Continuing my last post on some of the conferences I’ve attended and talks I’ve heard recently…
Between Two Worlds: Syncretism and Alterity in Art (San Jose State Art History Symposium)
On April 18, I had the opportunity to present my ongoing research on Herakles in Gandharan art to an audience of art history graduate students and the public. This was my first experience presenting at a graduate symposium. Given the call for papers, I thought I would be the token antiquarian, but in fact 2/6 of the talks and the keynote address were all on ancient or medieval art. Three of the talks stuck with me.
The first, “Princesses from the Land of Porcelain: Gender, Culture, and ‘Other’ Issues in the 19th-century Japonaiserie,” was given by Darlene Martin, an art history PhD student at UW. She described several French painters who eroticized and exoticized the image of the geisha in Romantic art. Collections of Japanese objects, such as the kimono and tea ceremony paraphernalia, became popular subjects of art. One of her conclusions was that these European men were projecting an idealized femininity — passive, quiet, subservient, sexualized — onto Japan, a femininity they in fact wanted in their own lands. I’m always interested in Western fictions about the “Orient” so this talk was really interesting to me.
The keynote speaker, Maria Evangelatou, is a professor of Byzantine art at UCSC. She spoke on “From iconoclasm to iconogenesis: religious conflict and visual syncretism in the Late Antique and Medieval Mediterranean,” providing case studies of visual and religious syncretism in Byzantine art. I was able to follow her erudite talk in large part because I took a class on the topic last year. She spent much time responding to Thomas Mathews’ The Clash of Gods: a Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art, a book that shook up the whole field by reinterpreting much early Christian art not in the framework of Roman imperial iconography, but Roman pagan iconography. Evangelatou found that in fact, both types of iconography are present in early Christian art. She also looked at later examples of Christian-Muslim syncretism in late antiquity and the early medieval era. Syncretism, she concluded, is never one-dimensional, and presupposes and maintains alterity. I’m still thinking about that last point.
After lunch, Ema Kubo Thomas, a graduate student from SFSU, spoke on “Living Images of Early Modern Japan: The Japanese Catholic Adaption of Buddhist Icons.” She found parallels between the art of the hidden Christians of Japan and art of Amida Buddha, the central figure of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan. Not only were the styles of art similar, but their ritual uses were similar, including rituals of blessing and the deity entering the the icon for religious use. She concluded that these images display Christian contents with a Buddhist visual lexicon. Given the hidden Christians’ complete lack of contact with the outside world, it makes sense that they developed such a distinct style of art.
I was totally exhausted the day of the symposium. Thankfully it was local, so I went home and slept immediately afterwards! I’m glad I was able to give the speech extemporaneously, rather than reading off of a paper as is common in academic venues. I don’t get the perfect phrasing I would reading a prepared speech, but I think I engage the audience more by walking around and speaking in a more conversation style. I always worry I sound less professional, but after the symposium, other speakers commented that they really appreciated how I spoke. A small victory.
Between Constantinople and Rome: An Illuminated Byzantine Gospel Book (Paris gr. 54) and the Union of Churches, Kathleen Maxwell at SCU
Last spring I took Byzantine art at SCU with Kathleen Maxwell, who specialized in Byzantine illuminated manuscripts. She has been studying one complex ms. for 30 years, and has just released her massive book on it (reviews here and here), discussed also at Evangelical Textual Criticism. Eta Sigma Phi, the classics honors society at my college, talked her into coming and speaking on this ridiculously complex text.
This manuscript of the four gospels has several weird features:
- It is huge — 30% bigger than most Byzantine mss.
- It is bilingual — Greek and Latin.
- The illuminations and the Latin text are both unfinished.
- The Latin text does not sync up with the Greek text. The Latin writer often put in nonsense words (“mamamamama”) to make it look like the two columns were in sync.
- The illuminations and the text come from different sources — Athos Iviron 5 and Princeton Garrett 3.
- The text is polychromatic, i.e. the author uses different colors for different speakers in the gospels.
Maxwell first tackled this manuscript for her 1986 PhD, which was more from an art-historical angle focusing on the illuminations. She described how she branched out into different fields after her dissertation, including textual criticism to find the source of the Greek text and Byzantine history to locate the text. She traces the text to the reign of Michael VII Paleologus (1261-1282), who sought to reunify the Greek and Latin churches. This seems to have been a gift for Pope Gregory X to help the process. The process failed and Michael VII was excommunicated, hence the unfinished state of the manuscript.
One comment that Maxwell made really sticks with me. She mentioned that text critics ignore the illuminations, and art historians ignore the text in favor of the illuminations, but she has found that she needed to understand both to fully study the text. I really like how she moved out of her own training into text criticism and ecclesiastical history to understand this text from multiple angles. Sometimes we need a reminder that our disciplinary boundaries don’t exist for the materials we study. Map is not territory. Those creating illuminated manuscripts integrated them as art and text — it is only our modern scholarship that divides the two.
Onwards and upwards!