Call someone an iconoclast today and you’re most likely thinking she’s a rebel, a non-conformist, an individualist.
But back in 8th-century Byzantium, you would have meant something quite different. Derived from the Greek word for image-breaker, an iconoclast was someone who believed that religious icons were idolatrous.
“From 726 to 843, the veneration of icons was officially banned in Orthodox worship,” explains Alicia Walker ’94, an assistant professor of History of Art at Bryn Mawr, “and Byzantine Iconoclasm spurred theological reflection on the corporeal versus spiritual nature of Christ and the saints.”
A specialist in gender issues in the art and material culture of Byzantium, Walker is particularly interested in the impact of these religious debates on Byzantine attitudes about human bodies, especially women’s bodies. For her current project, Christian Bodies, Pagan Images: Women, Beauty, and Morality in Medieval Byzantium, she has received a Charles A. Ryskamp Research Fellowship, awarded annually by the American Council of Learned Societies.
“Prior to Iconoclasm,” explains Walker, “women affiliated themselves with pagan goddesses in direct ways, for example, by wearing jewelry and clothing decorated with images of Athena or Aphrodite.” But after the Iconoclastic period, pagan goddesses and other female figures continued to appear in works of art, but not on objects worn by Christian women.
In looking at the transformations in Byzantine conceptions of the female body and attitudes toward adornment, Walker aims to shed light on how both Christian and Classical traditions contributed to the regulation of women’s corporeal morality and the formation of female selfhood in medieval Byzantium.
The Charles A. Ryskamp Fellowship, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, supports scholars embarking on ambitious, large-scale research projects at critical stages in their academic careers. Since 2002, Ryskamp Fellowships have supported early-career professors in the humanities whose scholarly contributions have advanced their fields and who have well-designed plans for new research.
Interested in Walker’s research? Read more here.