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Images of the Other in Medieval and Early Modern Times

© Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 142, Werkstatt Ludwig Henfflin, Pontus und Sidonia, Stuttgart (?) um 1475, fol. 106v.

International Conference,        June 17 – 19, 2010

Department for European Art History, Seminarstr. 4, 69117 Heidelberg, Lecture Hall

Karl Jaspers Centre, Voßstr. 2, Building 4400, 69115 Heidelberg, Conference Room 212

Organizers: Lieselotte E. Saurma, Anja Eisenbeiß

Scheduled talks


Mental and visual images of the other in pre-modern times were subject to an international conference hosted by sub-project D3 of Heidelberg University’s Cluster “Asia and Europe.” In times of few, but far reaching diplomatic, commercial and military contacts the discourses in which such images figure can be readily decoded from their contexts, not least due to a lack of mass media. The conference therefore concentrated on the late Middle Ages, focusing on images of the other in the Mediterranean, the Near East and Western Europe. These geographical regions are of utmost relevance for understanding processes of othering in late medieval times and even affect current efforts aimed at promoting a dialogue with Islamic countries.

In this context, the conference confronted the question as to how the conjuncture between stereotyped concepts of othering and actual encounters between Christians, Jews, Mamelukes, Byzantines and Persians affects distinct visual languages. What possibilities of ‘being-other’ were debated within images, were these discourses subject to shifts, how and when were they codified? How does visual representation work to engender prejudice? Can different modes of appropriating / assimilating otherness in different cultures be identified? In what ways can motifs of alienness undergo semantic redefinitions, in what contexts of space and time do these shifts occur? In addressing these questions, the conference contributed to a deeper understanding of the processes at work in the formation and transmission of prejudice and clarified the role that images play in such processes.

Admission free

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Scheduled Talks

The Other’s Images. Christian Iconoclasm and the Charge of Muslim Idolatry in Medieval Europe

Suzanne Conklin Akbari (University of Toronto)                                                 Thursday, June 17, 7:30 pm, Dep. for Europ. Art History, Lecture Hall

The paper addresses medieval depictions of Islam and the Orient, focusing particularly on the portrayal of Muslims as polytheistic idolaters, and exploring the ways in which such portrayals related to shifting views, on the part of European Christians, of the role of images in worship. A discussion of views of Islam as idolatry in Byzantium around the time of the Iconoclastic Controversy will be followed by discussion of Carolingian iconoclasm (especially the Libri Carolini) in connection with the depiction of relics and images in the chansons de geste, and concluding with discussion of images in late medieval English literature in the context of Lollard iconoclasm.

Suzanne Conklin Akbari is professor of English and Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto.

Learn more about her research…  

The Emperor’s New Clothes. Dressing the Other in Palaeologan Court Costume in Quattrocento Florentine Painting

Joyce Kubiski (Western Michigan University)                                                     Friday, June 18, 9:15 am, KJC, Conference Room 212  

In January 1439, the Byzantine Emperor, John Palaeologus VIII, arrived in Florence with the Patriarch and at least 33 esteemed members of church and state to attend a council, which had as its purpose the reconciliation of the Catholic and Orthodox faiths. Although the process largely failed, the eight-month sojourn of the emperor and his court piqued Florentine interest in Byzantine culture, including its extraordinary and alien fashions. In his book, Vite di uomini illustri  secolo XV, Vespasiano da Bisticci described the emperor as, “clad in a rich robe of damask brocade and a cap in the Greek fashion, on the top of which was a magnificent jewel.” His court wore “robes of silk in the Greek fashion and had a more goodly and dignified appearance than the Latins.” Vespasiano’s brief description of the Byzantine visitors adds little to our understanding of their attire, but is remarkably informative about the Florentines when he observes, “Greek dress has not changed since ancient times.” This improbable statement may explain why artists began to clothe the protagonists in scenes of the Trojan War as contemporary Byzantines, but does little to clarify why ancient Romans, Jews, and Egyptians, as well as biblical personalities, and the contemporary King of Scotland were also dressed in these fashions. Recent scholarship has suggested that Florentine artists were not sufficiently knowledgeable about the details of Greek dress, or that they intentionally created fantastical renditions of it. I will argue instead, that following the residency of the Byzantine court, artists working for the Florentine elite, were well acquainted with the features of Byzantine dress and used it in a variety of ways—to authenticate portraits of Byzantine luminaries, to contextualize characters in classical narratives, and to communicate attitudes about the other. Florentine artists may have used eastern fashion for a variety of purposes, but it always clearly demarcated those on the inside from those in the margins, separating the Florentines, the descendents of the ancient Romans, from everyone else.

