ed.), Wanted: Byzantium. The Desire for a Lost Empire. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Studia Byzantina Upsaliensia, 15. Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet, 2014. Pp. ix, 304. ISBN 9789155489151. SEK 279.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Cristina Stancioiu, The College of William and Mary (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The sixteen essays in this volume are held together by methodology rather than theme. Like tesserae in a Byzantine mosaic, they are firmly set in the filed of reception studies, but each takes on its own avenue to showcase ways in which Byzantium was imagined and understood, and for what purposes it was used both during its lifespan and in more modern histories. The editors offered tradition, innovation, imagination, and desire as keywords, and they are to be congratulated for a truly interdisciplinary volume.

Alongside established scholars' contributions, texts from emerging Byzantinists and modernists gain international exposure; we are also introduced to surprising evidence from unexpected sites, and invited to consider Byzantium outside its geographical and chronological borders. I see many of the essays as ideal course readings that can be assigned to a wide range of post-graduate students interested in any area of Byzantine Studies, reception and cultural heritage, nation-building strategies, or colonialism and postcolonial theory. For example, the first essay in this volume presents two compelling examples of how the Byzantine past was appropriated and manipulated to serve modern- Greek nationalistic narratives. John Burke argues convincingly that Byzantium was equated to the Greek language and Orthodox faith. Erasing four centuries of Ottoman rule and as independence was gained in 1830, the need to reposition Greece amongst its western peers led to reassigning the Byzantine capital of Constantinople as the New Rome. Historically used as honorific designation, New Rome becomes Constantinople's modern name—one that identifies it with Europe, Christianity, and the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. Helen Saradi inadvertently picks up this point as she demonstrates how the people of Byzantium identified politically as Romans and culturally as Hellenes. As descendants of ancient Greeks and preservers of the Greek literary traditions, the Byzantines integrated ancient philosophy and Christianity into a cohesive Hellenic cultural model based on race, language, and education. Furthermore, grounding the Orthodox Church in Hellenism developed a coping mechanism for later Latin and Ottoman aggression and conquest.

Two other essays focus on the fall of Constantinople. Notably, Adam Goldwyn argues that Greek laments for the fallen city helped forge a new identity for Constantinopolitan refugees in Venice. Immediate and tragic loss, as well as prestigious cultural heritage positioned them advantageously even against the long-standing Greek community established there as a result of Venetian trade and colonialism. On the other hand, Olof Heilo argues that in the eyes of those living in the city, Constantinople fell twice: first to the Latins of the Fourth Crusade, and ultimately to the Ottomans. A related article published by David Lawton in 2007 is acknowledged but not discussed; time between the conference and the publication should have allowed for revision. Repurposing Byzantium for national and other modern needs can be achieved with other media such as architecture and music. Tonje Haugland Sørensen takes us to the Friedenskirche in Potsdam, a Byzantinizing monument built by Friedrich Wilhelm IV to house an Italo-Byzantine mosaic of the Deesis. Purchased and removed from its original location in a church on the island of Murano, the mosaic was exported and fitted in the apse of the newly built Friedenskirche. Sørensen makes a good argument for a sophisticated audience in Potsdam, able to assimilate the traditional and authoritative Byzantine imagery, the Italienate style of the mosaic, and its Venetian connection. Unlike the typical, centralized Byzantine church, this monument echoes the early Christian basilicas of Rome alongside the king's imperial aspirations and his need for an apostolic church that would still appeal to a Protestant community. To that end, Martin Luther's German translation of Psalm 26:8 ("Herr, ich habe lieb die Stätte deines Hauses und den Ort, da deine Ehre wohnt"), emphasizes the function of the building as the house of God while balancing the heavy textual presence in the original image (Sørensen does not discuss these inscriptions). Appropriating this mosaic was not without difficulty, as the very nature of the image supports saintly intercession and intervention—practices rebutted by Luther and abandoned in Protestant Europe. Nonetheless, the 'antiquity' of the mosaic legitimizes it a sign of an original, uncorrupted Christianity.

This association between Byzantium and an idealized, authentic spirituality picks up in Tore Tyvarnø Lind's essay, which asks: "What does it mean that Greek-Orthodox music is known as Byzantine music?" (p. 192). When it comes to modern monastic chant—often described as Byzantine—Byzantium is nothing but a remote term signifying the sounds of remote communities of monks living outside the world. Chanting at the monasteries on Mount Athos, on the other hand, assumes central and exemplary role as a reflection of long-lived religious traditions untouched by time or secular modernity. When deemed Byzantine, chanting becomes proof of an alternative, Orthodox modernity. It proves that Byzantium is a product of contemporary agendas, an alternative future to what western Europe and its modernity produced, and a better one for Greece because of its spiritual and genuine core. Lind—who based his essay on extensive ethnographic fieldwork at Vatopedi Monastery—rightfully notes a problematic side effect in that current Athonite monks are isolated in the circumscribed experience of a living museum. Denied a place in the moment, they became outcasts of the present tense.

Perhaps the most quintessentially Byzantine element, the icon could not be omitted from an overarching volume such as this. Any art history and theology faculty will recognize Helena Boudin's essay as a perfect classroom exercise in methodology. Icons, examined through aesthetics, semiotics, psychoanalysis, feminism, postcolonial and linguistic theories, devotion, or audience response and gaze, and then conceptualized as a "site of desire" (Charles Barber) or a "simulacrum" (Jean Baudrillard), they are once again revealed as objects saturated and overflowing with meanings. The icon stands scrutiny as an epiphany, a point of contact, a vision of the divine and a provocation to envision it, and even the site where God looks at himself (Jacques Lacan). Special attention is given to Julia Kristeva's interpretation of icons as written signs, which is bound to entertain the readers; art historians, however, will be reminded (and will question the omission) of Robin Cormack's seminal work on this theme, Writing in Gold: Byzantine Society and Its Icons (Oxford University Press, 1985).

