Constructing a Byzantine augusta: a Greek book for a French bride.

Author:Hilsdale, Cecily J.
Position:A book
 
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Marriage between outsiders is a social advance (because it integrates wider groups). It is also a venture.--Claude Levi-Strauss (1) In 1179 Agnes, the nine-year-old daughter of Louis VII of France, embarked on a Genoese ship that took her to Constantinople, the city of the emperor of the Romans. Here she would wed his purple-born son, Alexios, and prepare for her new role as Byzantine augusta. At some point during the ceremonies marking her arrival in the imperial city, she was presented with a book containing a poem written in vernacular Greek and lavishly illustrated in such a way that, even without knowing the language, she could comprehend its plot and message. This book, modest in scale yet highly sumptuous and currently bound in the incorrect folio order, survives in fragmentary form as Vatican Greek Manuscript 1851 (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana). (2) As a welcoming present, its imagery speaks eloquently of the role in the Byzantine court foreign brides were expected to play.

The book is also deeply embedded within a structure of ritual and reciprocity, categories of behavior fruitfully interpreted by anthropology. Scholars of medieval art have increasingly embraced theories of gift exchange and mutual indebtedness made famous by Marcel Mauss and subsequent generations of anthropologists. (3) Art historians have culled primary textual sources to demonstrate the significance of largesse to medieval European, Byzantine, and Islamic societies. (4) These anthropological studies highlight the modalities of power in force at moments of gift exchange. Incorporating the anthropology of gift giving, for example, Brigitte Buettner has recently examined the centrality of visual display in ceremonial exchanges at the Valois court even in the absence of surviving art objects. The paucity of surviving medieval gifts, in contrast to the abundance of their textual attestations, has for the most part dictated the somewhat limited parameters of the anthropological inquiry.

For the Byzantine world, rich textual sources for imperial protocol adumbrate what kind of gifts are appropriate for foreign ambassadors both at court in Constantinople and abroad, and they emphasize rituals of reciprocity and display. Yet in stark contrast to these elaborate though abstract taxonomies of gifts, few objects survive that can be located within an identifiable exchange context, and fewer still that were custom-made for that circumstance. Vat. gr. 1851 is exceptional as a surviving illustrated book created for a particular recipient on a certain occasion: a present to welcome a young French bride arriving in Constantinople to marry the heir to the Byzantine throne. The entire organization of the manuscript speaks to this purpose. Emphasizing the specificity of circumstance and imagery of the manuscript shifts the focus from the exchange context and structures of generosity, that is, anthropological concerns, to the efficacy of gifts themselves. This gift, through its ritual narration, mediates the introduction of a French bride to the Byzantine court.

The surviving pages of Vat. gr. 1851 are divided into three main narrative sections, each one featuring a topographic scene of water and land. The first section concerns the betrothal negotiation: here betrothal arrangements and announcements occur within a setting marked by trappings of empire. The young Western betrothed emerges as protagonist of the second section of the book, where she is represented arriving in Constantinople and becoming the Eastern augusta. In the last surviving section, the betrothed is introduced to and enters her new Byzantine family. Such clearly delineated transitions from outside to inside relate to the experience of the intended reader, the bride-to-be herself, evoking the progression through a rite de passage. The anthropological structure of such a rite, following Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner, promotes the formation of community and social cohesion. (5) Ceremonies accompanying marriage, a prime rite of passage, therefore, generally stress integration as the goal of the ritual.

