Worldliness in Byzantium and Beyond: Reassessing the Visual Networks of Barlaam and Ioasaph
This essay analyzes the nunace, mutability, and political purposes of illustrated Greek manuscripts containing a ubiquitous medieval tale: Barlaam and Ioasaph. Exploring the dynamic nature of this Byzantine material and its global peregrinations, it reveals processes of medieval world formation through text and imagery of a story that, paradoxically, advocates the renunciation of the worldly. Ultimately, it argues that the textual transmission of this story and its diverse visual imagery bridged cultures from Asia to Europe, and religions from Buddhism to Christianity.
Barlaam and Ioasaph, Barlaam and Josaphat, illuminated manuscripts, global, iconography, monasticism, translation, unicorn, Physiologus, worlding
IF, AS PART of the global turn in art history, scholars redirect attention from “roots” to “routes,”1 then manuscript studies—as traditionally defined—might be in trouble. Conventional approaches have focused on the former, tracing recension schemas in an attempt to recreate the pictorial programs of lost archetypes from later copies, charting lines of pictorial “influence.” Individual manuscripts, according to this line of thought, are valued primarily as “witnesses” to lost originals as part of an always-elusive recuperative agenda.2 While many scholars have offered cogent critiques of this genealogical method,3 the quest for origins still looms large, especially for manuscript traditions that span multiple cultural contexts.
The shortcomings of this method are thrown into especially sharp contrast by the corpus of manuscripts that form the core of this essay: the illustrated Greek copies of Barlaam and Ioasaph, a high-drama edifying tale based loosely on the life of the Buddha and translated into a staggering number of languages from around the medieval and early modern world. Specialized studies have attended to individual recension programs and modes of translation, while cross-cultural overviews showcase the tale’s wide currency.4 Alongside this wide terrain of textual diffusion is a significant, and somewhat unwieldy, body of visual material. Of the roughly 160 surviving Greek manuscripts of the text, a dozen were conceived [End Page 57] as illustrated copies; their pictorial programs first received systematic attention from Sirapie Der Nersessian, whose study of 1937 is complemented by the recent critical edition of the Greek text by Robert Volk.5 Both are firmly anchored in a roots-origins approach: Der Nersessian imagined a singular (lost) iconographic prototype of ca. 1000, whereas Volk posited five versions of the text and three distinct pictorial cycles. In addition to the illuminated manuscripts themselves, imagery drawn from the legend has found its way into a variety of other artistic contexts around the globe. Despite much rigorous scholarship, however, our understanding of this diffuse visual corpus is still somewhat fragmentary, and issues of transmission overshadow virtually all other potential research questions.
This essay synthesizes some of this material in order to reflect on the creative adaptation, particularization, and local inflection of a medieval cultural phenomenon so widespread as to be truly global—in a very medieval sense. The “world” as figured in the Greek kosmos encompasses a range of concepts from adornment and aesthetics to world order and the universe itself.6 Drawing on such expansive associations, worldliness will serve as this essay’s key heuristic and Byzantium—the Greek-speaking eastern Roman Empire—as the epicentre of cultural encounter from which the story of Barlaam and Ioasaph acquired a worldwide appeal. Moreover, the diffusion of its iconography, which has generally been understood as a one-way migration from the east to the west, is more accurately captured through a study of multiple routes, rather than through a teleology that reduces Byzantium to a mere storehouse for rich source material on its predetermined journey towards western Europe.
This, of course, is part of a much larger effort to address the problematic narrative of Byzantium’s “influence” on European art, in which Byzantine material is viewed as conservative and static, in contrast to innovative and dynamic Western adaptations of it. On the contrary, my study’s emphasis on worldliness reveals the nuance, mutability, and political repurposing of such materials, and their role in acts of mondialisation, a term that stresses ongoing processes of world formation.7 To this end, Sharon Kinoshita has adopted “worlding” as a critical and destabilizing interpretive stance, one that stresses [End Page 58] contingency rather than the inevitability of (modern) globalization.8 In the context of the present study, this worlding is ironically carried out through the changing forms of a tale that purportedly advocates the renunciation of the worldly. In what follows, my analysis moves from the textual peregrinations of the story itself to the permutations of the related visual material in multiple contexts within and beyond Byzantium, to see what kinds of worlds they create and navigate.
