BMCR 2023.09.16

Sources for Byzantine art history, volume 3: the visual culture of later Byzantium (1081-c.1350)

, Sources for Byzantine art history, volume 3: the visual culture of later Byzantium (1081-c.1350). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. Pp. lxxv, 1597. ISBN 9781108483056.



This publication gathers the work of seventy-six international scholars under the direction of Foteini Spingou into a massive collection of essays about the visual culture of later Byzantium. Each of the 146 entries includes an introduction, English translation, and commentary, however, they analyze an even larger number of primary sources because many entries discuss more than one text. The result is a valuable sourcebook that students, teachers, and researchers can use to explore Byzantine culture and learn about trends in scholarship on Byzantine literature and art. The publication—in two parts spread across two volumes, consisting of 1,594 pages in total with indexes—is the first to appear in the series Sources for Byzantine Art History of Cambridge University Press, which hopefully will continue to deliver products of similar usefulness.

Part I, Art, Aesthetics, and Literature, focuses on art and architecture to survey “salient aspects of Byzantine visual culture in later Byzantium” (Introduction, vol. 1: lxvii). Part II, Literature, Art, and Aesthetics, conversely focuses on texts that display “responses to visual culture as these [texts] are conditioned by specific textual forms” (ibidem). The fifteen chapters (I.1–8; II.1–7) have separate introductions, many of which were authored by Spingou. The number of entries analyzing different sources varies from three (II.1 Counting Down: Inventories) to twenty-three (I.8 Beauty), with an average of seven to eight entries per chapter. The richest chapters are the ones whose topics relate to central issues in the history of Byzantine art and architecture, which are often addressed in university classrooms, namely I.3 Eikon and Iconography in Art and Literature (sixteen entries) and I.5 Seeing Spaces: Responses to the Built Environment (fifteen). There are interconnections between the different topics treated in the two parts and they offer diverse perspectives on texts of the same kind (e.g., I.5 Seeing Spaces: Responses to the Built Environment and II.2 Describing, Experiencing, Narrating: The Use of Ekphrasis). Thus, readers have access to numerous commented sources, which can be easily and fruitfully combined. The inclusion of seventy-five illustrations helps visualize what is being discussed.

The nature of this publication is miscellaneous in its contents and contributors, and homogeneous in its high quality. The general and chapter introductions are instrumental in giving the reader an overview of the contents, a methodological framework, and a conceptual fil rouge. The two printed volumes are manageable in terms of size and organization. The display on the Cambridge University Press website enables easy access to download introductory essays and individual entries, but not whole chapters because the chapter introductions are separate from the entries, and the entries are separate from each other. It is therefore quite cumbersome to download an entire chapter.[1] Digital publication will likely be the more actively consulted and disseminated format, but the way the book is structured and presented online risks the general and the single introductions being overwhelmed by the numerous entries, and I fear they could be neglected despite offering important perspectives, for instance, the rationale for the selected sources.

The publication succeeds in representing the current state of the field and its trends. Spingou gathered both established scholars and emerging figures in Byzantine Studies and beyond. In this way, readers can understand the evolution of ideas, concepts, and interests that emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s, became popular objects of discussion between the 2000s and the late 2010s, and are here applied to case studies. Some of the leading scholars behind the development of these trends have contributed to the book, and credit is duly given to those who did not contribute. This general tendency of the book is reflected for example in Part II, which focuses on ekphrasis and ethopoiia on the one hand and on inscribed epigrams in their various forms and functions on the other; the same is true for the focus on art and devotion (II.6), and on responses to art and architecture in Part I.

The publication covers sources for “later Byzantium” (a term clarified by the date range in the title: c. 1081—c. 1350). In the introduction, Spingou explains that developments in intellectual and cultural history tended not to depend on, or coincide with, major historical events. In this respect, she focuses on three dates (1081, 1204, 1328) and on a period of change in Mediterranean history around the Crusades (Introduction, vol. 1: l–lxvi); however, the absence of a chapter dedicated to the possible significance that Manzikert (1071) and its aftermath had on culture and society is surprising. Spingou’s conclusion is comparable to recent discussion of Byzantine literature by Panagiotis A. Agapitos, with whom she shares the conviction that something changed in the cultural activity of the Byzantine empire around 1350.[2] In contrast to Agapitos, however, Spingou believes that 1081, the date of Alexios I Komnenos’ installation as emperor, does have meaning in intellectual/cultural history. I am not sure that 1081 corresponded with substantial change, as culture under the Komnenian dynasty emphasized or rejected trends that were already well-developed during the Macedonian dynasty and had entered a mature stage in the late eleventh century. But this is a highly debated question with no consensus in contemporary scholarship, and some recent studies share Spingou’s position.[3]

The editor’s choice in the selection of material raises a fundamental question for the volume and, indeed, for the field as a whole: what is “Byzantium”? The term is not explicitly clarified in the introduction. Spingou seems to employ its conventional sense to speak not only about the Byzantine empire and its “ever-changing borders” (Introduction, vol. 1:l) but also about its sphere of influence and the conception that its neighbors had of it. Spingou reasonably states that our perspective on Byzantium relies mainly on the literary and artistic production of what she defines as the “culturally dominant group” (Introduction, vol. 1: xlviii–l). The concentration of literary production and reception among the Byzantine social, political, and intellectual élite is evident to every prudent medievalist, yet easily underestimated in its impact on our perspective on art. Therefore, Spingou is right to highlight this point as the book seeks to offer an all-encompassing view on the selected subject.

