The Art of Comparing in Byzantium

The Art of Comparing in Byzantium

Maguire, Henry

The Art Bulletin, Vol. 70, No. 1 (1988)


Rhetoric was an important component of Byzantine higher education, which affected the literature, art, and even mentality of the Byzantines. A study of the theory of encomium and censure shows how rhetorical structures, especially comparisons and biographical sequences, ordered the presentation of narratives in art and literature, both secular and sacred. An awareness of the rhetorical framework within which certain images were presented can lead to a new reading of several well-known works of art, such as the ivory box with scenes of David in the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, and the frontispiece miniatures of the Psalter of Basil II.

Narratology, or the theory of narrative, has become an important part of the modern study of communication in medieval literature and, increasingly, in art as well. It is, however, not always appreciated that academics in the Middle Ages had their own theories of communication, namely rhetoric, and that these medieval theories may also be relevant to the structure of medieval works of art. In some respects, there are close similarities between medieval and modern narratology. 

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