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The Eclectic Visual Cultures of Medieval Eastern Europe

By Maria Alessia Rossi and Alice Isabella Sullivan

In 2018, we set on a quest to explore the rich medieval heritage of Eastern Europe. We wanted to bring the artistic production of the Balkans and the Carpathians to the attention of broader audiences, and begin to integrate it in the study of medieval and Byzantine art history. One of our initial efforts gathered more than a dozen international scholars at Princeton University for a two-day symposium. This event sits at the foundation of our most recent publication.

During the symposium, scholars shared their recent research centered on issues of cultural contact, transmission, and appropriation as evident in the art, architecture, and visual culture of Eastern Europe, and considered how competing traditions helped shape local artistic practices and notions of identity.

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But how best to characterize the compound visual culture of Eastern Europe was a challenge. After much careful consideration, we found the term “eclectic” most fitting. Unlike “hybridity”, for example, “eclecticism” offers more nuance; it speaks to the complexity of surface appearances and cultural processes. The issue of terminology, however, remains open to debate in large part because language as a medium seldom captures the complexities of what the visual offers.

And so the proceedings of the Princeton symposium are gathered in our new publication Eclecticism in Late Medieval Visual Culture at the Crossroads of the Latin, Greek, and Slavic Traditions (De Gruyter, 2022). This new book investigates the artistic production of Eastern Europe between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, while challenging the temporal and geographical parameters of the study of medieval and Byzantine art.

The volume focuses on the history, art, and culture of the eastern regions of Europe and the territories of present-day Greece, Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Russia. It is primarily through the lenses of mobility and interchange (the movements of people, objects, and ideas), as well as the translations of visual forms with currency in various contexts, that the volume charts local negotiations among competing traditions and details how visual vocabularies and ideas were adopted and transformed locally. Gender dynamics are also important, and the role of women as key agents of negotiation and exchange offers rich avenues of examination. The religious element is likewise central to the understanding of the eclectic visual culture of Eastern Europe, be it Byzantine-trained artists working for Catholic patrons, Orthodox churches built following Western models under Ottoman rule, or original and unique iconographic variants testifying to cross-cultural contacts between Eastern and Western Christianity.

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The essays in this book fall into three equal sections that deal with the main themes: “Negotiating Traditions,” “Shifting Iconographies,” and “Patterns of Patronage.” The contributions address the different ways one can approach the study of the visual culture of Eastern Europe by focusing on objects and sites in various media, including architecture, wall painting, icons, manuscripts, and textiles.

In the first section – “Negotiating Traditions” – the individual studies engage with how different traditions with roots in Byzantium and the West were mediated in a local context. These, in turn, gave rise to new visual and spatial forms and local identities. The individual contributions in this section also address how cultural networks were enabled through religious, diplomatic, and marital connections, or through the movement of artists, or through the desires of the patron(s).

In the second section – “Shifting Iconographies” – eclecticism is discussed through the adaptation of iconographies. The analysis of the transmission and transformation of images and motifs is key to our understanding of these regions and how they mediate among available sources in a local context. This section examines networks and mobility through specific visual forms that were created and used. In doing so, the essays challenge notions of cultural influence and center–periphery dynamics. They also present an understanding of the Balkans and the Carpathians, as well as further north, as overlapping areas of shared history with open borders, where specific iconographies could be disseminated, their contents transformed, and their meanings altered.

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The essays in the third section – “Patterns of Patronage” – follow unconventional lines of inquiry focused on capacious concepts of “patronage” denoting individuals, groups, and communities. Building on some aspects of patronage already explored in the earlier essays, the contributions in this section strengthen and complicate the patterns of patronage, examining their implications relative to ruling ideology, local identity, mobility, and transcultural forms. The boundaries between Greeks, Latins, and Ottomans are often blurry in the regions of Eastern Europe during the period in question, and the patron’s desires can overcome all religious affiliations. The result is a visual manifestation that bespeaks the far-reaching contacts of local individuals and communities, as well as the interconnectedness of these regions situated at the crossroads of multiple traditions.

A table of contents and abstracts for the individual contributions can be accessed on the North of Byzantium website: https://www.northofbyzantium.org/publications/.

As we have found, any effort to explore, understand, and expand our knowledge of Eastern Europe can be successful only as a collaborative endeavor in which different disciplines and specialties are brought into dialogue. Activities in local workshops and among traveling artists, dynamics of patronage, and multiconfessional communities, as well as the interaction, exchange, and translation of visual forms in local contexts, all point to local specificities and the interconnectedness of the regions that make up Eastern Europe in the period between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries.

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In keeping with the current global turn in art history, which has decentered and reoriented the discipline and has proposed global comparisons and transdisciplinary approaches, we aim with this publication to continue to expand the geography of art history; bring attention to the agency of places, people, and objects in negotiations of cultural encounters in Eastern Europe; and continue to theorize aspects of cross-cultural contact. This project builds on our efforts to draw the artistic and cultural contours of Eastern Europe while integrating its varied artistic production within the map of art history.

De Gruyter is offering a 40% author discount on all available books and eBooks, including free shipping until 14 December 2021. All titles, including this one, can be browsed on the relaunched website degruyter.com. Please email your order to [email protected] using this order form.

Alice Isabella Sullivan and Maria Alessia Rossi are the co-editors of Byzantium in Eastern European Visual Culture in the Late Middle Ages (Brill, 2020), the Trivent book series Eastern European Visual Culture and Byzantium (13th–17th c.), and co-founders of North of Byzantium and Mapping Eastern Europe.

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