From Enlightenment to Edification
Known in Arabic as the Kitāb Bilawhar wa Būḏāsf, in Georgian as the Balavariani, in Greek as Barlaam and Ioasaph, and in Latin as Barlaam and Josaphat, the different versions of the story share the same basic premise and plot structure in order to promote a message of worldly renunciation and conversion. Echoing the narrative of the Buddha’s enlightenment, it tells how a prediction of the young prince’s destiny prompts his father, the king of India, to shield him from all signs of pain and mortality: an endeavour that proves futile when the prince ultimately chooses the spiritual over the material. Despite many other points of convergence with the Buddhist story, the Christian and Muslim versions fundamentally alter the narrative by introducing the figure of an ascetic teacher who plays a pivotal role in the prince’s spiritual journey, in contradistinction to the solidary enlightenment of the Buddha.9 The privileging of this spiritual advisor, Bilawhar or Barlaam, in the titles of all versions of the tale underscores this profound shift in focus from enlightenment to edification—not only of the prince but also the reader, for whom the text becomes the teacher.
The legend of the Buddha’s life is thought to have traveled from India as part of the cultural traffic along the Silk Roads, where it might have been translated from Sanskrit (or another Indian language) into Pahlavi (Middle Persian) and then combined with a variety of Arabic literary sources and sermons to become the Kitāb Bilawhar wa Būḏāsf compiled in ninth-century Abbasid Baghdad.10 The [End Page 59] first extant written version of the story was thus part of the Abbasid translation movement, the significance of which cannot be overemphasized: in the famed “House of Wisdom,” scholars in Baghdad collaborated on translations, interpretations, and scientific writings that fueled profound developments in all areas of knowledge both within and beyond Islamic lands.11(This route parallels that of Kalila wa Dimna, another collection of moral tales, the Pañcatantra, which was translated into Arabic from the Sanskrit through a no-longer extant Pahlavi intermediary.12) While the tale’s moral import is clear, the religious orthodoxy of the Kitāb Bilawhar wa Būḏāsf is ambiguous. There is only one brief mention of Islam in the text; no reference to Muhammad; and the ascetic tenets that form the basis of the prince’s instruction are called merely “the Religion.”13
In the later Greek and Latin Christian versions, as in the Arabic, the plot is more of a pretext for Bilawhar’s teachings, which are elaborated as a series of parables. The first extant Christian iteration of the tale, indeed, was adapted into an emphatic account of monastic triumphalism. This Balavariani was composed by Georgian monks in Jerusalem, probably at Mar Saba, in the tenth century: a time and place when the story’s celebration of asceticism would have resonated strongly. Here, “the Religion” is identified explicitly as Christianity, with the royal father, King Abenes, cast as “a man of strong pagan beliefs” persecuting the “hated servants of Christ” in an effort to protect his son.14 Similarly, the rather generic ascetic parables of the earlier story in Arabic are transformed into parables that serve to illuminate Christian truths. To accomplish this, the Georgian version selectively reduces the number of parables to those that can best illuminate Christian ascetic practice, specifically.
The subsequent Greek edition produced by Euthymios (d. 1028), in the Iviron monastery on Mount Athos, added an even more elaborate exegetical gloss to the narrative frame.15 Whereas the Balavariani opens with the pagan king persecuting [End Page 60] Christians in his land of India—plunging the reader straight into the narrative— Barlaam and Ioasaph begins with a lengthy prelude on the edifying purpose of the book and a prefatory digression on India’s evangelization by the apostle Thomas. It also describes monastic foundations in Egypt, devoting far more attention to the “glorious band of Christians and the companies of monks” than to the pagan king’s worldly majesty. While maintaining the basic narrative structure, the Greek version further elaborates points of Orthodox Christian dogma and monastic virtue. The number of parables are even more reduced than in the Georgian version, and the resulting space is filled by additional exegetical material, including many scriptural passages, citations from the Church Fathers, and other sources. As Lopez and McCracken aptly put it, “If the anonymous Georgian monk Christianized the Arabic tale, the Greek monk theologized it.”16
The Greek Barlaam and Ioasaph served as the basis for subsequent Armenian, Slavic, Ethiopian, and Christian Arabic versions, as well as the Latin Barlaam and Josaphat, later rendered into an extremely diverse range of European vernaculars.17 In addition to the versions by Gui de Cambrai and Rudolf von Ems, an abbreviation is included in the popular Speculum historiae of Vincent of Beauvais and the even more popular Golden Legend of Jacques de Voragine.18 The European versions differ markedly both from each other and from the Byzantine “source.” For example, the Golden Legend reduces the narrative to the most essential elements and eliminates the didacticism of the Greek version, in order to humanize and dramatize “the lived experience of Christian doctrine.”19 By contrast, Gui de Cambrai’s French version transforms this humanized piety into a feudal tale with Josaphat serving as the “bellicose crusader for Christ.”20 The many versions of the story thus represent a series of creative adaptations to serve local or confessional needs. Narrative details, contexts, and purposes were malleable, but the core element was [End Page 61] the heroic investment in ascetic life. In its myriad iterations across cultures and languages, this most worldly of medieval stories stressed worldly renunciation.
