The Cult of the Cross in Byzantium

My dissertation discusses the cult of the cross in the Byzantine Empire from the reign of its first emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337) to the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204, with a particular focus on the political pressures that underlay the constantly changing manifestations of the cult. Even though my project is situated in the Middle Ages, I believe that it resonates well with the topics promoted by the Forum on Contemporary Europe: I address the issues associated with a close relationship between the institutions of Church and State, the dynamics that underlie effective propaganda, and the power that can be ascribed to an idea and a sign. Furthermore, I am writing about the early Christian history of Jerusalem, considering the Christian Empire that preceded the Ottomans in Turkey and describing a phenomenon that inspired the Western Crusaders to invade the Islamic as well as Christian East.

As the Roman Empire was progressively Christianized in the fourth and fifth centuries, the cross assumed a role of rising importance for the emperor as well as the population.  The church in Jerusalem attracted masses of pilgrims from all over Europe who were eager to participate in the rites on site and take some of the emanating energy home with them, for instance in form of ampullae filled with the oil oozing from the relic of the cross.  The emperor in Constantinople meanwhile inserted himself into this phenomenon by commissioning the construction of churches in the Holy Land and, as time went by, associating his rule more and more closely with the ideology embedded in the sign and relic of the cross.  After Jerusalem was lost to the Arabs in 637, Constantinople cast itself as the new pilgrimage center of the Byzantine Empire, thereby tapping into all the economic and political benefits that had been enjoyed by Jerusalem before. The tremendous versatility of the cross allowed every dynasty to tap into an aspect of the figure of the cross that promoted imperial legitimacy. By analyzing extant works of art, historical texts discussing imperial uses of the cross, as well as imperial portraiture in art and text, I will show to what extent these changes can be ascribed to concurrent political circumstances and how the imperial needs of one period shaped the significance of the cult of the Holy Cross for the next.

Thanks to the FCE Travel Fellowship I will be able to complete a considerable amount of research for my dissertation in Vienna at the two Byzantine institutes at the University (Institut für Byzantinistik und Neogräzistik) and the Austrian Academy of Sciences (Institut für Byzanzforschung, IBF). The IBF currently conducts a research project, lead by Univ.-Prof. Dr. Wolfram Hörandner and Dr. Mag. Andreas Rhoby, that is directly relevant to my work:  The team collects, edits, and publishes all extant Byzantine Greek epigrams in situ (“Byzantinische Epigramme in inschriftlicher Überlieferung”). Since I will be looking at cross reliquaries, many of which are inscribed with epigrams, as well at imperial portraits in epigrammatic poetry, this collection will provide me with an unsurpassable amount of data, much of which has never been analyzed by an art historian before.