Entirely new to this reviewer, and hopefully equally engaging to many readers, Eric Cullhed presents us with the funerary monument of Ferdinando—the last Paleologus—installed at St. John Parish Church in Barbados, where he died as a plantation owner in 1678. A palpable connection between Byzantium and the Americas, a host of Latin American writers were inspired (at least in part) by this Byzantine and by his presence across the ocean. Looking east with a heavy orientalist lens, modern writers saw connections between the luxury and decadence of the past imperial capital, Constantinople, and the modern city of Paris, their temporary home and adopted studio. In a second essay with literary focus, Thomas Sj̈ösvärd analyzes "Wisdom"—the W.B. Yates poem that received considerably less attention than "Sailing to Byzantium." As a poem describing a wanted Byzantium, mysterious rather than observed, "Wisdom" is convincingly re-dated to precede its universally-known pendant.

The last three essays are informative, and bring us to the present day. For as much as Byzantium was interpreted, imagined, or recovered across centuries and continents, Przemysław Marciniak argues that it is still missing from today's common consciousness. As evidence, he questions the lack of a blockbuster movie made about the fall of Constantinople. A formidable event that changed the cultural geography of the eastern Mediterranean, evocatively described in texts, the fall of Constantinople is nonetheless overshadowed in popular culture by images of empress Theodora—the circus performer turned empress and the subject of the few Byzantine-inspired films. Paul Stevenson gives a thorough account of the formation and development of the main collections of Byzantine art in the US, as well as an astute overview of recent concerns and developments regarding cultural property requests.A discussion of responsible acquisition and collection practices is particularly timely, as Amal Clooney is bringing her legal expertise—and also her spouse George's incredible celebrity clout—to Greece's quest to repatriate the Ancient Parthenon sculptures—a more visible effort going alongside Greek and Cypriot quietly successful endeavors to bring back and display Medieval art. For example, the Getty Museum's repatriation of a twelfth-century manuscript to Greece in 2014, as well as the return of the thirteenth-century Lysi Chapel frescoes from Texas to Cyprus make us wonder if indeed Byzantium is absent from the modern consciousness, or at least from the North American consciousness. Though not many, major exhibitions featuring Byzantine art in US have been immensely successful with both popular and academic audiences. Isabel Kimmerfield reviews the last two Byzantine shows held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1997 and 2004, and one in London in 2008. Missing from her bibliography is Sharon Gerstel's review of Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557): "The Aesthetics of Orthodox Faith" [The Art Bulletin 87 (2005): 331-341].

Two more recent major undertakings—albeit not available to Kimmerfield, whose most recent example dates to 2008)—confirm an increased interest in Byzantium and its Christian art: Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012) and Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., The Getty Villa, and the Art Institute of Chicago where it has just concluded on May 10, 2015). These shows draw many visitors and attracted significant media attention. Important scholarly events complemented Heaven and Earth in all its three venues. When this show opened at the National Gallery on October 6, 2013, Byzantium and its distinctive imagery had already been brought to many people's attention by the success enjoyed by Dolce and Gabbana's Fall 2013 ready-to-wear collection featuring details from the mosaic decoration of medieval, Byzantinizing monuments from Sicily—a sample of these were in fact displayed at the Huffington Center at Saint Sophia Cathedral in Los Angeles during Heaven and Earth: Perspectives on Greece's Byzantium, an international symposium held there on May 2-4, 2014.

Reviewing a volume with such a wide range of topics is always difficult. In this case, scholars will likely single out individual essays based on their own interests; an index is there to assist them, as is a separate bibliography following each essay.

Table of Contents

John Burke , Inventing and re-inventing Byzantium: Nikephoros Phokas, Byzantine studies in Greece, and "New Rome"
Apostolos Spanos, Was innovation unwanted in Byzantium?
Fedir Androshchuk ,What does it mean to be Greek in Rus'? On identity and cultural transfer
Olof Heilo, When did Constantinople actually fall?
Adam J. Goldwyn ,"I come from a cursed land and from the depths of darkness": life after death in Greek laments about the fall of Constantinople
Ersie Burke, Surviving exile: Byzantine families and the Serenissima 1453-1600
Helen Saradi, The three fathers of the Greek Orthodox Church: Greek paideia, Byzantine innovation and the formation of modern Greek identity
Tonje Haugland Sørensen, The mosaic in the apse: Friedenskirche and the construction of a desired past
Barbara Crostini, Paul Moore and more Psellos: still 'Wanted' in Byzantium
Tore Tyvarnø Lind, Night at the museum: on the category of the 'Byzantine' in today's Byzantine chant
Helena Boudin, "Into golden dusk": orthodox icons as objects of late modern and postmodern desire
Eric Cullhed, From Byzantium to the Andes
Thomas Sj̈ösvärd, Perne in a gyre: the poetic representation of an ideal state in the Byzantine poems of W.B. Yeats
Przemysław Marciniak, And the Oscar goes to ... the emperor! Byzantium in the cinema
Paul Stephenson, Desiring and acquiring Byzantine artefacts in the USA: cultural property, restoration, and display
Isabel Kimmelfield, Exhibiting Byzantium: three case studies in the display and reception of Byzantine art, 1997-2008

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