Joyce Kubiski is associate professor of Art and Art History at Western Michigan University.

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Depicting the ‘Other’ in the Shah-nama (Book of Kings) from the 14th Century to the First Half of the 16th Century 

Mika Natif (College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Ma)                                     Friday, June 18, 10 am, KJC, Conference Room 212

The question of who is the "other" in Persianate painting is an intriguing one since up to the 16th century, peoples and ethnic groups were distinguished from one another not through physical features, but by their clothes and headgear, and sometimes even by their horses. Only demons and monsters looked different from men (but that is because they were non-humans in the first place). I propose to explore this idea by looking at specific images and paintings from the great Persian epic of the Shah-nama (Book of Kings), from the 14th century to the first half of the 16th century. After determining who is considered to be the "other" in the Shah-nama (Turks versus Iranians, for example), I will examine the visual identity markers that single them out as "others". I believe that through this comparative study of the text and the illustrations we will gain an important understanding of the perception of ethnic groups in the Medieval Persian speaking world, to decipher the visuality that was assigned to these differentiating features, and to follow the changes in these concepts over time.

Mika Natif is Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.   

Fictions of Self and Difference

Eva Frojmovic (University of Leeds)                                                                   Friday, June 18, 11:15 am, KJC, Conference Room 212

This paper will argue that some of the artmaking of the Jews in the kingdoms of Aragon and Mallorca during the later thirteenth and first half of the fourteenth century does not fit neatly into the seemingly mutually exclusive and specular categories of self and other. The main case study will be works of art that have been linked with what I call Judeo-Mudejarismo, that is the selective appropriation of Mudejar forms in Jewish artefacts produced under Christian domination. The paper will pose the question whether some of these artefacts can be understood with the help of the concept of colonial mimicry. By pointing up mentalities shared between Jews and Christians in these areas, the paper will point out some of the obvious ways in which the binary between self and other, policed by official discourses on both sides, inevitably undermined itself. By insisting on the asymmetries of power, the limits to shared mentalities will also be considered. Thus we encounter the fictionality of both self and other in the visual arts of the Jewish minority of Castile, Aragon and Mallorca. The paper will invite colleagues to question some of the established approaches to otherness and difference.

Eva Frojmovic is the founding director of the Centre for Jewish Studies, and a co-deputy director of CentreCATHat the University of Leeds.

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Inventing Europe with Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini

Nancy Bisaha (Vassar College)                                                                           Friday, June 18, 2 pm, KJC, Conference Room 212

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini’s concept of Europe as a creative and artificial way to unify the various cultures and political entities of the continent (i.e., the European "self") against the threat of the Eastern "other," the Ottoman Turks, is subject to the paper. Bisaha will look at ways in which Aeneas strives to forge this sense of unity in the face of serious division among "Europeans," which he experienced first hand at the court of Frederick III and at the papal curia—the two supposed centers of European unity, imperial and papal. Aeneas talks a great deal about the Turks and crusade for a work entitled "Europa" (1458). This presents a strong subtext of the other against the self he is trying to describe.

Nancy Bisaha is associate professor of History at Vassar College.