Visual Edification in Byzantium and Beyond
Unlike surviving Arabic and Georgian versions of the tale, which preserve neither manuscript illuminations nor any indications of lost illustration cycles, the Byzantine adaptors of the tale developed a full iconographic program. Of the entire corpus of Barlaam and Ioasaph manuscripts, Volk has shown that at least twelve were meant to be illuminated, since they either preserve visual programs or traces of illustrations that were never executed or are no longer extant (namely, captions alluding to miniatures).21 The most elaborate pictorial cycle, consisting of over two hundred individual scenes, is represented by Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France MS gr. 1128, which is dated to the early fourteenth century.22 The earliest and best preserved is Mount Athos, Holy Monastery of Iviron Codex 463, with eighty especially well-executed miniatures dating from the latter half of the eleventh century.23 Both of these manuscripts begin with the apostle Thomas preaching the gospel in India.24 The Iviron manuscript (fol. 4r) depicts the saint arriving by boat on the left, preaching in the centre, and baptizing on the right (Plate 4.1). Beyond indicating the setting of the story, this visual sequence foregrounds edification as its primary purpose and a concern with the world as its core theme. The program unfolds with the persecution of Christians, and of monks in particular: they are shown expelled, tortured, beheaded, and set aflame. The narrative then turns to the prince, Ioasaph, his birth, and his many exchanges with his father and later with the wise monk Barlaam, interspersed with visualizations of Barlaam’s teachings, many in the form of parables.
One particularly evocative parable, involving a man and unicorn, crystallizes the tale’s central concerns while serving as a microcosm of visual edification in Byzantium and beyond. Not only is this the only parable with a clear textual and [End Page 62] visual genealogy in ancient sources, its wide-ranging travels allow us to consider its reconfiguration across a vast terrain over a long period of time. While a “roots” approach to its iconography would entail a recuperative search for lost originals, a more fruitful “routes” approach enables us to focus on the different articulations of the story: that is, its mobility and mutability.
The parable occurs in the context of a lecture on the dangers of corporeal pleasure. Barlaam tells Ioasaph how a man, being chased by a unicorn, tumbled into a fearsome abyss and managed to grab two branches as he fell, which helped him to gain a foothold.25 Looking up, he saw above him two mice, one black and one white, gnawing at the roots of the tree whose branches he held. Looking down, he saw a dragon with open jaws and four deadly asps, awaiting his fall. But honey dripped from the branches of the tree and, as he tasted its sweetness, he forgot the perils that surrounded him. The parable teaches that these few drops of honey—pleasure—are the transient delights that distract us from the precarious realities of mortality. Complicating traditional Christian allegorical associations of the unicorn with Christ, the Greek text of Barlaam’s explanation equates the unicorn with death.26
Illustrations of this parable vary across the corpus of extant Byzantine illuminated manuscripts.27 Two early copies preserve traces of the imagery, and although their states of preservation make any definitive reading of them problematic, Der Nersessian’s line drawings show the man situated below the unicorn and above the dragon; other details remain elusive (Figures 4.1–2). Other extant miniatures convey the pursuit by showing the man running up to a tree, rather than falling and grabbing branches. In the simple marginal sketch of the Cambridge manuscript28 and the more elaborately painted Paris miniature, the story unfolds sequentially through abbreviated continuous narration, with the unicorn on the left chasing the man, who runs and clings to the branches of the tree on the right. In the Cambridge scene (Figure 4.3), the unicorn leaps towards the man, who is shown in flight with arms outstretched; then, on the right, the man is pictured again in the branches of a tree with mice gnawing its base above an open-jawed dragon as four snakes jut [End Page 63] out from a wall. The Paris manuscript represents the parable in two stages (Figure 4.4): on the left, the unicorn bears its teeth ferociously as the man looks over his shoulder; on the right, he scrambles up a tree. Only upon close inspection can one make out the dragon below the tree; the other narrative elements remain indistinct.
