Justin Willson

Willson cropped

Justin Willson

Medieval and Byzantine


Justin Willson specializes in Byzantine and medieval Russian art. Recent projects of his have moved easily across the boundary between aesthetics and more traditional art history. His dissertation, “The Moods of Early Russian Art: A Belated Chapter of Byzantine Aesthetics (1438-1596),” offers a fresh look at the various modes of interpreting and historicizing art in early Muscovy and Novgorod. 

Justin’s dissertation developed out of extensive work on various aspects of earlier Byzantine art. Past projects have included a study of evangelist portraiture through Byzantine Gospel book commentary; a reexamination of the iconography of a Byzantine reliquary of the Cross; and a reading of the allegory of Wisdom at Rila Monastery (1335) through Philotheos Kokkinos. Current projects include a study of the ho Ôn inscription in Christ’s halo in light of Hesychast debates about ‘light’ and ‘being’; the publication of a neglected opuscule on the interpretation of nimbi by Theodore Pediasimos (fl. early 14th century); an analysis of the metaphor of the florilegium in Byzantine iconoclasm; and a recontextualizing of trinitarian icons through diagrams of the Filioque.

While focused on medieval art, Justin maintains a wider interest in the viability of the humanities.  Key questions that he continues to explore are philosophy’s relation to art, and the nature of value, beauty, and the sacred.  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 while running a neighborhood-rehabilitation nonprofit in South 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 joining the Art & Archaeology department at Princeton in 2015.

Justin’s research has been supported at Princeton by the Stanley J. Seeger Center ’52 Center for Hellenic Studies (2015-2016), the Committee for the Study of Late Antiquity (summer, 2016, 2017), and the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies.  He was co-chair of The First Annual Medievalist Art Historians’ Doctoral Consortium (2017) through The Medieval Academy of America. In 2018-2019 Justin will be researching in Moscow with Engelina Sergeevna Smirnova on a Fulbright Study/Research Award at Moscow State University. At Princeton Justin works with Charles Barber and Beatrice Kitzinger. His outside adviser is Paul Bushkovitch (Yale University).

Peer-reviewed articles:

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

“A Gift No More: A Byzantine Reliquary of the Holy Cross,” RES: Anthropology & Aesthetics 73/74 (Spring/Autumn 2020).


“The Allegory of Wisdom in Chrelja’s Tower seen through Philotheos Kokkinos,” in North of Byzantium: Artistic & Cultural Interchange in Eastern Europe in the Late Middle Ages, eds. Maria Alessia Rossi & Alice Isabella Sullivan (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming).