“Whose East?” Is Best Answered by Myriad More Thought-Provoking Questions

Written by
Kirstin Ohrt
Nov. 16, 2023

Maria Alessia Rossi and Henry Schilb of the Index of Medieval Art organized the all-day conference “Whose East? Defining, Challenging, and Exploring Eastern Christian Art” to unpack that question with scholars from across the globe. Presentations and discussions throughout the day made clear that the designation of “East” and the location of a line to mark its border require considering not only geography but also religion, ideology, language, politics, and history. On the other hand, scholars also pointed to objects, architecture, events, or relationships that blur that perceived line, hybridizing both sides. 

Rossi and Schilb opened the conference by outlining the problem in the way “East” has been contextualized art historically. “The material culture produced in the regions’ east’ of Western Europe—such as modern-day Ukraine, Serbia or Romania, to mention only a few—has for a long time been considered of ‘lesser’ value or importance compared to France or Italy; the Caucasus is often considered only in relation to Byzantium; and art produced in Armenia, Georgia and Anatolia has often been discussed in terms of a center/periphery dichotomy. Rarely is the visual production of these areas allowed to speak for itself,” they said. Their aim in organizing the conference was “to offer a new understanding of the eastern Christian world by examining its cultural production in its own right and demonstrating that its rich, complex, and significant artistic production was not at the periphery of somewhere else, but rather at the center of an interconnected world.”

Broad view of audience in lecture hall

Respondent Mirela Ivanova facilitates discussion (Photo/John Blazejewski)

Representing an international scope of perspectives, the conference brought together these ten scholars from around the world: Anthi Andronikou (University of St. Andrews), Jelena Bogdanović (Vanderbilt University), Antony Eastmond (Courtauld Institute of Art ), Jana Gajdošová (Sam Fogg), Gohar Grigoryan (University of Fribourg), Mirela Ivanova (University of Sheffield), Christian Raffensperger (Wittenberg University),  Erik Thunø (Rutgers University), Tolga Uyar (Nevşehir Hacı Bektaş Veli University), and Margarita Voulgaropoulou (Ruhr-Universität Bochum).

“What struck me the most after hearing all the papers and especially the commentaries of the respondents was how fluid the concept of the East actually was, constantly shifting and dependent on the observer’s point of view,” said Voulgaropoulou, who presented the paper “Whose Adriatic? Blurring the Boundaries of East and West in the Artistic Production of the Late Medieval and Early Modern Adriatic.”

Margarita Voulgaropoulou responds to a question during the discussion period

Margarita Voulgaropoulou responds to a question during the discussion period (Photo/John Blazejewski)

“By emphasizing the fluidity of the boundaries of what we call ‘East’ and how these were shaped by political agendas, the conference prompted a reevaluation of the concept of the ‘East’ beyond simplistic geographical divisions and binary oppositions such as East-West, and Orthodox-Catholic,” she continued. “Bringing to mind Edward Said’s discourse in his book Orientalism, the existence of an ‘East’ seems inseparable from a notion of the ‘West,’ highlighting their constructed and conventional natures.”

Recipient of the Index of Medieval Art graduate student travel grant Anahit Galstyan (University of California, Santa Barbara) said, “I appreciated the participants’ engagement with rethinking the entrenched dichotomies of East versus West and Islam versus Christianity. At the same time, their discussions of cultural interactions in the larger region of Eastern Mediterranean and beyond also questioned the traditional disciplinary predisposition of Byzantine studies to prioritize its ethno-linguistic imperial lineage, this way contributing to the reshaping of the dominant narratives in our field.”

Synthesizing presentations and facilitating discussions after the two sessions, respondents Ivanova and Eastmond deepened the discussion, underscoring the pseudo-geographic and chronological dynamics of the different definitions of the East. Voulgaropoulou also appreciated the discussion of the role that the languages of the East had in shaping cultural identities and influencing artistic production. “I really appreciated how the pairing of speakers and respondents allowed for a broader and deeper conversation,” said Rossi. “The specific case studies offered by the papers were brought together by the respondents, allowing for the Q&A to really get to the heart of the question(s) and issues at hand.”

Christian Raffensperger gestures holding microphone
Christian Raffensperger comments on the importance of chronology in discussing the conference’s central question (Photo/John Blazejewski)

For Raffensperger, who presented “A Third Category: Rus in History and Art,” the conference prompted new perspectives on the central question. “I think the most fascinating part of the conference for me was the repeated theme of ‘east to whom,’ which came up more in the discussion than any one specific paper,” he said, continuing, “Teresa Shawcross’s thoughts on chronology as well have continued to resonate in my head, and I think that is a really interesting way to approach the problem of ‘whose east’ and perhaps refigure it as ‘when east.’”

Galstyan was impressed by Raffensperger’s contribution, saying, “Christian Raffensperger’s discussion on the classification and categorization of Rus about other regions and polities during the medieval period offered a fresh perspective that challenges the established norms in the field.”

Gohar Grigoryan’s paper also proved particularly interesting to Galstyan. “It gave the audience a window into first-hand accounts that illuminate the intricate dynamics of Armenian elite self-fashioning within the thirteenth-century geopolitical context,” she said. “It was particularly significant in challenging the conventional perception of a relatively homogeneous Armenian society during that era. Her work highlighted the necessity of considering the actors I study through the lens of their relationship with external political entities and in relation to one another. This perspective encourages a more nuanced exploration of subtle expressions of personal identity and its evolution over time.”

Summing up the conference, Schilb found that it went a long way in achieving its goal. “We have been very pleased by the positive reactions to each of the papers and the whole conference,” he said. “The question we asked in the conference's title seems to have been on the minds of many scholars.”

Participants examining coins at a conference table
Participants visited Princeton University Library’s numismatic collection to examine coins presented by Byzantine numismatics expert Elena Baldi. From left: Henry Schilb, Antony Eastmond, Tolga Uyar, Gohar Grigoryan, Maria Alessia Rossi, and Elena Baldi (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)