The Cambridge miniature’s diagrammatic presentation stresses legibility above all else; the Paris scene lacks iconographic clarity but compensates by emphasizing the emotional charge of the fleeing man’s urgency and his furrowed brow of fear. Indeed, this moment of high drama gains additional poignancy by its juxtaposition with a sumptuous banquet, depicted directly above it on the same page: a reference to the pleasures of the world with which Barlaam introduces the parable. In the text of the parable, Barlaam likens the man running from the unicorn to those indulgent men who, with no thought for the future, cling to the [End Page 64]
pleasures of the flesh, leaving the soul to be afflicted by evil.29 By including the parable’s set-up or premise, the Paris manuscript offers a moral gloss in visual terms, drawing a clear analogy between the folly of fleeting corporeal pleasures and the folly of fleeing from death.30 This more expansive treatment of the parable is consistent with the Paris manuscript’s general tendency to attenuate visual narratives: this copy includes the most substantial illustration cycle, often stretching single episodes into two miniatures. Here, by elaborating the connection between worldly danger and pleasure, it focuses less on the parable itself and more on the larger narrative framework: Barlaam’s teaching of worldly renunciation. [End Page 65]
As stories travel, narrative details and their meanings shift—both in texts and images. In the case of this particular parable, some of these shifts run counter to well-established traditions. As noted above, the unicorn is an allegory for Christ in medieval Christian exegesis (Roman and Orthodox). This association was codified in the Physiologos, the late antique bestiary that was becoming increasingly [End Page 66]
influential in the eleventh century. Citing Psalm 91:11 (“But my horn shall be exalted as the horn of a unicorn”), the Physiologos describes how only a virgin is able to capture the beast and deliver it to the king’s palace, just as only a Virgin could bear Christ and deliver him up for kingly glory. In photographs of the no [End Page 67] longer extant Smyrna Physiologos, the unicorn places its hoof on the knee of a seated young woman in courtly dress (Figure 4.5),31 imagery also adopted by Byzantine marginal Psalters.32 The Theodore Psalter’s Psalm 91:11, for example, similarly depicts a unicorn resting its hoof on the knee of a seated woman (Figure 4.6). It further reinforces the typological significance by including the figure of Saint John Chrysostom, who interprets the scene for the reader by gesturing up to the image of the Virgin positioned above the seated woman.33
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But under the influence of Barlaam and Ioasaph, this gentle allegory became entangled with the parable’s figuration of the unicorn as the relentless pursuit of death. Two Psalters produced in Constantinople’s Studios monastery during the mid-eleventh century—the Theodore and Barberini Psalters34—reveal a confluence [End Page 69] of these associations. Both Psalters illustrate Psalm 91.11 with scenes similar to the Phsyiologos configuration, but they also use the unicorn as a symbol of death to accompany Psalm 143:4 (“Man is like to vanity, his days are as a shadow”).35 Although much of the pigment has flaked from the Theodore Psalter miniature, the iconography remains legible and is clearly taken from Barlaam and Ioasaph (Plate 4.2): the man fleeing the rampant unicorn on the left finds refuge in a tree on the right whose roots are gnawed by the white and black mice, above a pit with Hades and a dragon. The parable’s impact on these two Psalters speaks to the popularity of the tale and also to the adaptability of specific elements across multiple narrative contexts.
