2023 IMS Research Seminar series explores sources for Byzantine Art History

The first IMS Research Seminar of 2023 involved a talk by Dr Foteini Spingou, Professor Charlie Barber, and Dr Justin Willson regarding their project to collate sources of Byzantine art history.

The Institute for Medieval Studies at the University of Leeds restarted its research seminar series on Tuesday 31st January with a talk given by Dr Foteini Spingou, Professor Charlie Barber and Dr Justin Willson about the project they have been working on entitled ‘Sources of Byzantine Art History’. 

This project began in 2015 and so far has led to the publication of one volume, with the other three still in progress. It has also brought together hundreds of scholars who have all contributed to creating a comprehensive academic volume series containing written sources, translations, critical commentary, and bibliographical information about the history of Byzantine art and architecture from late antiquity to the early modern period.

The series of volumes that the project hopes to create will build on and surpass the current works provided by the late Professor Cyril Mango, who is considered by many as the founding father of Byzantine studies and whose book The Art of Byzantine Empire contains a great amount of sources but with far less detail and covers a narrower period of time.

The talk was begun by Professor Charlie Barber, Donald Drew Egbert Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University, who introduced the premise and origins of the project. He explained that the purpose of this volume series is to create a more comprehensive teaching tool for future Byzantine scholars that would provide a far wider range of sources and with more detail than previous works.

Professor Barber also explained the structure of the volume series, with the first volume covering a period from the seventh to nineth centuries, the second a period from the ninth to eleventh centuries, the third from the eleventh to fourteenth centuries, and the fourth from the fourteenth up until the seventeenth centuries. Each volume will have a main editor; Dr Foteini Spingou is the editor for the recently published third volume, with Dr Justin Willson currently editing the fourth volume. 

Dr Spingou, Honorary Fellow and intellectual historian of the medieval world at the University of York, then took over proceedings to explain more about the third volume of the Sources for Byzantine Art History. This volume is called The Visual Culture of Later Byzantium, 1081-1350, and is published in two parts.

The structure of the volume in both parts is thematic in nature, with part one focusing on art and aesthetics in literature, and part two focusing on literature as a part of art and aesthetics; each chapter includes a short introduction by Dr Foteini herself. The volume also contains written texts in not just Greek, but many other languages including Latin, Medieval Norse, Kievan Rus, etc. and exposes readers to many texts that have received very little critical analysis.

Dr Spingou explained that unlike in Professor Mango’s book, the volume she has edited contains full versions of the texts it incorporates, both in their original languages and in a facing translation. Each text is introduced with details such as its author, its editions, manuscripts and other existing translations, and a short paragraph regarding the significance of the text. 

Dr Justin Willson, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Art History leadership at the Cleveland Museum of Art and Case Western Reserves University, finished off by explaining more about the fourth volume of which he is the editor. Volume 4, which Dr Willson is editing at the moment, is currently titled Visual Culture of Late Byzantium and Early Modern Orthodox Worlds, 1330-1669 and like the previous volume, it will be split into two parts.

The volume as a whole will be structured thematically with the first part being focused on the artifact, including craft, collections and cultural works of art, legal and doctrinal texts, as well as discussion regarding the concrete and the ephemeral.

The second part will focus on genre, from epistolography and homiletics, to historical chronicles and hagiography, to travelogues and the concepts of writing the end of art. Dr Willson explained that, in collating this volume, there have been difficulties with regards to the large geographical area in which byzantine and orthodox history encompasses as we get to the early modern period, with very few historical maps even being able to fully detail it.

As a result, many of the sources that have been collated so far been previous inaccessible as they had not previously had credited editions or translations before. This means that the fourth volume alone, once it is published, will make an outstanding contribution to historical discourse, just by providing an new influx of primary material previously unexplored. 

After the talk, there were many expressions of congratulations among both online and in-person participants and a great deal of interest in the already published volume 3 and in the other volumes which Professor Barber hopes will be published within the next 5 years.

For more information about this paper or any of the other events, please visit the What’s on at Leeds page.