Guide to Byzantine Art
Evan Freeman, Smarthistory
Anne McClanan , Portland State University
Copyright Year: 2021
Conditions of Use
The book effectively covers a lot of ground and is well suited to undergraduate readers. It discusses a good mix of artistic media (architecture, manuscripts, metalwork, painting, textiles, sculpture). Chronologically, it is comprehensive, moving... read more
The book effectively covers a lot of ground and is well suited to undergraduate readers. It discusses a good mix of artistic media (architecture, manuscripts, metalwork, painting, textiles, sculpture). Chronologically, it is comprehensive, moving from Early Christian/Late Antique to Late Byzantine (3rd to 15th c). In terms of geography, attention is paid to the center at Constantinople, artistic production in other regions of the Byzantine world (Georgia, Armenia, Serbia, Bulgaria), and Mediterranean courts influenced by Byzantium (Palermo, Venice, Jerusalem). Finally, even though it is difficult to separate secular and sacred in Byzantium, the book does a nice job balancing religious art/issues and more secular ones.
The authors are attentive to recent trends in scholarship and fold important methodological approaches into their discussions (attention to international trade routes, cross-cultural exchange, the social life of buildings, and highlighting artistic activity in regions beyond the center of Constantinople). Their presentation of the information is, therefore, up-to-date and accurate (unsurprising, given that the authors are well respected and well know scholars in the field).
The authors know their target audience of undergraduates well and write in an accessible way (for example, when defining an icon acknowledging that students’ minds will go first to pop icons or computer icons). The glossary at the end will be a valuable tool, since terminology and unfamiliar place names are often obstacles to teaching Byzantine art to undergrads.
The information and vocabulary choices are consistent throughout.
Excellent. For my purposes, I will not assign the entire textbook, but I do intend to use some of the “cross-cultural perspectives” chapters, given that my class is a combined Byzantine and Islamic Art course. The chapters on the Dome of the Rock, the Troyes casket, and secular architecture will be particularly useful. I will use other chapters in the future when I teach Western medieval Europe, since the sections on Norman Sicily, Jerusalem, the Crusades, and Venice all lend themselves well to a Western medieval art class as much as a Byzantine art class.
The book is organized according to the usual breakdown of Byzantine periods (Early, Middle, Late). The intro at the beginning does a good job outlining this framework for students. Ousterhout's architecture chapters at the beginning of each subsequent section act as a backbone to the book, doing double-duty as summaries of both architectural forms and historical chronology.
One critique on the layout in the online version: occasionally the text appears in one column and sometimes in two columns. When the text is in two columns, it can be difficult to read on a device like a phone, because it can be unclear where the first column ends and when a reader should scroll back up to the top to read the second column. I believe this is only an issue when reading on a small, handheld device. However, since most of my students would probably read on their phones, it is worth noting.
I noticed no obvious errors.
One of the strengths of this textbook is its attention to cross-cultural perspectives and exchanges. It also admirably acknowledges gaps between modern perceptions and historical realities. This sensitivity to the situatedness of modern interpreters looking at the past is a strength.
The “questions for study and discussion” promise to save time by fostering self-motivated learning. My students rarely do the readings unless there are accompanying graded reading questions, which are labor intensive for me to both write and grade. However, I could envision assigning the pre-prepared questions for CR/NC as a way of getting the students thinking about the material outside of class that doesn’t cost me too much time as the instructor.
Byzantine Art is an enormous, expansive topic. As a result, this textbook is a massive undertaking. There really is no way to cover every single area and idea surrounding the topic unless one intends on sacrificing quality or content. I do not... read more
Byzantine Art is an enormous, expansive topic. As a result, this textbook is a massive undertaking. There really is no way to cover every single area and idea surrounding the topic unless one intends on sacrificing quality or content. I do not think that instructors of Byzantine Art will expect a textbook to be their one and only instruction material in the first place. With that said, I think that the chosen objects, foci, and ideas in this textbook will assist instructors in making their courses as comprehensive as possible.
In future editions, it may be beneficial to take advantage of the e-text format to link between words and their place in the glossary. For example, there is no explanation of “encaustic” in the text-proper, but it exists in the glossary. It can be disruptive to have to scroll to the end of the book to find those definitions, when one could click a link to jump to the spot. This is especially true for a long text like this one.
From what I can tell, the information is accurate, and the scholars responsible for writing the chapters are all authoritative experts. It is appreciated that Smarthistory vets their texts through a peer-review process, too.
This takes on a more academic format than some other art history textbooks: it reads almost like a companion reference text or a scholarly anthology. This is useful, because it is easy to select individual chapters to share with students, and it thus it should make it easier to update the material over time. Because the prose is straightforward, updates and fixes should be simple.
