Byzantine Icon

Reveted icon of the Virgin Mary, 13th century. Painting on Wood, Mount and Frame — SIlver Gilt

Reveted icon of the Virgin Mary, 13th century. Painting on Wood, Mount and Frame — SIlver Gilt;
Height 28cm, Breadth 22cm. Freising, Cathedral.


I chose a 13th century Byzantine icon of the Virgin decorated with gold, enamel medallions of the saints and a dedicatory poem as the subject of my MA Dissertation. Throughout my course I had been interested in icons of mixed media but soon realised that there are many problems in studying them. Firstly, very few of the many icons listed in wills, inventories and descriptions of churches and shrines actually survive, having been melted down as 'hard currency’. Secondly, the few Byzantine examples that survive are often damaged or have had original attachments removed. Thirdly, these 'decorated’ icons are situated in museums and churches outside Britain and therefore have to be studied from books. Finally, decorated icons are not considered to be very 'trendy’. Often seen as Victoriana or kitsch, they are avoided by many scholars. I wanted to move away from this 20th century view of them and use my icon as a starting point to discover how they were viewed in Byzantine society.

Despite all these hindrances the icon was well worth studying and gave me the opportunity to cover ground that was relatively new. The personal practices and beliefs of Byzantine individuals are hard to uncover, with many of the surviving icons left to speak for themselves. My icon is special in that it has its own voice preserved in the form of the poem that its donor, a certain Manuel Disypatos, chose for it. His poem is inscribed on 8 panels positioned around the image of the Virgin. The poem tells us that he is offering the gold and enamel to the Virgin, that he believes in the sacred nature of the materials he has used. Finally, Disypatos makes his request to the Virgin; in return for his expense, he asks for a death without suffering and salvation at the time of the last judgement. He, along with many other Byzantines hoped that the offering would assure him of a place in paradise.

Using my icon as a starting point, I looked at monastic inventories, imperial wills, histories and other decorated icons to discover how they were viewed. I really enjoyed the challenge of analysing information of so many different types. In particular, I looked at the poems of Manuel Philes. He wrote for courtly patrons in the late 13th /early 14th century and is generally inaccessible to non-Greek speaking students. I looked at his poems describing precious icons and the ways in which they were used for religious contemplation and meditation.

The other side of my findings was not as lofty and philosophical. I looked at the use of the icons as 'Byzantine billboards’, advertising the individuals’ social status. I saw how they were rich pickings for thieves, the tax man and cash strapped rulers - melted down when the need arose. It was the overlap between these two sides of decorated icons which made my dissertation so rewarding. It was a chance to look at the ways in which people from all levels of Byzantine society viewed these icons and to establish the importance of the icon that I chose as a way into those views.

Jessica Holland MA - CAFS Scholar 1997-8

Venetian Commissioni Dogali

If anyone had told me as I was slaving away in the final year of my art history degree in Pavia (Italy) that a year later I would find myself attending an MA course in a different country, in a foreign and culturally hyper-active city and in a prestigious art-historical institution, I would have probably told them to go and have their head examined.

Even though the lively, mentally agile English academic universe had often come across to me as the ideal place in which to further my education, my meagre finances and the typically Italian shortage of public scholarships would have never allowed me to leave the security of home and a part-time job to fulfil my intellectual aspirations - better still, dreams. Against all odds, I decided to apply at the Courtauld Institute for the 1997/98 MA course in Venetian Mythological Painting, under the supervision of Jennifer Fletcher, and was accepted.

Imagine my surprise (and relief) when in July 1997 its academic office telephoned me to say I had received the CAFS Scholarship. I was so happy I could have left on the spot to come and personally thank my benefactors.

A year and a half later, I am still grateful to them for giving me the chance to dive into the depths of some of the most fascinating Venetian renaissance art-related matters and in a more general sense learn about a different method and approach to art history.

For my MA dissertation, I chose to focus on some 16th century Venetian illuminated documents (commissioni dogali) that are kept in the Public Record Office in London. From the beginning of the 16th century these commissioni, which detailed the appointment of a Venetian governor to a specific town or territory on the Terraferma, began to be decorated on their frontispieces. The decoration very often featured the illuminated portrait of the appointed governor, respectfully kneeling before some heavenly figure or the allegory of Venice itself. Other popular subject matter was allegorical and heraldic compositions in praise of the governor’s social and political achievements. The enthusiasm with which governors included their likenesses on the first page of their commissioni demonstrates their progressive self-awareness as public figures within the institutional framework of Venetian rule, and leads on to the interpretation of these decorations as a form of visual statement of power and success in political and social life.

My dissertation not only examined them with regard to their art-historical connections with similar documents preserved in other British and Italian public collections, but also considered their links with Cinquecento official portraiture and allegory. Two main conclusions were reached. First, in terms of style, at least five of the commissioni have to be attributed either to the so-called 'T Ve’ Master or to his very active workshop. Secondly, all the commissioni show how the governors’ personal desire for self-celebration and display was constantly to some degree tamed by the iconographic restrictions imposed on personal self-aggrandisement by the Venetian Republic.

On a final note: I so much enjoyed my MA year that I have already applied to continue with a PhD in the same field starting next year!

Anna Paola Massarotto - Witt Computer Department