Most of the “culturally dominant group” wrote in Greek. The effort to expand the number of sources available in translation, moving beyond the selection of past collections (Introduction, vol. 1: lxvi ff., with notes), is praiseworthy and sets an example for future, similarly comprehensive publications. The book includes texts in vernacular, lowbrow, and highbrow medieval Greek; highly formalized and not; in prose and poetry of every kind; produced not only in the capital and provinces of the Byzantine empire but also in Norman Sicily. The facing translations are of consistently good quality. Whilst keeping the book’s theme, the texts offer the reader a wide-ranging vision of medieval Greek textual production, which is still relatively rare in current scholarship. Yet, to fully represent the Greek-speaking Eastern Mediterranean in the chronological period covered by the publication, the presence of texts from or about the Despotate of Epeiros and the empire of Trebizond should have been expanded. To be sure, however, textual evidence about Epeiros and Trebizond is limited.

Despite the primacy of Greek, the Byzantine empire and its offshoots were both internally multilingual and active across a polyglot medieval world, between the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the cultures of Europe and western Asia. Non-Greek texts provide perspectives from outside and—more importantly—inside the visual culture of Byzantium. The book reflects this reality and includes fifteen sources in eight languages other than Greek, which is a most important achievement for a comprehensive survey of this kind. But when the book is considered as a whole, some of these texts do not seem to advance the purpose or enrich the contents of the publication. Moreover, many are clustered around a limited set of themes (e.g., travel descriptions). The coverage of non-Greek texts should have been more equally distributed throughout the chapters to avoid overlapping material (both Greek and non-Greek), thus offering a broader array of texts and, perhaps, even challenging prevailing views on Byzantium and its visual culture.

Among the notable non-Greek texts, the presence of the Genoese pallio shows how the foreign policy of the empire worked (I.6.3). It is stimulating to read the twelfth-century Latin description of Constantinople from MS British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A.XX in synopsis with its translation into Greek (!) by Konstantinos Laskaris (I.5.1). The same holds for the thirteenth-century description of the City by Ralph of Coggeshall (I.5.2). Although widely known, the Norman quadrilingual epitaph from Palermo (II.6.3) was rightly included. I also found appropriate the texts that reveal Byzantine reactions to and inclusion of “the other” (e.g., I.5.15 and I.7.3).

The book includes, however, only a single text in Armenian (a commentary on the Canon Tables: I.8.23), and merely one inscription each for Georgian (bilingual with Greek: II.6.12), Slavic from Serbia (ΙΙ.6.11), and Hebrew (II.6.5); the Slavic, Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac sources are concentrated in a single section about descriptions of Constantinople (I.5.3–6). A fascinating Arabic source written by a priest of the Church of the East on the use of icons (I.1.5) can be compared with Giordano da Pisa’s opinion of Byzantine icons in Italy (I.7.8). All in all, most of the non-Greek sources turn out to be descriptions of Constantinople (seven in number), although there are additional Latin sources, including a description (pre-1204) of the Philopation palace—aptly in synopsis with a passage by Ioannes Kinnamos (I.5.9–10)—– and one on the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (I.5.13). The presence of diverse perspectives on Constantinople will undoubtedly make this sourcebook attractive for university teaching, where the City plays a prominent role. Still, every other aspect covered by the book could have benefited from the presence of non-Greek texts written within and on the fringes of the empire. This is proved by two entries that the book does contain: the above-mentioned Arabic source on the use of icons; and the twelfth-century Slavic description of Hippodrome scenes depicted in the frescoes of St Sophia in Kyiv (I.5.8).  What could non-Greek sources say in comparison to the Greek ones, for instance for the themes covered by chapters I.1, I.3, I.6, where only Greek sources appear?  Through a systematic deployment of non-Greek sources, the book would have offered a more diverse view on every theme covered, and reflected how objects from Armenian, Georgian, and other communities within and around the Byzantine empire have contributed to the understanding of Byzantine art and architecture in general and its place in the medieval eastern Mediterranean. It must be said that gathering this kind of textual material would be difficult if the same—rigorous—criteria used by Spingou for the Greek texts are applied to the non-Greek ones. Few sources are widely known to non-specialists and a limited number of researchers work on these topics. The current expansion of studies on non-Greek textual cultures of the eastern Mediterranean will hopefully ease this task in future.

Nonetheless, this publication will be extensively and profitably used. A good part of the credit goes to the editor. Spingou wrote the general introduction and eight chapter introductions, and (co-)authored nineteen entries. This is an impressive amount of work for any single scholar, even more so for someone in their early career, and therefore Spingou deserves to be praised. The book is also scrupulously edited. Scholars and students active in many fields have gained a useful sourcebook both to prepare classes and gather ideas in order to push forward the research on medieval visual culture.



[1] My last access was on 09/03/2023.

[2] Cf. P.A. Agapitos, “The insignificance of 1204 and 1453 for the history of Byzantine literature,” Medioevo Greco 20 (2020): 1–58, and “The Periodization of Byzantine Literature: From a Historical to a Literary Model,” in I. Grimm-Stadelmann et al., Anekdota Byzantina. Studien zur byzantinischen Geschichte und Kultur, Berlin—Boston, 2023: 1–20.

[3] E.g., F. Bernard, Writing and reading Byzantine secular poetry, 1025-1081, Oxford, 2014.