BMCR 2022.09.39

The Oxford handbook of Byzantine art and architecture

, The Oxford handbook of Byzantine art and architecture. Oxford handbooks. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. xxx, 628. ISBN 9780190277352 $150.00.

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

In his discussion of the issues that complicate the definition of “post-Byzantine art,” Henry D. Schilb states: “Foremost among the traditional assumptions behind the study of post-Byzantine art has been the idea that we can define ‘Byzantine art’… (p. 257).” Over the extent of its 606 pages, punctuated by numerous illustrations, The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Art and Architecture covers not only art produced within Byzantine territory, but also art found in many of its neighbors to the east, west, and south, covering a time-frame spanning multiple millennia. There are also chapters devoted to post-Byzantine art and the reception and revival of Byzantine art in the nineteenth century. A number of the contributors raise issues of classification within their specific topics, from the question of categorizing art objects as sacred or secular (p. 120) to the fact that shared techniques and ornament often render silks produced around the medieval Mediterranean difficult or impossible to localize (p. 595-596). The volume’s editor, Ellen C. Schwartz, carefully uses the phrase “Byzantine era” when introducing the tremendous scope of this handbook (p. 1), as it includes a number of locations for which some scholars might quibble about their classification as “Byzantine.” By the end of this volume, no issues of classification or major questions are settled. This is for the best, as one is left struck by the richness of possibilities presented by Byzantine art and architecture for current and future scholars to pursue.

The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Art and Architecture is written for a student and non-specialist audience (p. 13). The organization of the volume and the intended format of each chapter is particularly well-suited to such an audience. The high quality of its contents and bibliographies, however, make this a useful handbook for specialists as well. With thirty-eight substantive chapters divided into three primary sections and multiple sub-sections (see below), the handbook first introduces the reader to major issues and thematic approaches to a wide variety of subjects, then looks at the reception of Byzantine art and architecture in other geographical areas and in later time periods. Comprising over half the volume, its final section focuses on what is referred to as the “realia of Byzantine art.” Many of these chapters are based on materials such as mosaic, icons specifically made of bronze and copper, ivory and steatite, ceramic, and textile. Others are typologically based including several categories of architecture, illustrated manuscripts both sacred and secular, and liturgical objects. Part two divides its subsections geographically and temporally, while the third part’s material focus reveals itself in subsections such as “architecture” and “portable media.” Most of the chapters end with excellent suggestions for future avenues of study and have an extensive bibliography for reference. This is a boon for any student (or even specialist) of Byzantine art history, and it would have been ideal if every chapter possessed both of these elements.

In her concise but thorough introduction, Ellen C. Schwartz presents important information about Byzantine art history such as periodization and historiography. Most valuable is her discussion of resources for the budding Byzantinist, including publications and databases, repositories of Byzantine art, and a history of important exhibitions. Within the latter two are brief but welcome mentions of both practical and ethical issues regarding the display of objects in museums. If there is one substantive element missing from this volume it is a chapter on issues specific to the display of Byzantine art in museums.

This volume is otherwise largely comprehensive and does a very fine job in filling a hole within art historical scholarship. To date there has been no comparable reference book in English specifically dedicated to an overview of Byzantine art and architecture, making this an extremely valuable resource. The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies has a far wider scope.[1] The introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Art and Architecture notes that it attempts to avoid duplicating “[a]reas fully covered” by this earlier publication (p. 13). Brill’s A Companion to Byzantine Illustrated Manuscripts and The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art are similarly organized and have certain overlaps in the material covered.[2]

