Degree Date

2020

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

History of Art

Abstract

Beginning in the ninth century C.E., artisans in the Byzantine Empire mastered the complex process of cloisonné enameling – fusing colored glass to metal plaques divided into compartments by delicate metal wires. Enameling demanded fluency in the physical properties of multiple materials and proficiency in what we know today as graphic design. This dissertation emphasizes how the ability to manufacture enamel was significant in and of itself, and explores how cloisonné enamel became infused with cultural meaning in Byzantium through the rarefied technical knowledge employed in its making.

The medieval Greek vocabulary for enamel, χυμευτός/χειμευτός (chymeutos/cheimeutos) and ἔργα χυμευτά/χειμευτά (erga chymeuta/cheimeuta), derives from the verb χεώ (cheō, “to melt”), and can be translated as “melted things,” or “melted work.” Yet the stem of the words and their etymological origins link them firmly to the terms χυμεία/χημεία (chymeia/chēmeia) and χύμευσις (chymeusis), the medieval Greek words for “alchemy.” A large corpus of Byzantine alchemical texts reveals that the relationship between enameling and alchemy was more than etymological, it was fundamental.

I argue that, beyond being a means of artistic representation, Byzantine enamel was the aesthetic manifestation of material sciences and a potent statement of technological prowess. This study brings the material characteristics of enameled objects into dialogue with literary evidence of alchemical practice in Byzantium. Notions of technological power are the ideological undercurrent running below the surface of this medium, hinting that the expert manipulation of minerals, glass, and metals could also stand in for Byzantine mastery over the natural world itself.

Author permissions (for dissertations limited to Bryn Mawr)

Open Access Version to be uploaded in May 2022

COinS