The Image of the Oriental: Western and Byzantine Perceptions
Bartal, Ruth (Department of Art History, Tel Aviv University)
Assaph, Vol.3 (1998)
Descriptions of the East in medieval literature involve a large repertoire of “Otherness”, consisting of Saracen infidels and partly human races. Their characterizations do not reflect empirical observations of objective reality; but rather are nourished by fear and repulsion on the one hand and fascination with the fantastic and the exotic on the other. The Biblical East differed greatly from how it was featured in medieval literature, thus the exotic repertoire which is used to represent the contemporary East is less relevant to the study of Biblical iconography which attempts to reconstruct a distant past. Nevertheless, this medieval iconography of Biblical events as a perceived historical reality is no less complex and merits analysis.
Narratives of both the Old and New Testaments explicitly set in the East as a site of historical truth rather than legend were generally not given an Oriental inflection in medieval art. In fact, medieval artists generally avoided giving Biblical characters an Oriental appearance. The relatively few instances in medieval iconography which do involve an attempt to construct an Oriental setting for the Bible reveal a striking difference between Byzantine and Western art. Byzantine and Western artists differ in their choice of which Biblical figures to portray as “Orientals” as well as in their images of these “Orientals.” Whereas in Byzantine art they are clad in the ancient garments of the people of the Eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire, in Western art their image is inspired by the new inhabitants of the “Orient”, the Saracens.