Justin Willson


Justin Willson

Medieval and Byzantine


Justin Willson specializes in Byzantine and medieval Russian art. In his work, Justin tries to blend archival work with theory in a way that allows Byzantine art to speak to the modern reader.

Recent projects of Justin’s have moved easily between aesthetics and art history. His dissertation, “The Moods of Early Russian Art: A Belated Chapter of Byzantine Aesthetics (1438-1596),” offers a fresh look at the ways that art was interpreted, historicized and valued in pre-modern Russia.

Justin’s dissertation builds upon his work in Byzantine art. Recent projects include an examination of tenth-century evangelist portraiture via Gospel book commentary; a study of a Byzantine reliquary of the Holy Cross at the Vatican through the liturgy for the Feast of the Elevation; an analysis of the metaphor of the florilegium in light of theories of art-making during the sixth to ninth centuries; and a rereading of Slavic images of the Allegory of Wisdom through Patriarch Philotheos Kokkinos.

Justin is currently preparing articles on several aspects of later Byzantine aesthetics. In a study of the origin of the ho Ôn inscription in Christ’s halo he takes into account the way that the divine light and name ‘being’ were debated during the period of Hesychasm; and in his edition and translation of a neglected opuscule on the interpretation of nimbi by Theodore Pediasimos fl. 14th century he shows that the author drew heavily on the writings of Proclus and Pseudo-Dionysios. His study of trinitarian diagrams refuting the Filioque, “On the Aesthetic of Diagrams in Byzantine Art,” won second prize in the graduate student essay competition of the International Center of Medieval Art.

While focused on medieval art, Justin maintains a wider interest in the longevity 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.  In 2019 Justin will hold the Liana Paredes Fellowship at Hillwood Estates, Museum & Gardens. In the academic year 2019-2020 he will be a Graduate Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion, Princeton University.

Justin was co-chair of The First Annual Medievalist Art Historians’ Doctoral Consortium (2017) through The Medieval Academy of America. In 2018-2019 he held a Fulbright Grant in Moscow where he worked with Engelina Sergeevna Smirnova at Moscow State University. His advisers are Charles Barber and Beatrice Kitzinger, and his outside reader 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).

“A Meadow that Lifts the Soul: Originality as Anthologizing in the Byzantine Church Interior,” Journal of the History of Ideas (accepted for publication; forthcoming).


“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).