2018 International Congress on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University
IAS-Sponsored Session

Venice, Materiality, and the Byzantine World I

Schneider 1140
Saturday May 12, 2018, 1:30-3:00pm

Organizer and Presider: Brad Hostetler, Kenyon College

Organizer and Presider: Joseph Kopta, Pratt Institute

The Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Symposium leading to the 2010 publication of San Marco, Byzantium, and the Myths of Venice introduced new perspectives on Byzantine and Venetian visual and material culture that extended Otto Demus’s survey of Saint Mark’s basilica. The authors’ application of more recent approaches—such as the social function of spolia, the act of display, the construction of identity, and cultural hybridity—brought fresh analyses to a complex and richly decorated monument. This panel seeks to expand this methodological discourse by taking into account questions related to materials, materiality, and intermediality between Venice and Byzantium. The arrival of material culture from the Byzantine world to Venice as gifts, spoils, or ephemera during the centuries surrounding the Fourth Crusade allowed for both appropriation and conceptual transformation of material culture. In light of the renewal in interest of Venice’s Byzantine heritage, this panel seeks to reflect on the interaction of material culture between la Serenissima and the Byzantine world, especially during the eleventh through fifteenth centuries. Topics are wide-ranging, including, but not limited to: issues of reception and cultural translation; changing concepts of preciousness; different valuation of materials between Venice and Byzantium; the fluctuating simulation of material visual effects; the transformation of Byzantine objects incorporated into Venetian frames; intermedial dialogue between Byzantine and Venetian art; and the process and technique of manufacture of works between Byzantium and Venice. Some points of departure include: the building of San Marco itself; Byzantine objects in the Treasury; Byzantine manuscripts included as part of the Cardinal Bessarion gift to the Republic; the monuments on Torcello; or issues raised as a result of recent conservation projects. New cross-cultural methodologies from art historical, anthropological, or sociological fields are welcome.


Ana Munk, University of Zagreb
Sacer Lapis in Andrea Dandolo’s Program for the Baptistery of San Marco”

Sacer lapis, the granite slab upon which Christ presumably sat and preached serves as the altar stone in the baptistery of San Marco to this day. It was brought by the Venetian army as a war booty from the Venetian Crusade of 1122-1124, as reported by Cerbano Cerbani’s translation narrative.  On the way back to Venice, the sacred stone of Tyre saved the Venetian fleet from the tempest because the One who sat on it “governs the winds and seas.”  It was a trophy of a great victory over a well-fortified city of Tyre in a naval battle when the Venetian army, called by the Pope Calixtus II and allied with Baldwin II of Jerusalem, defeated the Fatimids. The doge Domenico Michiel expressed his pride in the victory on his tomb epitaph: “Tyre with Syria I present to you Christ, redeem me.”

The presentation intends to evaluate the significance of this relic in Andrea Dandolo mosaic program in the baptistery. Andrea Dandolo had two spaces decorated around the Crusader relics: the baptistery altar with Christ’s stone and San Isidoro chapel for the body of St. Isidore. Both relics laid dormant until the doge Andrea Dandolo and the procurators of San Marco decided to activate their symbolic and narrative potential.

As we know, this evocative relic was not the only one that marked the space of the baptistery as a relics’ lapidarium. One, however, wonders what prompted the move of Pilastri Acritani from the nearby Porta da Mar and the main entrance from the south to just few meters farther, toward the baptistery door? The lunette over the baptistery door displays the reused late antique, most likely Syrian sigma-shaped altar stone.  Taken together these spolia narrow topographical coordinates to Syria and Palestine, rather than Constantinople. Between two stone markers, the pillars of Acre and the stone of Tyre, the geographic distance narrows even further to about 40 kilometers between Acre and Tyre, both major Crusaders’ port city and strongholds in the eastern Mediterranean until they were both taken by the Mamluks in 1291. It will be shown that these political circumstances were of major importance to the economic interests of Venice in years when the baptistery mosaics were created between 1343 and 1354 when the doge Andrea Dandolo was the head of the state.

