A-H 322 Byzantine Art and Civilization
Spring, 1999
Analysis of a Saint's Life for Insights into Art

For periods in which little art survives, for whatever reason, art historians may rely on indirect evidence, such as types of texts and documents, for descriptions and functions of , and attitudes toward and practices involving, works of art. One important type of textual source is provided by the saint's life or vita (plural = "vitae"). Such accounts survive in great numbers because there were hundreds of Orthodox saints who lived during the Byzantine period and many of them inspired holy writers to record their stories; have a look at the great publication called the Acta Sanctorum, a modern compilation which is organized according to the saint's name day in the calendar, to get a sense of how many saints' vitae survive. In recent years, many of the Byzantine vitae have, to our good fortune, been translated into English and so are accessible to us.

Because images (eikons) and other forms of art play such an important role in devotional practices from the Early Byzantine period onward, it is pretty rare to find a saint's life in which there is NO mention of images of one type or another. To make your task a little more rewarding, I have selected a handful of vitae in which I know that images play a variety of roles, some of great significance. Each of these vitae are about saints from the early period, before the controversy over images known as Iconoclasm (726-843) and will contrast with some of the post-Iconoclastic vitae that we will see in a couple of weeks. Your task is to select one of the vitae, read it, and write a summary and analysis of it to answer the question: How can such a source be useful to our understanding of what kinds of art existed, how it was used and how people responded to it at a time when relatively little art survives? The guidelines below offer specific questions to guide you if you feel you need a little more structure.

An excellent model of how this can be done is offered by Robin Cormack's first chapter, "The Visible Saint: St. Theodore of Sykeon," in Writing in Gold: Byzantine Society and its Icons (1985), which is on reserve in the Art Library. Cormack summarizes the saint's life and then explores several important passages in which icons play a role (sometimes a prominent role) and contextualizes these, spinning out what we can learn from them and relating them to surviving works of art or other accounts, from which certain generalizations can be made.

Select from the following, copies of which are available on reserve in the Art Library or on-line as indicated:

St. Daniel the Stylite, in Three Byzantine Saints ed. E. Dawes and N. Baynes (also available on-line at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/dan-stylite.html)

St. Athanasia of Aegina, in Holy Women of Byzantium, ed. A.M. Talbot, cap.6

St. Theodora of Thessalonike in Holy Women of Byzantium, ed A.M. Talbot, cap.7

(these latter vitae are also available on-line: http://www.doaks.org/ATHWC.html )


Questions to answer as applicable:

In many ways this exercise builds on the kinds of careful reading and analysis for information that you did in the exercise on the Imperial image. Use what you learned from that, as well as your general skills at careful reading and analysis, to begin to fill in from such indirect, non-visual sources.


When you have completed your analysis (3-5 pp if you've done a thorough job), send it to me electronically* and I will put your efforts up on our website so that everyone can share in the results. You should have these in my mailbox no later than Tuesday, February 23 (so you have a weekend beyond the date originally listed in the syllabus). It's important that you complete this assignment on time, as what we do in class on Feb.23 will use some of your findings to draw some parallels and contrasts.

* If you are not sure how to submit a text electronically, see me at once and we can discuss. Have in mind the particular kind of word-processing software you routinely use in preparing a text so that I can help you figure out the right moves for sending. Usually, this isn't a big deal, so don't panic.

Click here to go to the page with links to summaries on the three saints' lives
[this will be up and working after you have submitted on Feb.23]

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