Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 30, 2003
Ioli Kalavrezou Byzantine Women and Their World Exh. cat. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Art Museums, 2002. 272 pp.; 150 color ills.; 150 b/w ills. Paper $40.00 (0300096984)
Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, October 25, 2002–April 27, 2003

In the words of its editor, Byzantine Women and Their World “stands as the permanent document of the temporary display at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum” (9). Given the exhibition’s title and the gender of the catalogue’s six main contributors, one might suppose that feminism, not to speak of other critical theories of the twentieth century, had broadly penetrated the study of Byzantine art in this country. One would be largely wrong.

Like the traditional Hegelian division of Byzantine history into three periods—Early, Middle, and Late—there have essentially been three successive phases of feminist art history. The first observed the slight attention paid to women artists. The second posited causal explanations for this absence, couched in terms of the institutions that produced and consumed art. The third treated (and continues to treat) women not as the “opposite” sex but as one cohort within a broad range of genders. This late stage is entirely missing in the volume at hand: there is no mention of lesbianism, of which we learn in the monastic typika (foundation documents); nothing about monks forced to dress like women as humiliation; no listings for gender, eunuchs, or homosexuality in the index; and only a passing reference to a cross-dressing saint. The second stage of feminism is alluded to skeptically by Angeliki Laiou (Byzantium as a society “which looks patriarchal on the surface,” 23) but more directly by the (then) student authors of particular entries: the prominent dedicatory inscription on a chalice in Boston is said to exemplify “the ability of a woman to penetrate the male-controlled ritual of Communion” (cat. no. 49) and the fullness of figure and apparent firmness of the flesh of an (unpublished) maenad in bone is held to show “qualities condemned by Christian writers” and to offer an “opposing feminine ideal to which Byzantine women might aspire” (cat. no. 88). For the most part, the criteria that determine inclusion in both the exhibition and catalogue are evidently those of the first generation of women’s studies, that is, the representation of females and the possibility that one was the author of an object or (more demonstrably) the person for whom it was made.

This modest program is set out in Ioli Kalavrezou’s introductory essay, and its self-imposed limitations are perhaps understandable in light of the visual material that she and her colleagues chose to consider. Nonetheless, the constraints under which they worked are no greater than those recognized more than a decade ago by Judith Herrin in an article (“Femina Byzantina,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 46, 1992: 97–105) not cited in the bibliography. Commenting on the field of Byzantine studies as a whole, Herrin pointed out how few forms of female self-expression existed in this society, and to the fact that what we possess are men’s views of women. Despite this, she was able to show how much information could be gleaned from male, gender-specific evidence. The problem, then, is how much can be legitimately inferred from the appearance of the objects selected for study. To focus only on what interests us today can be misleading; at worst, it will entail neglect of Byzantine ideological presuppositions. Thus the famous birthing scenes in the Octateuch manuscripts are here read as signs of “openness and freedom of expression in matters of human emotion” (5; cf. the more useful comments by another hand on page 277). Yet the significance of this image lies not in the depiction of Jacob and Esau popping out of Rebecca’s womb as she bears down (seated on a stool that the artist forgot to paint) but rather in the role of this scene as a pendant to the main event, not even mentioned in the caption to the illustration (fig. 23)—Isaac’s prayer for descendants, the answer from God’s hand, and his barren wife’s placid acceptance of the divine will. Similarly, the message of “marital harmony” detected in two ivory box plaques (cat. no. 71), I suspect, would have surprised their original beholders. Even if this were the Byzantine reading, one cannot help but note that, on the first plaque, Eve merely applies the bellows as Adam, analogue of the Creator, shapes an object at his forge; and on the second, that Eve, like a beast of burden, does no more than carry the grain that her spouse is shown actively harvesting.

Yet even if it is insisted that the exhibition was not “about” feminism, all too often missing is the critical distinction grasped by Molly Fulghum Heinz when she writes (of an icon of the Birth of John the Baptist), “The story of Elizabeth’s conception at an advanced age…may have resonated with the Byzantine viewer. For us, the icon offers information about the activities of women at home and depicts the work of the midwife” (cat. no. 10). This insight may be compared with the historical travesty apparent in the account of an image depicting the infant Mary cared for by her parents (fig. 1). In the introductory essay we are told that “through this illustration we can visualize a Byzantine child’s bedchamber as well as the types of bed and sheets that were used” (15), when, of course, the vast majority of Byzantine children were born and tended in much humbler spaces, certainly lacking the pearl-bedecked crib that adorns the miniature. In other words, issues of class are also at stake here and, inextricably bound up with questions of gender, present complexes that resist one-dimensional conceptual analysis. The resulting problem is neatly represented by the folles, the small change much more familiar to the person in the street than the gold coins that normally dominate the study of numismatic iconography. Paying welcome attention to such documents, Elizabeth Gittings notes the contrast between the politically charged female personifications (Securitas and Spes, cat. nos. 16 and 17) on their reverses, and the obverses on which the portraits of empresses are assimilated to the likeness of Constantine the Great. Thus both dependence on and independence of the male paradigm may be signaled on one and the same coin, much in the manner that, more than four hundred years later, Irene is called empress on (and occupied the obverse of) her solidi (cat. no. 18) even while in some of her laws she is designated as emperor.

Ambiguities of this sort pervaded the upper strata of society. Laiou recognizes this when she writes of monasteries established by women who treated their foundations as extensions of the family and passed on control to their daughters and granddaughters. Here the historian, drawing on a wealth of texts, has the advantage. But the best evidence of the practice consists in the multiple portraits—of the founder and her female successor, their spouses and relatives—in the Lincoln College typikon, a unique document in Oxford that receives mention nowhere in the catalogue. For the most part, those portrayed are shown in their lay costumes of jeweled crowns and gorgeous silks, which disguise their forms no less effectively than the habits they wear in their conventual images.

Such concealment offers no surprise to those with preconceived notions of Byzantine society, but the real message—the longevity and mutability of Byzantium—lies in the contrast between it and the image of Saint Thekla, harnessed and bare-breasted on a fifth-century roundel from Egypt (cat. no. 68). Newcomers to East Christian art will be as startled by this image as by the hip-wiggling Aphrodite, playing with her hair on the Judgment of Paris pyxis in Baltimore (cat. no. 148). Surely it is the commentator’s responsibility, especially toward today’s students, to acknowledge this flagrant eroticism, occurring as it does on textiles and jewelry with the same place of origin (cat. nos. 86, 87, 140), rather than simply to relate the myth. Yet the presence, absence, or distortion of breasts is more than merely a matter of chronology or geography (as Irmgard Hutter’s study, “Das Bild der Frau in der byzantinischen Kunst,” cited in the bibliography, made clear). Middle Byzantine ivories of the Dormition, such as that in Worcester (cat. no. 117), offer a chastely garbed Mary; others (cat. no. 116) give her an ample, fully separated bosom, although the fact goes entirely unremarked in the entry. Some readers will object, believing that their Byzantine art is impugned by an emphasis on carnality of this sort. But if the field is to survive, then such observations have their place in a book that, fundamentally, is about human sexuality. We need to write this history differently as we teach a generation for whom the letters XP denote not the Chi-Rho but a Microsoft operating system.

Anthony Cutler
Department of Art History, Pennsylvania State University

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