The prose is clear and works to provide substantial context throughout. If I could recommend something for future editions: the asides written in parentheses may be better placed in footnotes, or in separate textboxes in a different color on the sides. That way the important context that is provided is not simply skimmed over by the reader, but rather stands out to frame the rest of the text. The information that is currently in parentheses is very helpful, however.
It is obvious that a lot of thought was put into making sure that a variety of types of material were included in the book: there are chapters that look through the lens of architecture, art history, archaeological small finds, and literary/historical primary sources. This framework makes it feel comprehensive without making it confusing for readers. If any students do decide to read the book from digital cover-to-cover, the variety will also help pique interest.
The modularity of the text is well structured. Chapters are clearly delineated, so they can be read individually without needing to constantly refer to other parts of the book. Necessary context is repeated, but not to the extent that it is overly self-referential or disruptive. The case studies (“Art/architecture in focus”, "Conversation") lend especially well to modular instruction. Headings and subheadings are consistent and properly describe the text that follows.
Considering the scope of Byzantine Art, the topics are organized well-enough according to their chronology, and the chapters focus on the impact of Byzantine art across a broad area. This really demonstrates the complexity of the long history of the Byzantine Empire. These same topics could be rearranged in any number of ways, so the way the authors chose is sufficient (since I do not believe the text is meant to be read from front to back as much as it is meant to give instructors a variety of options to pull from). The integration of different media (e.g. videos, transcripts, etc.) breaks up the text in a good way and offers more ways of engagement for students and instructors.
There do not appear to be any glaring issues with the interface or images. Fortunately, because many of the images come from the Metropolitan Museum Online Collection, the quality of individual object photos is very good. I am not sure whether the Youtube videos are meant to be playable from within a downloaded .PDF itself, but even if I could not play it within a downloaded version, the links provided beneath are sufficient and open-source. The videos open fine in the Pressbooks interface.
There are no major grammatical errors that I can see.
The text does well in its descriptions of art across the Byzantine Empire, from Spain to the Balkans to modern-day Turkey and Syria. It highlights women and works to show how bias toward historical figures arises and spreads in past writings. The authors do not treat the large swathe of geography as a monolith, but rather describe how diverse it was. The text also goes out of the way to discuss various secular parts of Byzantine art and architecture beyond the ecclesial.
Again, this subject area is an enormous one. More often than not, scholars and instructors of the pre-Byzantine classical antiquity or post-Byzantine medieval periods underestimate just how massive it is. If this book were in print, given the detailed images, color, and size, it would likely be egregiously expensive for students. The fact that it is a peer-reviewed, free, and born-digital resource that takes advantage of mixed-media and modularity is impressive. Hopefully it will serve many instructors and students well.
Table of Contents
- I. A beginner's guide
- II. Early Byzantine art and architecture, c. 330-700 C.E.
- III. The Iconoclastic Controversy, c. 700s-843 C.E.
- IV. Middle Byzantine art and architecture, c. 843-1204 C.E.
- V. The Latin Empire, c. 1204–1261 C.E.
- VI. Late Byzantine Art and Architecture, c. 1261–1453 C.E.
About the Book
The “Beginner’s guide” introduces foundational concepts, such as the chronology of Byzantine history, sacred imagery, and wearable objects. Subsequent sections are arranged chronologically, covering the Early Byzantine period (c. 330–700), the Iconoclastic Controversy (c. 700s–843), the Middle Byzantine period (843–1204), the Latin Empire (c. 1204–1261), and the Late Byzantine period (c. 1261–1453) and beyond.
These sections include thematic essays on Byzantine art and architecture, essays that focus on key works (subtitled artworks in focus or architecture in focus), and essays that explore Byzantium’s relationships with other cultures (subtitled cross-cultural perspectives). Finally, we have included questions for study or discussion to encourage teachers, students, and other readers to engage with videos and other content on the Smarthistory website which could not be included in this book format but which we believe richly compliments what is presented here.
About the Contributors
Anne McClanan is a Professor of Byzantine Art at Portland State University, after studying at Harvard (Ph.D.), Johns Hopkins (M.A.), and Columbia University (A.B.). She is currently writing a book on the representation of griffins, looking across time at the transformation and persistence of this motif. Her prior publications explore topics of gender, including a book about early Byzantine empresses and an anthology about the premodern material culture of procreation and marriage, and iconoclasm. She has excavated in Turkey, Jordan, and Israel.
Dr. Evan Freeman is Contributing Editor for Byzantine art at Smarthistory. He completed his Ph.D. at Yale University in 2019, where he wrote his dissertation on portable ritual objects of the Middle Byzantine period. He held an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at Smarthistory from 2020–2021 and was recently awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Research Fellowship to pursue research at the University of Regensburg. His research explores art, architecture, and ritual in the Byzantine Empire and the wider medieval Mediterranean and Slavic lands.