Byzantium and Eastern Europe: An interview with Maria Alessia Rossi and Alice Isabella Sullivan

Recently, we spoke with Maria Alessia Rossi and Alice Isabella Sullivan, who are the organizers of North of Byzantium, a project that examines the connections between the Byzantine Empire and Eastern Europe. They have just edited Byzantium in Eastern European Visual Culture in the Late Middle Ages, a collection of essays focusing on artistic works between these two regions. We wanted to learn more about this book and their research:

What were your motivations for creating this book?

This book, Byzantium in Eastern European Visual Culture in the Late Middle Ages, is the first publication that stems from our joint efforts to bring attention to the diverse artistic and cultural landscapes of Eastern Europe during the late medieval and early modern periods. These efforts also sit at the core of our North of Byzantium initiative. Having studied art history in various contexts over the last 10+ years, we both realized that so much is missing from the “narratives” of art history. And so we committed to bring other voices into the conversation through our individual work and joint research projects, as well as through public events and programming.

In the period between the 13th and 17th centuries, the territories of the Balkan Peninsula, the Carpathian Mountains, and further north into early modern Russia developed at the crossroads of traditions, but the spiritual and cultural power of Byzantium left its most prominent mark. Eastern Orthodoxy has had a profound impact on the development of artistic, religious, political, economic, and ideological facets in these territories that have for far too long remained marginal in scholarship. In fact, these regions have been treated within limited frameworks or excluded altogether from art historical conversations. With this volume we wanted to bring to the fore how the heritage of Byzantium was continued, transformed, and deployed locally to shape notions of identity and visual rhetoric, while challenging earlier assumptions about the medieval and early modern artistic production of Eastern Europe.

More directly, the book stems from two sessions that we co-organized at the 44th Byzantine Studies Conference (San Antonio, TX, October 2018), and which were sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture. The sessions gathered great interest among the Byzantinists and medievalists in attendance at the event, and so we decided to organize a volume of the proceedings. In efforts to enrich the topics and issues under consideration, we invited other authors to contribute to the publication. As such, we ended up with a volume of 10 essays covering a variety of media and tackling issues of cultural contact, patronage, diplomacy, ideology, as well as modern politics and their effects on scholarship. But ultimately what we hope emerges from this effort is an awareness of local artistic and cultural forms, shared traditions, and the indebtedness of local cultural developments to Byzantine models, among others.


When you take a look at the cultural sphere of Byzantium into Eastern Europe, how large is this sphere and how influential are the Byzantines in those regions?

The cultural sphere of Byzantium extends across vast areas of Eastern Europe - from the regions of the Balkans, the Carpathians, and further north into early modern Russia. In essence, this is predominantly the Eastern Orthodox cultural sphere for which Byzantium served as a prime model. Although parts of Serbia and Bulgaria, among other Balkan territories, were at one point or another part of the Byzantine Empire, the regions to the north of the Danube River in the former Romanian principalities and Russia, for example, certainly developed in the cultural aura of Byzantium. This is not to say that Byzantium offered the only models to be adapted in local contexts, but that the religious and political facets of some of these territories were strongly connected to the Byzantine sphere. This is evident in the material and visual evidence, as is the case in the design, building, and decoration of Orthodox churches, monastic practices, and ruling ideology. But these territories, in fact, developed at the crossroads of different traditions and itinerant artists, especially after the fall Constantinople in 1453, so in each region a different story takes shape referencing Romanesque and Gothic models as well.

Does this influence flow both ways - do Eastern Europeans have a role in Byzantine art and architecture?

The dynamics of cultural contact should be understood as a give and take, and certainly individuals from regions of the Balkans and the Carpathians left their imprint in the Byzantine cultural context. We know that rulers of medieval Serbia, Bulgaria, and the Romanian principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, among others, funded building projects on Mount Athos, at Sinai, and in Constantinople, while engaging in a network of gift giving and exchange of precious manuscripts, icons, metalwork, and textiles. Although some of the specifics remain elusive today, monks, artists, and masons traveled regularly across Eastern Europe, connecting disparate centers across the Eastern Christian world and thus informing local artistic practices.