Indeed, of the many parables included and illustrated in the Greek version of Barlaam and Ioasaph this one derives from ancient traditions that reach well beyond the Mediterranean;36 in early versions, however, the aggressive animal is an elephant. For example, a number of reliefs from the third-century Buddhist stupas [End Page 70] of Andhra Pradesh depict a scene known as the “man in the well.”37One relief, now housed in the Nāgārjunikonda Museum, compresses this scene into a vertical strip on the far left, separate from the main figures in the frieze (Figure 4.7). Here, we see an elephant diving headfirst into a well, inside which a man grasps branches that are being gnawed by a mouse as serpents prevent his escape and a coiled beast sits below with open jaws. The scene is rendered more schematically and in reduced scale to set it apart from the main pictorial space; the result, according to Catherine Becker, is a sort of “cartoon bubble” that separates the “narrative realm” of the visualized story from the space of its narration by the monk seated at the centre of the composition.38 The transformative potential of the tale is then stressed through a before-and-after formula: at the far right of the relief a king is depicted as visibly aggressive, sword in hand, as he is restrained. Then, at the centre, he is shown kneeling with arms raised respectfully as he listens to the monk. The cause of his transformation is the story depicted on the far left. In this and the other reliefs of the “man in the well” at Andra Pradesh, storytelling is the point of the narrative: “a story elucidating the folly of clinging to a life of suffering brings about a transformation in its audience.”39 Underscoring this reading, we note that the man in the well does not visually engage his surrounding perils but stares fixedly at the monk in the main space of the frieze, while his predicament’s narrator directs his gaze at the viewer, thus linking the parable and its oral performance to maximize its poignancy.
Two points deserve emphasis here. First, specific narrative elements of this edifying story seem less important than its overall potential for effectively illustrating the “intractability of the human condition.” Second, while the parable in the Andra Pradesh relief has a wide set of textual attestations, from ancient Jain sources to the Mahabarata, the source of the frame narrative, the monk and the transformed king, remains unclear.40 This strongly suggests that the narrative frame and the parable may have circulated independently before coming together in this configuration. This mutability is, moreover, carried forward in medieval iterations, whose key narrative elements can be interchangeable (elephant can become unicorn) and in which the parable often breaks free from its [End Page 71] frame and, in the process, gains global traction. Hence its essential elements feature in both the Arabic Kitāb Bilawhar wa Būḏāsf as well as the collection of fables known as Kalila wa Dimna, which (as noted above) followed a similar transmission route. Notably, both texts describe a man who finds refuge from a rampant elephant.41 The Georgian Balavariani also features an elephant in its telling of this parable. But in the Greek versions of the parable, the elephant becomes a unicorn: not only in Barlaam and Ioasaph and the Psalters influenced by it, but in the text of Stephanites and Ichnelates, a translation of Kalila wa Dimna made for the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081–1127).42 The introduction of the unicorn can be seen as a strategic attempt to preserve the distant, exotic setting of the story.43 The elephant was a familiar animal for the Byzantines, who were capable of differentiating between Asian and African breeds; elephants were housed in the imperial menagerie and their depictions graced public and private monuments.44 By contrast, the unicorn was a mythical beast thought to be native to India, the elusive land in which the story was set. This substitution, and the ensuing complication of its Christian symbolism, provides an analogue to Barlaam and Ioasaph’s opening scene, in which the apostle Thomas preaches in the land of India. Even as the unicorn’s new association with death went against established allegorical interpretation, it lent vibrancy to the tale of worldly renunciation, giving the scene a compelling dynamism that an elephant simply could not.