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Metamorphoses of the Other: The Confrontation of Aaron and Moses with Pharaoh’s Magicians

Annette Hoffmann (Kunsthistorisches Insitut, Florence)                                   Friday, June 18, 2:45 pm, KJC, Conference Room 212

Depictions of the snake miracle can stand for different concepts of alterity and historicization. Where the miniature of a Christian world chronicle displays the magicians (in the lower register, hence spatially delimited) as Orientals with long, twirling beards and turbans, in a Persian / Ottoman manuscript they are shown as monsters who in part themselves have snakelike qualities of skin and complexion: both green reptiles with yellow spots and wolf-men ride on dragons, holding small gray animals that serve as attributes, or in any case as hand-weapons. The magicians are now devoured by Aaron’s rod, or by his snakes—something already known to Al-Thalabi, an eleventh century scholar. The magicians are purely devilish beings, something unknown to either the Jewish or Christian pictorial traditions. Stamped by Judeo-Christian Gnosticism, Islam interpreted the exodus from Egypt as an exodus of the soul from the body, that which is material and wicked, for which the Egyptian magicians stand (R. Milstein 1999, 134). Hence in both these cases, we can discern an actualization-process in the historicizing of the events. In the one case, the Egyptian magician stands, as an oriental, for a contemporary (or at least non-biblical) external stranger or other; in the other, contrasting case, the dichotomy of the Old Testament confrontation is displaced into one’s own self, the theme of alterity, imminent to the event, thus emerging as an aspect of one’s own identity. Using the example of a single pictorial subject, the talk will present different forms of the historicization of difference in images and inquire into the possibilities for considering them together. Should we consider the metamorphoses of the “other” to be mutually independent, or do they rather unfold in a relationship marked by trans-cultural entanglement?

Annette Hoffmann is an academic assistant at the Max-Planck-Institut –  Kunsthistorisches Institut, Florence, Italy and associate member of project D3 "Images of Alterity".

Learn more about her research...  

Sublime Marks of Inferiority

Lieselotte E. Saurma (Heidelberg University)                                                   Friday, June 18, 4 pm, KJC, Conference Room 212

Othering is normally understood as emphasizing differences by constructing the other’s strange habits, traits or behaviour. Such a modelling of, for example, a demoniac other prevents from any relationship between self and other. A totally different strategy is interested in emphasizing proximity: a superior enemy might, for instance, increase the prestige of one owns fight. This lecture is concentrated on images equalizing self and other and utilizing subtextual marks to describe the other as a noble but not necessarily perfect reflection of the self. Gestures, heraldry, outraged behaviour or at least some strangeness in the dress code betray the other as individual on a lower cultural level or even of the lower self.

Lieselotte E. Saurma is professor of Medieval Art History at Heidelberg University and one of the coordinators of project D3 "Images of Alterity".

Learn more about her research...  

Tra il diavolo di Rustico e il ninferno d’Alibech: Muslims and Jews in Boccaccio’s Decameron

John Victor Tolan (Université de Nantes)                                                           Friday, June 18, 4:45 pm, KJC, Conference Room 212

In fourteenth-century Latin Europe, theological discourse on Judaism and Islam became increasingly harsh, due to the military losses against the Mamluks and to the failure of missionary movements of the mendicant orders. Theologians portrayed Judaism and Islam as irrational: Jews and Muslims blindly, stubbornly refused to recognize the truth of Christianity. Yet dissenting, even subversive discourse was possible within the dominant Christian culture. Boccaccio’s Decameron provides a series of fascinating and vivid examples: the ludicrous conversion story of a Jew named Abraham, the seduction of a young Muslim woman by a lecherous monk, and a series of stories involving noble and just sultans—in particular Saladin, object of two stories. By portraying complex and sympathetic Jewish and Muslim characters, many of which have to overcome corrupt and hostile Christians, Boccaccio subverts dominant discourse on religious otherness.

John Victor Tolan is professor for Medieval History at the Université de Nantes.

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Outward and Visible Signs. Medieval Eastern Christian Visual Constructions of Identity

Lucy-Anne Hunt (Manchester Metropolitan University)                                      Saturday, June 19, 9:15 am, KJC, Conference Room 212

The discourse of self and other is invariably viewed exclusively in terms of east and west, Orient and Occident. This paper aims to shift the balance to view the medieval Middle East as a complex entity in which various faiths and ethnic groups coexisted and interacted in various ways. Discussion is undertaken through consideration of visual markers, including facial features, ethnic and religious differentiation, dress and behaviours, to gauge constructions of self and others. The focus is predominantly on the eastern Christian art of Egypt and Syria between the 12th-14th centuries, with reference to comparative material, to consider attitudes to self, other Christian, and non-Christian groups, as well as the ethnic differentiation of others, including Mongols and Africans.