The Vatican manuscript, however, problematizes such a straightforward reading because, as this article contends, ritualized depiction is not the same as ritual itself. The book's ritualized pictorial schema, in other words, exceeds mimesis, as the images, rather than depicting a preexisting ritual as acted out in reality, produce and organize a set of social relations. This distinction is crucial, for it underlies the status of the object--the book--as a gift endowed with a specific social function. Moreover, this distinction precludes any sort of ritual reconstruction, an endeavor most recently called into question by Philippe Buc. Distinguishing between textual descriptions of ceremonies and their actual performances, Buc has shown how medieval authors wrote ritual for contemporary political purposes. (6) For Buc, "texts were forces in the practice of power" whose authors "sought to impact directly the present." (7) Buc's formulation suggests the potential of the narration of ritual. In the case of the Vatican codex, its visual and verbal articulations function as a political tool that masks fracture as much as it creates cohesion. More broadly, Buc's theory allows us to recognize how certain art objects attain agency. (8) Gifts in particular constitute active agents of social change that mediate broader relations among individuals and parties through the binding and solidifying of allegiances. The relation between visual and verbal components of the Vatican manuscript evokes a ritual pattern that promotes integration. The book does not merely represent a rite of passage; it facilitates full incorporation of a newcomer into the larger group, which is the goal of the ritual process. The present interpretation, therefore, interrogates the specific relation between an art object and its potential for social agency.

Komnenian Kinship and Allegiance

Vat. gr. 1851 makes visible some of the problems confronting the policy of middle Byzantine dynastic consolidation and expansion at the end of the twelfth century. The Komnenoi, ruling family of Byzantium from 1081 until 1185, had established imperial dominance through intermarriage with both Byzantine and foreign aristocratic families. Under Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118), the court titular system was radically transformed: new titles were invented and distributed to family members, resulting in an imperial dynastic structure whose organization is often described as clanlike. (9) Study of Vat. gr. 1851 must be seen within this context of Komnenian dynastic politics, where an unprecedented manipulation of marriage alliances and titles helped both to maintain family cohesion and to further imperial agendas. Through what has been described as a "new blood policy" of the later-twelfthcentury Komnenian emperors, spouses were absorbed into the imperial family for political advancement. (10) The Vatican manuscript, however, does not simply reflect this policy but also provides a commentary on it, affording an opportunity to consider foreignness and allegiance among the Komnenoi.

The manuscript, however, is not universally accepted as a product of the late twelfth century. Owing to its exceptional status as an object made to be presented to a young bride, Vat. gr. 1851 poses a methodological problem for art historians, philologists, and historians alike. Its text and illuminations, unique in both style and subject matter, elude literary and art historical categorization. The date of the codex is highly disputed not only because the surviving folios preserve no proper names but also because there are few comparanda for the images. (11) Although the historical variables of the text--including titles and epithets employed--indicate that the codex should be associated with the late-twelfth-century diplomatic marriage alliance arranged between Louis VII of France and the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos, many scholars, primarily art historians, hold open the possibility of a later date. (12) It is hard to deny that the story fits well within the late-twelfth-century historical context, but at first glance the images look nothing like Komnenian artistic production in either style or iconography. Thus, in 1923 Jean Ebersolt rejected the late-twelfth-century date based on the depictions of dress that, he claimed, do not resemble other visual or textual representations from the middle Byzantine period. (13) Stylistic discrepancies have led another scholar to propose that the poem was composed for the late-twelfth-century wedding but that the illuminations, which are claimed to be of a quality inferior to other late-twelfth-century paintings, must date to the fourteenth century. (14) The underlying assumption is that lesser quality must be associated with later or provincial workshops. While the story, the script, and the five ornate zoomorphic initials (15) accord well with our expectations of the elite Komnenian book culture, the images seem incongruous.

Despite Ebersolt's objection, which has been echoed more recently by Antonio Iacobini, (16) various details throughout the Vatican codex are consistent with middle Byzantine imagery. For example, the elaborate female and male headdresses can also be found in middle Byzantine imagery, in both religious iconography and contemporary portraits. (17) Strong evidence for a middle Byzantine date consistent with Komnenian artistic production is provided by the suppedia, or imperial cushions, on which members of the imperial family stand Representations of these cushions differ dramatically between the Komnenian and the late Byzantine (Palaiologan) periods. (18) A lower jeweled edge is characteristic of suppedia illustrated in the middle Byzantine period. In the Palaiologan period, however, suppedia are represented with a clean lower edge instead of an ornamented band. (19)...

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