The handful of extant illuminated copies of the story’s Christian Arabic version show us how artists navigated these contemporary, and competing, narrative traditions. The earliest representative of this corpus is a thirteenth-century manuscript in the Balamand monastery in Lebanon.45 Of its nine miniatures, seven depict the prince with his teacher and his father and the remaining two represent parables, including the man pursued by the unicorn, the format of which differs [End Page 72] considerably from that of the rest of the miniatures of the codex (Figure 4.8). Nearly half a page in height, this unframed scene is centrally anchored by the body of the man who grasps the tree branches with both hands, while the trunks are gnawed by black and white mice as asps and a ferocious dragon await below. While the unicorn itself is not depicted here, it is clearly identified in the accompanying inscription. This miniature bears a striking similarity to the oldest extant Arabic copy of Kalila wa Dimna, dating from the first quarter of the thirteenth century, which also depicts that parable but omits the animal pursuing the man, which in
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this case (according to the text) is an elephant (Figure 4.9).46 In a further permutation, the Persian versions of Kalila wa Dimna transform the beast into a camel, who [End Page 74] appears in the upper right corner of the miniature of a later thirteenth-century copy (Figure 4.10).47
All of these miniatures demonstrate the blending of local and trans-local visual and narrative traditions. The unicorn parable also circulated independently, in portable and monumental scales, across a range of funerary, didactic, and civic [End Page 75] contexts beyond Byzantium.48 The illustrated Latin and European vernacular versions of Barlaam and Ioasaph, for the most part, prioritize the narrative portions of the story rather than the parables, as is consistent with these translations’ reduction of the story’s exegetical and didactic features.49 However, the parable of the man and the unicorn continued to receive special attention. In a miniature from the early fourteenth-century Liber Barlaam et Josaphat servorum Dei, now in the Vatican, the unicorn perches on a rock to the left, surveying the man who has fallen into the abyss below—mice, dragon, and asps are all present and identified by a caption.50 Other depictions situate the man as the focal point, hanging in suspension and surrounded by a panoply of clearly legible perils.
Still others privilege the tree and, in so doing, evoke a powerful allegory of the Tree of Life. For example, one of the most densely and exquisitely illustrated books of its era, the Psalter-Hours of Yolande de Soissons, made in Amiens in the late thirteenth century, depicts the parable in conjunction with the Office of the Dead. The miniature contrasts good and evil along the central axis of the page, which is formed by the tree, into which the man is nestled, framed by the unicorn with a white mouse on the left, and a black mouse with the open jaws of the dragon on the right (Figure 4.11).51 No longer associated with the story of the Indian prince and his ascetic teacher, here it offers a self-sufficient meditation on mortality. In other contexts, it could be combined with didactic material in exempla for sermons and devotional compilations.52 In a fifteenth-century Carthusian miscellany the tree is captioned “mans lyf” and its branches hold a beehive with the “hony drope” which [End Page 76]
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fall to the man’s lips (Figure 4.12). Also present are the mice, the open mouth of the beast, and the “unycorne” in the lower left, whose allegorical significance is made clear by the caption “ded pursues to sla man.”53 A relief in Ferrara, once part of a pulpit or ambo, also preserves this imagery, testifying to its use in the monumental and performative contexts of preaching as well.54
Monumental representations of the parable in western Europe are especially well documented in Italy.55 The tympanum of the southern door of the baptistery in Parma, from around 1200, is anchored compositionally by a man in a tree with a fire-breathing dragon at its base, which is being gnawed by two quadrupeds (Figure 4.13).56 For Arthur Kingsley Porter, this works in concert with the [End Page 79] imagery on the west portal, dedicated to the Six Ages of the World and the Six Ages of Man, and to the parable of the vineyard (Matthew 20:1–16).57 Similar imagery also appears in fresco at the Cistercian abbey of Tre Fontane, painted at the turn of the thirteenth century as part of the so-called Vita Humana cycle, and may be a formal forerunner of the lost fresco in Torre Colonna (Tivoli) and at the Casa Corboli of Asciano (Siena).58 The civic contexts for these latter programs testify to the political deployment of the imagery as commentary on the transitory nature of terrestrial power. At Asicano, for example, the apologue is framed by roundels of rulers from antiquity meeting their tragic and violent ends (Absalom, Priam, Scipio, Nero) as well as the Judgement of Solomon and Aristotle surrounded by virtues.59 In these varied contexts, the narrative setting of the parable ceases to matter. Ironically, its global dissemination and adaptation has made its intimate connection with global processes largely illegible.
