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The Art of Memory in Byzantium during the Later Middles Ages

Nicola Paxton Sullo [Yale University]
Twelve-Month Chester Dale Fellow, 2014–2015


Nemanjic family tree (detail), east wall, south aisle of narthex, 1346 – 1350, Decani Monastery, Kosovo. Author photograph

In Byzantium, sight was considered essential to the acquisition of memory. Ancient traditions of mnemonic techniques such as the “memory palace” of the fifth-century poet Simonides of Ceos persisted in Byzantine culture. Recounted in writings by Cicero and Quintilian, Simonides’s method consisted of imagining a series of places (loci) in which objects could be stored for later recollection. Through the perception of images, individuals amassed visual information in the “storehouses” of their minds or “imprinted” it on their souls. Memory systems ensured enduring impressions of learned information and prevented forgotten memories from slipping away in the stream of Lethe.

Although recent scholarship, driven by the work of Frances Yates and Mary Carruthers, has devoted much attention to the art of memory in the medieval and early modern West, its practice in Byzantium has remained uninvestigated. Memory, as it relates to the commemoration of an individual’s soul, permeated all aspects of Byzantine society, and its ubiquity has hindered rigorous discussion of the subject. Just as in the West, however, the mnemonic arts saw renewed scholarly interest in Byzantium beginning in the twelfth century and reached a peak in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. My dissertation examines one facet of Byzantine memory culture—mnemonic systems in the monastic sphere—and limits its scope to the later Middle Ages, from the fall of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade to its conquest by the Ottoman Turks (from c. 1204 to 1453). I inquire how processes of memory were linked to the sense of sight through a consideration of painted iconographic cycles within monastic churches. I argue for the mnemonic function of art within the church space and ask how images engaged medieval viewers in programs of collective memory.

I develop this argument through three avenues of inquiry: a survey of contemporary memory theory, an analysis of late Byzantine visual mnemonics, and a consideration of images as records of collective history. First, I examine Byzantine texts to question how vision related to processes of remembering and recollection in the mind of the viewer. Monastic scholars in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries showed an increased concern for the physiological workings of memory; Sophonias (late thirteenth century), George Pachymeres (1242–c. 1310), and Theodore Metochites (1270–1332), for example, each penned commentaries on Aristotle’s De memoria. These texts reveal that memory in Byzantium depended on the faculty of sight and that “sense images” stored in the body were necessary to activate recollection. At this moment of revived interest in memory, new iconographies and methods of organizing images appeared in monumental church decoration within the Byzantine sphere.

The second avenue of inquiry for my dissertation focuses on these visual innovations and proposes that their underlying purpose was the promotion of memory practices for monastic communities. As a case study, I look at visual cycles of the Akathistos, a hymn of praises honoring the Virgin that dates to the seventh century but is depicted in church programs only beginning in the fourteenth. The hymn’s text is organized by acrostic, with the first letters of each stanza ordered alphabetically. In the image cycles, each stanza of praise is accompanied by a separate depiction. The acrostic structure and arrangement of corresponding images employ the Aristotelian memory aid of pairing images with places and letters. Just as the stanzas of the hymn find linear order through letters, they also take spatial order as a “memory theater” of images within the church.

Finally, my study of memory analyzes depictions of time as records of collective history in late Byzantine churches, with special attention to the placement of hagiographical calendars, donor portraits, and genealogical tree imagery painted on the walls of medieval Serbian and Byzantine churches. I propose that the inclusion of calendars near dynastic images was meant to position the medieval monastic viewer and royal family spatially in a collective memory of saintly and biblical time. Following the same approach, I discuss Theodore Metochites’ commentaries on memory and the placement of images in his Constantinopolitan monastic foundation of the Chora Monastery. Taking both visual and textual evidence into consideration, I investigate how the organization of images in these churches functioned to stimulate processes of recollection for the benefit of their donors.

Through these three stages of inquiry, my dissertation explores techniques of memory and provides a new framework for interpreting the monumental art of late Byzantium. Art provided a medium through which individuals in monastic communities stored and recalled memories. As tools for recollection, images on the walls of churches developed and flourished in innovative ways; art promoted memory processes just as its form was governed by them.