Lucy-Anne Hunt is professor and head of art at the Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Between Heaven and Hell. Pagan Knowledge Cherished and Demonized

Anja Eisenbeiss (Heidelberg University)                                                             Saturday, June 19, 10:30 am, KJC, Conference Room 212

Latin Christianity has often been described as a closed system of beliefs which enhances universalism in faith, government and culture rather than diversity. In such a system, based on the homogeneity of its people, alterity must first be understood as tool for making difference to exclude the suspicious other. According to this approach, exceptions to the rule might at best be detected at the borders, where great distance from an all-dominant centre and close contact with the other in everyday life allow for more multifaceted ways to define alterity. By analysing images of inter-religious dialogue, this paper will point right to the centres of Western Medieval society, to the courts of the French kingdom and its allies, where scholars, philosophers and theologians alike struggled for insight into foreign knowledge. No matter whether transferred from pagan antiquity or the non-Christian East, the aim was to address the learned other on an intellectual level. In the course of this effort, the French text of St Augustine“City of God” was visually transformed into a book of learned intercourse between the Christian scholar and his pagan other. Within the wide space between heaven and hell even the absolute other—the demon—could become a partner in this scholarly discussion and could thus be re-integrated into society visually.

Anja Eisenbeiss is a postdoctoral research fellow in Medieval Art History at Heidelberg University and one of the coordinators of project D3 "Images of Alterity".

Learn more about her research...  

Jin, khaek, farang. Early Modern Thai Representations of Alterity

Maurizio Peleggi (National University of Singapore)                                         Saturday, June 19, 11:15 am, KJC, Conference Room 212

For some four hundred years, from the middle of the XIV to the middle of the XVIII century, Ayutthaya was the royal capital of the eponymous kingdom that ruled over the central region of modern-day Thailand.Ayutthaya was also a cosmopolitan city, which housed traders’ communities from Europe, the Middle East and Japan, as well as a large resident community of Chinese émigrés. French Jesuits were a familiar presence there and even designed buildings for the royal palace in the nearby town of Lopburi; while the influence of a Greek court counsellor eventually triggered in 1688 a dynastic fall and a xenophobic backlash. Several European visitors of Ayutthaya wrote narratives of their stay that included in their published form engraved illustrations of Thai peoples, objects and places. The converse was also true. A characteristic of the visual culture of Ayutthaya is the representations of the Thai’s Other—be he Chinese (jin), Persian or Arab (khaek), or European (farang)—in mural painting, inlaid wood carving, and pottery decoration. My paper surveys the iconography of such images and discusses their function in practices of exclusion/ naturalization of the Other in a political and cultural milieu in which race was not the root of social identity, the polity’s ethnic plurality was recognized, and the economy thrived on the international flow of commodities—a pre-nationalist, proto-globalizing context with significant affinities to our post-nationalist, globalized world.

Maurizio Peleggi is associate professor for History at the National University of Singapore.

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Identity, Alterity, Community. Theory and Practice in the Study of Medieval Cultures

Anthony Cutler (The Pennsylvania State University)                                         Saturday, June 19, 2 pm, KJC, Conference Room 212

Theoretical concepts such as the triad of identity, alterity and community can be exemplified by products of visual and textual culture, but when subjected to analysis works of art can also clarify the relationships between another triad—resemblance, difference and mutual dependence. Indeed it could be argued that such categorical distinctions prove wanting when concrete visualizations are scrutinized: alterity can be shown to be predicated on the notion of individual identity, while both are subsumed under the idea of community which extrapolates to the group properties that are detectable in expressions of individual identity. Similarly, categorical distinctions between art, text and myth obscure both the extent to which they are products of the same impulse and the uses to which they are put by their consumers. I shall test these propositions against a variety of Byzantine, early Islamic and Western artefacts.

Anthony Cutler is professor of Art History at the Pennsylvania State University.

Learn more about his research...    


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