I will also examine two marble panels to the viewer’s left of the baptistery altar reported as marked by bloodstains of St John the Baptist’s martyrdom. The head of Saint John the Baptist, referenced in the mosaic above the panels, is the relic of the Fourth Crusade kept in the treasury. Both the stone of Tyre and bloodstained panels reinforce the rhetoric of the Crusade in the baptistery space. Alfred Gell’s distinction of iconic and aniconic images (such as marble plaques stained with blood and a simple granite slab of Tyre) explains the dynamic between aniconic stones and images: “The aniconic image of the god in the form of a stone is an index of the god’s spatio-temporal presence, but not his appearance.” The lack of God’s appearance, however, is plenty compensated by the image in the dome over the altar space where the enthronement theme is expanded on in seeming contradiction to Dandolo’s exasperation over the political and trading standstill in the eastern Mediterranean.

Danai Thomaidis, Ca’ Foscari University, Venice
“Byzantine Icons in Venetian Piety: Medium – Message – Fruition from the East to the West”

This paper aims to study the introduction and fruition of Byzantine icons into Venetian piety between the 13th and the 18th century. While a large number of scholars have examined the issue of the political and religious motives that determined the introduction of Byzantine icons in Venice, less attention has been directed to the influence that this Byzantine medium had in the formation of Venetian popular identity. With the reception of these images in the Serenissima we witness their gradual incorporation into local popular customs. Venetian citizens began to venerate them, transforming this Byzantine import into an inextricable aspect of local visual culture. Miraculous stories begun to circulate and popular novels were created among the inhabitants, which worshipped the icons in great measure in churches and private houses, as well as in the little “capitelli” placed along the streets. It was in such medium that they seek for help and salvation.

On this occasion I present some examples of the incorporation of Byzantine icons into Venetian liturgy, as well as in other religious practices that took place beyond the sacred ecclesiastical space, in an attempt to provide a more complex anthropological image of their absorption and impact into Venetian popular piety. I aim in such way to provide a contribution to the further understanding of the motivations that led a Catholic population such as the Venetian one to promote this icons into the devotional medium par excellence, as testified by textual and visual evidence.

Mark H. Summers, University of Wisconsin-Madison
“Material Meanings: Islamic Rock Crystal from Constantinople to Venice”

In 1231, a catastrophic fire destroyed most of the treasury collection of San Marco in Venice. Miraculously, a group of relics brought to Venice after the sack of Constantinople in 1204 survived the inferno. Writing to Venetian ambassadors in Rome in 1265, the Doge Ranieri Zeno implored his men to tell the Franciscans, Dominicans, and the Pope, so that all might hear of the miracle. The surviving relics, which included a crystal ampule with the blood of Christ, relics of the True Cross, and a fragment of John the Baptist’s skull, are depicted in a mid-13th century relief. The relics are also easily identifiable in the 1283 treasury inventory; all are noted within the first eight entries.

While the letter, the relief, and the inventory each point to the significance of this set of reliquaries, by some twist of fate the relics and their containers also survive to the present. As a result, the group has been the subject of scholarly study. After coming to Venice, these relics performed multiple functions: they could be used to shore up political power (Debra Pincus), they contributed to the construction of Venice’s mythical connection to the East (Holger Klein and Thomas Dale), and they were exemplary of a Venetian translatio movement that justified their sacred theft (David Perry).

While the existing scholarship has established some of the ways reliquaries functioned broadly in medieval Venice, this paper takes a closer look at the Reliquary of the Holy Blood. Framed at the center of the relief carving and listed first in the 1238 inventory, this reliquary combines an Islamic rock crystal vessel and a 13th century Venetian setting. Shaped as a monstrance, the reliquary showcases the materiality of the crystal and its contents, which lend the vessel a red hue. Framed this way, the crystal took a distinctive format, appearance, and function that set it apart from other rock crystal pieces in the treasury, fundamentally altering the way its material was presented to and understood by its Western audience.

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