With its large number of chapters, a comprehensive overview of their contents is not possible. The contributions are largely of excellent quality and scholarly rigor — no surprise given how many of the field’s top scholars provided chapters on their particular areas of specialization. While there are a few early career scholars in the mix, most contributors have been in the field for at least a decade and are well-established. Newer approaches, subjects, and methodologies are represented in  the volume. Of particular note are chapters devoted to topics either understudied or, more frequently, glossed over in introductions to Byzantine art history, including domestic and military architecture, Byzantine archaeology, bronze and copper icons, and ceramics. The inclusion of five chapters devoted to the adoption and/or adaptation of elements of Byzantine art in its former territories and by its neighbors highlights the importance of Byzantine art and the interconnected nature of Eurasia in the Byzantine era. Maria Georgopoulou had an especially daunting task to cover Italy, the Crusader States, and Cyprus in one chapter, and did well in condensing the material while weaving cohesive narratives. This could easily have been three chapters and perhaps should have been. Quite a few contributors also broach the need for scientific analysis and the closer study of processes of making.

One contribution stands out from the otherwise high level of responsible scholarship present in this volume to such a stark degree that I cannot let it pass without comment. Private collecting and the art market are topics that do not receive enough attention in overviews of most art historical fields. That a chapter on private collecting is included here was an important decision by the editor, especially given the significance of private collectors such as Robert Woods and Mildred Barnes Bliss to the history of the field. Unfortunately, “Private Collecting and the Art Market for Byzantine Artifacts” by Christian Schmidt is filled with invective and contains false statements. It is shocking that this was accepted for publication. Schmidt is a private collector of Byzantine art. A description of his own collection, its history of display, and current deposition, comprise a majority of the paragraph devoted to an overview of contemporary private collections. About half of the chapter is devoted to a polemic against the field of archaeology as a whole, which is referred to as “leading an increasingly shadowy existence” (p. 155). No evidence is provided for this opinion. More disturbing is the accusation that so-called “hardliners” in the field misrepresent the link between the illegal antiquities trade and the financing of terrorism, particularly on the part of the Islamic State, in order to “defame trade, museums, and collectors” (p. 152). The Islamic State’s participation in the illicit

trade of antiquities has been known for some time, and information continues to be published on this matter. [3] Archaeological context, invaluable for, e.g., facilitating historical chronologies in many areas of the world, is mocked as “the Sacred Cow of modern archaeology, the Golden Calf around which an increasingly uncompromising community is dancing” (p. 153). The piece is additionally problematic given the intended audience of students and non-specialists as they might take this chapter at face value and thus be misinformed about the nature of archaeology and the illicit trade of antiquities.

Any other critiques are minor. A few of the entries do not include page numbers when only part of a source is cited — having those uniformly provided would be useful to the volume’s purpose. In a similar vein, a few of the chapters contain technical language that is not always well defined, particularly those on religious and military architecture, though not to a degree that it should preclude the non-specialist from understanding these chapters. The intertextual references, on the other hand, are excellent, with each citation of information provided in other chapters clearly marked.

The volume contains a few errors. Some have been noted elsewhere.[4] Additionally: the shelf mark of the so-called frieze Gospels at the Laurentian Library is Plut. 6.23, not 6.26 (p. 464); Plut. 6.28 has a contested date of 1285 (written over erasure), not 1286 (p. 466); eighteen illustrations accompany the “Canon for He Who Is at the Point of Death” in Leimonos MS 295  (p. 471); figure 29.7 is identified in the text as an image from a ninth-century illustrated manuscript of the homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus, while the figure, correctly captioned, is of BNF gr. 550, a twelfth-century manuscript of his homilies (pp. 474-475).

The editor and authors of The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Art and Architecture should be quite proud of their achievement in fulfilling a need within scholarship with such a superb volume.


Authors and Titles

Ellen C. Schwartz, “Introduction: ‘The Artifice of Eternity’”

Part One: Approaching Byzantine Art
1. Thomas F. Mathews, “The Origin of Icons”
2. Bissera V. Pentcheva, “Byzantine Art and Perception”
3. Bente Kiilerich, “Spolia in Byzantine Art and Architecture”
4. Rebecca W. Corrie, “The Icon”
5. Leslie Brubaker, “Iconoclasm”
6. Jacquelyn Tuerk-Stonberg, “Magic and Byzantine Art”
7. Alicia Walker, “Bodily Adornment and Modification in Byzantium”
8. Maria G. Parani, “Secular Art”
9. Benjamin Anderson, “The Imperial Arts”
10. Christian Schmidt, “Private Collecting and the Art Market for Byzantine Artifacts”
11. Henry Maguire, “The Byzantine Arts and Byzantine Literature”

