Volkswagen Symposium 2014 – “Visualizing Punishment in Byzantium: Disseminating Memories of Quelled Revolts Before the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

Galina Tirnanic, Oakland University:

Seeking to understand visual impact of spectacles of punishment in Byzantium, the art historian is faced with a serious problem: not having any images to study. Part of the process is to reconstruct or re-visualize certain events described in textual sources such as public punishment of unsuccessful usurpers or triumphal processions that included subdued enemy leaders, which had a very strong visual component to them.  On the one hand there were actual spectacles that large numbers of citizens witnessed with their own eyes in the public spaces of the city.  On the other hand there was the propagation of those events in the visual memory of those who never witnessed them, including the modern scholar. The major premise of this workshop, the idea of dissemination of mechanically re/produced images of revolts and punishments that becomes so ubiquitous after the discovery of the printing press is something foreign to the Byzantine society. How is this visual information transmitted in Byzantium and beyond its shifting borders? Is there something specifically Byzantine in these punishments and the way they were supposed to be implanted in the memory of the spectators and future generations?

I will explore various angles of this phenomenon, from the long lasting memories of Justinian’s bloody quelling of the Nika Revolt at the Hippodrome in the 6th century; through the practice of carrying the heads of decapitated rebels affixed to poles and displaying them in the city’s public spaces; and the triumphant imperial processions that included a systematic humiliation of subdued enemy leaders and soldiers. We will also consider the impact of very rare pictorial representation of these events alongside historical accounts in medieval manuscripts; the connection of these events with the iconography of martyrdom and the Last Judgment; and ultimately address the possible Byzantine reception of these events through the understanding of the human body as an image, inseparable from the theory of icons that developed during the period of Iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries.


Galina Tirnanic is Assistant Professor of Art History in the Department of Art and Art History at Oakland University. She received her PhD from the University of Chicago with the dissertation “The Art of Punishment: The Spectacle of the Body on the Streets of Constantinople”, which she is currently adapting for publication as a book. She specializes in visual culture of the Byzantine Empire and has published several articles, including “Politics of Martyrdom and Punishment in Byzantine Visual Culture: St. Euphemia at the Hippodrome” (in Autopsia: Blut- und Augenzeugen. Extreme Repräsentationsformen des christlichen Martyriums, edited by Carolin Behrmann and Elisabeth Priedl, Wilhelm Fink, 2013), “Image in Pain: Icons, Old Bones and New Blood” (in Beholding Violence in Medieval and Early Modern Culture, edited by Allie Terry and Erin Labbie, Ashgate, 2012) and “Divine Images and Earthly Authority at the Chora Parekklesion in Constantinople” (in Negotiating Secular and Sacred in Medieval Art: Christian, Islamic and Buddhist, edited by Alicia Walker and Amanda Luyster, Ashgate, 2009). In 2006-7, as assistant curator at the in the Manuscripts Department at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles she helped organize a large-scale exhibition of Byzantine icons from St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt (Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai). Between 2007 and 2010, as a research assistant at the Getty Research Institute she was involved in a variety of scholarly programs and international collaborative projects. In 2010-11 she was a Senior Fellow at the Research Center for Anatolian Cultures at Koc University in Istanbul.

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