A reader familiar with the traditional periodization of Byzantine history may find it surprising that in this study the momentous events of 1204 – the capture of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade and the subsequent disintegration of the Byzantine Empire – hardly figure as a meaningful chronological break. If I have chosen to treat as a whole the period from the accession of the Komnenoi to power in the late eleventh century to the demise of the Empire in 1453, it is because this period witnessed a notable continuity in the literary and artistic trends under examination.
During the last centuries of the Empire, epigrammatic poetry flourished. Members of the Byzantine upper classes embraced the practice of adorning objects with poetic texts to an unprecedented degree. How widespread was the vogue for poetic inscriptions in Later Byzantium is indicated not only by the spate of epigrammatic verse produced by poets such as Manuel Philes or the anonymous authors of the Anthologia Marciana, but also by the proliferation of metrical legends on seals. Beginning in the second half of the eleventh century, it became increasingly common for a seal to bear one or several verses that typically identify the owner, often highlighting his or her piety. To the extent that seals functioned as signs and disseminators of personal identity, the presence of poetry on these objects may be taken as an indicator of the degree to which the later Byzantine elite adopted inscribed verse as a medium of public display, a means of proclaiming one’s status and cultural ascendancy.
The flourishing of epigrammatic poetry in Later Byzantium accompanied and responded to the rise of a distinct artistic and religious culture. In this culture, icons held a central place. They focused and sustained devotional life with a singular force, unparalleled before. In both public and private settings, the Byzantines came to express their piety primarily around and through sacred images. Closely related to this development was a growing preoccupation with kosmos. Adornment as an aesthetic category and a religious gesture took on new significance under the Komnenoi. Elite artistic patronage came to reflect an aesthetic sensibility that delights in embellishment and amplification, attends to the frame, the margin, and the ornamental detail, and values visual and material splendor, even excess. Within the discourse of kosmos, poetic inscriptions gained new relevance as verbal and material artifacts capable of adorning the objects to which they were attached. But the inscribed verse also acquired an added significance as a vehicle of self-representation. As we shall see, from the twelfth century onward, dedicatory epigrams increasingly give voice to the patron, often turning into dramatic and intensely emotional “I”-speeches. Propelling this shift to a more personal form of dedicatory address was a heightened concern with the self and its traces and manifestations. A new kind of devotional subjectivity emerged, and along with it came a growing self-assertiveness in the expressions and representations of one’s piety. More than ever before, the inscribed object carried the imprint of the patron’s self.