Fotina Kondyli / Art

Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire, is one of the longer lasting Empires in human history (4th -15th c. AD). Centered on its capital, Constantinople (Istanbul, Modern Turkey), it produced some of the most extraordinary monuments and artworks that shaped the Medieval Mediterranean and impacted the artistic production of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Icons of gold and grandiose churches, mighty Emperors and imperial courts of intrigue; this is Byzantium in popular imagination. While perhaps appealing, such sensualized and stereotypical views of Byzantium and its visual culture only enhance notions of a static and theocratic society and culture. In class, I introduce my students to the extraordinary breath of Byzantine culture and art seeking to reach and reveal the society behind the art works, the people who produced, consumed and interacted with Byzantine art. And yet, despite my efforts and my students’ interest and hard work, Byzantium remains this fascinating but very distant and exotic, difficult to relate to culture. A semester-long introductory course on 11 centuries of art does not provide the students with sufficient time to approach Byzantine art as a mode of expression of   pan-human experiences of life, love, loss and death.  Student understanding of Byzantium comes from my lectures and our weekly readings, in other words from a group of “specialists” who tell them exactly how to think about Byzantium, what is important and valuable in Byzantine art and why.

My Dream Idea, Eyes on Byzantium, aims at creating a different learning experience both for the students and the specialists, a thinking-lab that requires more social interaction, new and different ways of experiencing Byzantine art and more discussion outside the classroom. Eyes on Byzantiumis an opportunity to enhance students’ experiential learning where they are offered a more hands-on engagement with Byzantine artworks and discover for themselves the value of these objects. My Dream Idea will involve a select group of five students that have already taken or are taking Fall classes on Byzantine Art.  Students in the group are invited to re-think and discuss Byzantium in new and creative ways that relate personally to them and to their particular experiences and lives. I am setting up an object/art work challenge for them: students must choose a Byzantine object/artwork which they personally find extremely interesting because it relates to them, their personalities, aesthetics, thoughts and way of life. They will then have to put it in dialog with a modern object/artwork that in their opinion shares some common threads. Modern objects can range from art to someone’s favorite jeans, childhood photo, latest Facebook post or anything else they consider appropriate. The end goal is to think how both byzantine and contemporary objects and artworks relate and speak to human experiences, particularly to the individual student’s experiences.  It is also important to consider these objects as conversation pieces that can instigate lively discussions and introduce Byzantine art to wider audiences in new, captivating and original ways.

To get more exposure to Byzantine art, during the Fall semester we will be visiting two very important collections/exhibitions of Byzantine art at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington DC and at the Chrysler Museum of Art at Norfolk.

Dumbarton Oaks houses one of the largest and greatest collections of Byzantine artworks and objects in North America. During our stay we will tour the collection together, speak to the collection curator about the museum and then the students will have time to study objects individually, take notes and choose potential objects for further discussion and study. Weather permitting, we will also have the opportunity to tour the magnificent gardens with the Byzantine head librarian for Byzantine Studies and have a small outdoors workshop about how the student related to the Byzantine objects of the collection.

We will also be visiting the Chrysler Museum of Art at Norfolk which will be housing a temporary exhibition of Byzantine and Russian Icons “Saints and Dragons: Icons from Byzantium to Russia”. This is a rare opportunity to see an extraordinary number of Byzantine icons that are released for the first time from the British Museum to American museums. The students and I will tour the exhibit, meet the curator and consider the role of Byzantine Icons in the life of Byzantines. This visit will instigate a discussion about how we can   introduce Byzantine Art in different and engaging ways to the wider public, and enhance public interest and awareness for ancient cultures and the protection of   their material culture. During our visit we will continue our exploration in Byzantine art and its ability to reflect, mediate, and express the modern viewers’ wishes, anxieties and experiences.

We will also meet on a Sunday and visit the Orthodox Church in Charlottesville to witness how Byzantine art and liturgy has impacted modern religious practices and how people interact with objects similar to those we have studied in museums. After the service, we will talk with members of the congregation about our Dream Idea and invite them to share their experiences and perceptions of Byzantine art. Afterwards, we will go to a Mediterranean restaurant for lunch to discuss the experience.

A week before each visit, the group will be meeting for breakfast to catch up, talk about the upcoming visit, discuss an article or a chapter from a museum exhibition catalog, and share ideas. Each time we will also be joined for breakfast by another faculty member from Anthropology, Religious Studies and Slavic Studies whose research is relevant to our discussions and who can enrich our discussions.

At the end of the semester we will host an open event at the McIntire Department of Art for students and faculty where the group will present their final ideas and choice of objects in the form of posters and 2 minutes lighting talks. We will also hold a brief brainstorming and game session involving the people attending and invite them to think about their personal connections and responses to Byzantine art and culture. We will set up an easy game of images where people will be asked to match a Byzantine art work with a famous contemporary artwork and talk about their commonalities and differences. We will also put up a series of photos of Byzantine artworks and ask people to write next to them a thought or emotion that such a work evokes as a way to explore people’s reaction and response to Byzantine Art.  Light snacks and nonalcoholic drinks will be offered to help our energy levels and brainstorming abilities while we come together as an academic community to rediscover Byzantium Art through the group’s choices and experiences! Before the semester comes to an end we will meet again for dinner in my house to assess the Dream Idea and talk about our experiences.

To materialize this Dream Idea I will use the Mead money for travel expenses and meals.

Proposed budget:

Train ticket to Washington: ($60 x 6) $360

Admission to Dumbarton Oaks ($10 x 6) $60

Lunch in Washington for 6 $150

Minivan rental for Norfolk $100

Lunch in Norfolk for 6 $150

Breakfast items (coffee, pastries, fruit,etc.) $120 x 3 meetings $360

Lunch in Charlottesville after church visit $150

Open day expenses:

  • $40 ( posters) x 5:  $200
  • Snacks and drinks:  $250
  • Dinner at my house:  $200 (for ingredients)