Seminary's historic sacred arts study culminates in Byzantine Materiality

Three years of groundbreaking exploration into the sacred arts culminated this spring in Byzantine Materiality at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Byzantine Materiality, a conference of the Sacred Arts Initiative, brought together scholars and members of the public May 8-11 to explore matter, materials, and materiality in Byzantine art and culture.

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. The conversation about “sacrality,” “the sacred,” “arts,” and “sacred arts” continued with a conference on Arvo Pärt in 2017 and another scholarly symposium on Byzantium Materiality in 2018. This May, the public was invited to take part in the SAI’s ongoing conversation.

“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.”

Professor Bouteneff spoke at the conference, as did fellow faculty members Rev Dn. Dr. Evan Freeman, the conference organizer, and Richard Schneider. The large and diverse lineup of speakers at Byzantine Materiality also included Annemarie Weyl Carr, Laura Veneskey, James Magruder, Anthony Cutler, Sean Leatherbury, Vasileios Marinis, Mary K. Farag, Roland Betancourt, Katherine Taronas, Harry Prance, Béatrice Caseau, Stephanie Rumpza, Gary Vikan, Alicia Wilcox Walker, Holger Klein, Charles Barber, and Joseph R. Kopta.

During the conference, discussion centered around Byzantine and ancient theories of matter and form; the use and significance of materials such as wood, stone, gold, and glass in ecclesiastical and other contexts; the roles of matter and materials in the Eucharist, icons, relics, and reliquaries; the rite for consecrating a church; sensory experiences of liturgy; and the neuroscience of viewing icons.

“As an art historian, I’m accustomed to thinking about form and image in Byzantium,” said 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.”

Members of the SAI plan to publish a book based on the discussions and findings presented at Byzantine Materiality.

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