Part Two: Reception of Byzantine Art and Architecture
Neighbors to the East and South
12. Christina Maranci, “Armenia”
13. Zaza Skhirtladze, “Georgia”
14. Erica Cruikshank Dodd, “Islamic States and the Middle East”
Looking Westward
15. Maria Georgopoulou, “Italy, the Crusader States, and Cyprus”
16. Ljubomir Milanović, “South Slavic Lands”
After the Fall
17. Henry D. Schilb, “‘Byzance après Byzance’ and Post-Byzantine Art from the Late Fifteenth Century through the Eighteenth Century.”
18. J. B. Bullen, “The Byzantine Revival in Europe”

Part Three: The Realia of Byzantine Art
19. Eric A. Ivison, “Archaeology: Sites and Approaches”
20. Marina Mihaljević, “Religious Architecture”
21. Nebojša Stanković, “Devotional Practices and the Development of the Church Building”
22. Carolyn S. Snively, “Secular Architecture: Domestic”
23. Stavros I. Arvanitopoulos, “Secular Architecture: Military”
24. Mark J. Johnson, “Acceptance and Adaptation of Byzantine Architectural Types in the ‘Byzantine Commonwealth’”
Decoration of Structures/Byzantine Wall Decoration
25. Liz James, “Mosaics”
26. Elizabeth S. Bolman, “Monumental Painting: Pre-Iconoclasm”
27. Sharon E. J. Gerstel, “Monumental Painting: Post-Iconoclasm”
28. Sarah T. Brooks, “Stone Sculpture”
Portable Media
29. Susan Madigan McCombs, “Illuminated Manuscripts: Religious”
30. Christine Havice, “Illuminated Manuscripts: Secular”
31. Holger A. Klein, “Liturgical Objects”
32. Ellen C. Schwartz, “Bronze and Copper Icons”
33. Brigitte Pitarakis, “Amulets, Crosses, and Reliquaries”
34. Carolyn L. Connor, “Ivories and Steatites”
35. Demetra Papanikola-Bakirtzi, “Ceramics”
36. Anastassios Antonaras, “Glass”
37. Antje Bosselmann-Ruickbie, “Jewelry and Enamels”
38. Warren T. Woodfin, “Textile Media”



[1] Elizabeth Jeffreys, John F. Haldon, and Robin Cormack, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

[2] Vasiliki Tsamakda, ed., A Companion to Byzantine Illustrated Manuscripts. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017; Robin M. Jensen and Mark D. Ellison, eds., The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art. 1st ed. London; New York: Routledge, 2018.

[3] For a recent publication see Isber Sabrine, Ristam Abdo, and Neil Brodie, “Some New Evidence Documenting the Involvement of Da’esh in Syria with the Illicit Trade in Antiquities,” Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies 10, no. 2 (2022): 115-136. Also of note are Mark V. Vlasic and Jeffrey Paul DeSousa, “The Illicit Antiquities Trade and Terrorism Financing: From the Khmer Rouge to Daesh,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Criminal and Terrorism Financing Law, edited by Colin King, Clive Walker, and Jimmy Gurulé, 1167–91. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, Springer International Publishing, 2018; Preventing Cultural Genocide: Countering the Plunder and Sale of Priceless Cultural Antiquities by ISIS: Hearing before the Task Force to Investigate Terrorism Financing of the Committee on Financial Services, U.S. House of Representatives, One Hundred Fourteenth Congress, Second Session, April 19, 2016. Washington: U.S. Government Publishing Office, 2017.

[4] Georgi Parpulov, Review of The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Art and Architecture, edited by Ellen C. Schwartz. The Byzantine Review 4 (2022): 103-109.