Justin Willson

Ph.D., 2021
Postgraduate Research Associate
Medieval and Byzantine


Ph.D., Princeton University, January 2021

Justin Willson specializes in medieval art with a focus on Byzantium and Russia. His research emphasizes the history of interpretation and premodern theories of aesthetic value.

At present Justin is working on two books. The first, a monograph entitled The Moods of Early Russian Art, 14th–16th Centuries, blends archival work with theory to offer a modernizing look at the way art was interpreted, historicized, and valued in Muscovy. The second, volume 4 in the series “Sources for Byzantine Art History” and tentatively entitled Visual Culture of Late Byzantium and the Early Modern Greek and Slavic Worlds, c.1330–c.1669: series editor, Charles Barber (Cambridge: CUP, forthcoming), is a handbook of primary sources in translation. Situating Constantinople, Moscow, and other cultural hubs in overlapping worlds, the volume will reveal shared assumptions about how art signified across the languages of the East Mediterranean and beyond.

Smaller projects have explored Neoplatonic texts of art theory, Jerusalem mimesis in early modern Muscovy, the Triumph of Orthodoxy icon at the British Museum, and concepts of the icon painter. His essay “Virtue Idealized in the Palace Murals of Ivan the Terrible” won first prize at the 2020 North East Slavic, East European and Eurasian Conference, and his study of trinitarian diagrams refuting the Filioque, “On the Aesthetic of Diagrams in Byzantine Art,” won second prize in the 2019 graduate essay competition through the International Center of Medieval Art.

While focused on medieval art, Justin maintains a wider interest in the longevity of the humanities.  This year he is heading up the book club, “Race before Modernity 2.0,” through the Program in Medieval Studies at Princeton. As a pianist, he enjoys composing and performing folk music, while probably his greatest side interest remains reading and writing poetry and translating Russian verse.

Justin returned to academia in 2013 after five years of teaching high school literature and running a neighborhood rehabilitation nonprofit in Southwest Georgia. He studied philosophy and literature as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia and worked broadly in visiting programs at Yale and the University of Chicago before coming to Princeton in 2015. At Princeton, Justin wrote his dissertation under Professors Charles Barber, Beatrice Kitzinger, and Paul Bushkovitch (Yale).

Justin’s research has been supported by the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, the Center for the Study of Religion, the Committee for the Study of Late Antiquity, the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture, and Hillwood Estates, Museum & Gardens. He is the recipient of The Frank J. Mather Jr. Memorial Graduate Award (2019) and a Fulbright Grant (2018-19) to Moscow State University where he worked with Professors E. S. Smirnova and A. S. Preobrazhensky.

Selected Publications

Peer-reviewed articles

“On the Aesthetic of Diagrams in Byzantine Art,” Speculum (forthcoming, 2023) [14,118 words]

“The Terminus in Late Byzantine Literature and Aesthetics,” Word & Image (forthcoming, 2022) [10,109 words]

“The ho Ôn (ὁ ὤν) Inscription in Christ’s Halo,” Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik 71 (2021) [10,248 words]. 

“Relief Crosses in Ivory: Material, Form, Setting,” Vizantiiskii vremennik 105 (2021) [9,349 words].

The Origin of the Crafts according to Byzantine Rosette Caskets,” West 86th 27, no. 2 (2020): 202-15.

Theodore Pediasimos’s ‘Theorems on the Nimbi of the Saints’,” Byzantinoslavica: Revue internationale des études byzantines 78 (2020): 203-39. 

A Meadow that Lifts the Soul: Originality as Anthologizing in the Byzantine Church Interior,” Journal of the History of Ideas 81, no. 1 (2020): 1-21. 

Reading with the Evangelists: Portrait, Gesture, and Interpretation in the Byzantine Gospel Book,” Studies in Iconography 41 (2020): 67-103. 

A Gift No More: A Byzantine Reliquary of the Holy Cross,” Res: Anthropology & Aesthetics 71/72 (2019): 131-44. 

Peer-reviewed essays

The Allegory of Wisdom in Chrelja’s Tower seen through Philotheos Kokkinos,” in Byzantium in Eastern European Visual Culture in the Late Middle Ages, ed. Maria Alessia Rossi and Alice Isabella Sullivan (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 1-27. 

“The Literalist Mindset of Early Muscovite Painting,” in Enigma in Medieval Slavic Culture, ed. Ágnes Kriza (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021).