But while Byzantium left a more visible imprint across Eastern Europe, the regions around the Balkans and the Carpathians should not be viewed as simply places of “influence”. Rather, the local art, architecture, and visual culture offer fascinating dynamics of negotiation between different traditions with some elements adopted, others rejected, and still others transformed in distinct contexts. This is true of the mark individuals who hailed from Eastern European lands left on the development of Byzantine artistic practices in the later decades of the empire and especially in the period after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

And this is where we arrive at an interesting juncture. The events of 1453 tend to mark and “end” the story of Byzantium. But the visual, material, and historical evidence from Eastern Europe offers a more nuanced story. In the artistic sphere, what emerges in the period after 1453 in regions of Eastern Europe is in fact exceptional and offers insight into the transformations of Byzantine artistic and architectural visual idioms in local contexts after the empire’s collapse. There is nothing inferior or declining about post-Byzantine art and architecture, and the evidence from Eastern Europe demonstrates that Byzantium constantly recasts itself, offering continuities with the past and not just ruptures. And in this networked dynamic, the monasteries emerge as key interlocutors in the preservation, transformation, and transfer of artistic and cultural knowledge and ideas.

Now that you have finished this book, where do you want to go with future research into this topic?

Now that we explored through the lens of art history the multilayered heritage of Byzantium in Eastern Europe, we have two other co-edited projects that delve deeper into the material. The first—a volume titled Eclecticism in Late Medieval Visual Culture at the Crossroad of the Latin, Greek, and Slavic Traditions that will appear with De Gruyter in 2021—examines and theorizes the eclecticism with respect to sources so evident in the artistic production fo Eastern Europe, not just relative to Byzantium but to the Western medieval world as well. The issues addressed in this volume center on the specificities but also the shared cultural heritage of these eastern European territories that formed a cultural landscape beyond medieval, Byzantine, and modern borders.

The other book project is a Handbook of Byzantium and the Danube Regions (13th–16th c.), which is under contract with Routledge. This collection of essays—covering history, archaeology, literature, art history, architecture, material culture, and theology—allows for an in depth examination of the visual and cultural production of the Danube regions between local traditions, the Byzantine heritage, and cultural forms adopted from other models, while challenging established perceptions of what constitutes Byzantine and post-Byzantine artistic and cultural production.

In addition to our book projects, we wanted to establish a platform for scholarly contributions focusing on eastern European visual culture. With this in mind, we have partnered with Trivent Publishing to establish a new book series titled Eastern European Visual Culture and Byzantium (13th -17th c.). Through historically grounded examinations of the visual and cultural productions of these Eastern European territories, this series highlights the prismatic relationships between local traditions, the Byzantine heritage, and cultural forms adopted from other models. We invite proposals for monographs, edited volumes, conference proceedings, and translations in English.

Finally, we are growing our North of Byzantium initiative to include an Open Access digital and interactive platform intended to promote study, research, and teaching of the history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe between the 13th and 17th centuries among students, teachers, scholars, and the wider public. On the Mapping Eastern Europe website—which we will launch on November 18, 2020—users will be able to access content written by specialists in the form of historical overview, art historical case studies, short notices about ongoing research projects, and reviews of recent books and exhibitions. In line with our broader efforts, the project aims to make the material evidence known and accessible, and thereby help expand the temporal and geographic parameters of the study of medieval, early modern, Byzantine, and post-Byzantine art, architecture, and visual culture, while putting Eastern Europe on the map of Art History and Medieval Studies more broadly.

You can learn more about their book on the North of Byzantium website.  Alice Isabella Sullivan has also written the article, "Defending Constantinople: Divine assistance in Byzantium and beyond," which appears in the latest issue of Medieval Warfare - learn more here.

Leave a comment

Related Posts