Three years of groundbreaking exploration into the sacred arts culminated with Byzantine Materiality, a conference of the Sacred Arts Initiative, held on the campus of St. Vladimir’s Seminary from May 8-11, 2019. The Seminary’s Sacred Arts Initiative (SAI) began its historic study into the sacred arts back in 2016, thanks to funding by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. Byzantine Materiality built on a workshop held in September 2018 dedicated to the same theme.
“As an art historian, I’m accustomed to thinking about form and image in Byzantium,” said conference organizer Dr. Evan Freeman, “but this conference challenged us also to think carefully about the stuff of which objects were made, how materials mean, and the ways that matter and materials impacted people in Byzantium and its larger Mediterranean networks.”
The conference featured papers by eleven scholars who participated in the preliminary workshop. They were joined by additional scholars, graduate students, and seminary faculty who delivered shorter papers. The large and diverse lineup of conference speakers, representing such fields as art history, history, philosophy, and theology, included Charles Barber, Roland Betancourt, Peter Bouteneff, Annemarie Weyl Carr, Béatrice Caseau, Anthony Cutler, Mary K. Farag, Evan Freeman, Holger Klein, Joseph R. Kopta, Sean Leatherbury, James Magruder, Vasileios Marinis, Harry Prance, Stephanie Rumpza, Richard Schneider, Katherine Taronas, Laura Veneskey, Gary Vikan, and Alicia Wilcox Walker.
Conference speakers tackled the conference theme from several different angles. Paper topics explored the roles of particular materials in Byzantine art (e.g. wood, stone, gold, etc.); the materiality of built spaces (including churches, as well as synagogues, mosques, and domestic spaces); the sacred materialities of icons, the Eucharist, and relics; phenomenological and neurological experiences of the sacred; materialities across periods and cultures; and Byzantine theologies and philosophies of matter and form.
“The attention we devoted to materiality over these rich few days has been a vital antidote to dualism,” said Dr. Peter C. Bouteneff, the Seminary’s professor of Systematic Theology and director of the SAI. “It has been a pernicious tendency of human beings, throughout history, to privilege the spiritual world, and to vilify the material world. Christian theology, when it recalls the incarnation, has no dualist option.”
“The conviction, I think, is that the only way that God is reliably known is in and through the material world.”
The conference was attended by seminary faculty, students, and their families, as well as additional scholars, students, and members of the public from across the country. A third and final phase of the Byzantine Materiality project aims to publish a book with chapters based on conference papers in order to reach an even wider audience.