A Worldly Mirror
Turning from the story’s worldwide peregrinations to its critique of worldliness, the remainder of this essay considers how Barlaam and Ioasaph helped to forge links between the monastic and imperial worlds of Byzantium by serving as a mirror for monks and rulers. Throughout the tale, the world looms large as the enemy of those attempting to live in emulation of holy men.60 However, this message of asceticism is complicated, if not undermined, by the deluxe pictorial programs through which the narrative is conveyed and by the increased production of sumptuous illuminated manuscripts with monastic associations. The Iviron illustrated copy has been linked to a number of luxurious books produced in eleventh-century Constantinople for elite, even imperial, circles.61 These books therefore witness a new overlapping of monastic and aristocratic spheres in the eleventh century, a phenomenon that has generated a substantial body of scholarship. Rosemary Morris has argued that the boom in monasticism, which manifested itself in the [End Page 80] growth of religious institutions, increasingly expansive land acquisition, and forms of lay patronage, entailed a certain degree of spiritual compromise.62 By the end of the eleventh century, the traditional values of monastic self-sufficiency (autakreia) became imbricated in a dense network of lay aristocratic and imperial influence. Because they were not subjected to the demands of inheritance or political confiscation, certain monastic estates evolved into highly profitable and powerful establishments, often on par with those of the lay aristocracy, and thus played a significant role in the economic life of their regions and of the capital.63 Influence was also political, and extended beyond economics to the judicial and bureaucratic spheres as well. For example, certain favoured communities could leverage their well-developed ties to elicit the assistance of the emperor or patriarch rather than turning to local secular or ecclesiastical structures, or “worldly courts” (kosmika kriteria) because “the kosmikoi [men of the world] do not understand spiritual affairs.”64 For Orthodox monks, the challenge of “being in the world but not of it” did not entail a full retreat from worldly social networks, but a recasting of those networks: despite the timeless ideal of asceticism that permeates monastic texts, the monastery itself was an ever-contingent social space.
Without flattening the multi-faceted dimensions of Byzantine monasticism— which comprised a vast range of practices corresponding to the diversity of the wider Byzantine world—historians generally concur that a process of “secularization” is evident over the course of the eleventh century.65 Inmaculada Pérez Martín has examined the role of notary-monks in monastic book production as evidence of this phenomenon,66 and Barbara Crostini has investigated how monasteries and their communities engaged in forms of political action and even subversion, using Barlaam and Ioasaph as one of her primary examples.67 Throughout the Byzantine copies of this story, monks serve as advisors to princes and thus act as agitators for change; they constitute radicals who pose, in her words, “a powerful and disruptive social force that undermines the seeming happiness of a prosperous secular state.” In this way, the story is “disquieting as well as exhilarating” from the monastic [End Page 81] perspective.68 For despite Barlaam’s ascetic lifestyle, his teachings effected the conversion not only of Prince Ioasaph, but his father and, in turn, the entire kingdom. Edification, in this narrative, makes eventual impact across a diverse monastic and political public. In other words, monasticism meant spiritual edification in the service of wider social change. The proactive agenda of the narrative is signposted from its very outset with the evangelization of faraway India by St. Thomas: the entire tale is prefaced by his apostolic mission, represented in the opening of the Iviron manuscript as the sequential unfolding of distant travel, preaching, and conversion.
A central framework for understanding the story’s illumination and dissemination is thus the monastic revival of the eleventh century and, more specifically, the rich pictorial programs developed in the monasteries of Constantinople at that time. As part of this new and distinctive “monastic iconography,” Barlaam and Ioasaph sits alongside the Heavenly Ladder of John Klimakos and the tenth-century metaphrastic lives, all of which received their first pictorial cycles at this time.69 Kathleen Corrigan has argued that the Physiologos too falls into a similar pattern: although it had been illustrated previously—as noted above, marginal imagery for Psalm 91:11 was based on the Physiologos—it was only in the eleventh century that the basic animal illustrations were augmented with moral interpretations that dealt specifically with monastic concerns, such as temptations of the flesh and the challenge of “rejecting the world outside the monastery.”70 The Smyrna copy of the Physiologos, with its amplified moral message, also contained excerpts from Cosmas Indicopleustes’ Christian Topography, a treatise on minerals, geography, and cosmology by a sixth-century Alexandrian merchant, who discusses India at length and even mentions the unicorns to be found there; they are duly depicted in the illustrated copies.71 In addition, two of the three extant copies of Cosmas’s treatise date to the eleventh century, and one of these is closely related, thematically and technically, to the lost Smyrna manuscript.72 Taken collectively, these works speak to a particular monastic context in which sumptuous illuminations offered a key framework for interpreting the world.
On the one hand, then, Barlaam and Ioasaph was the ideal evocation of the intertwined spiritual and political dimensions of Byzantine monasticism. On the other, it offered spiritual authorization for the exercise of terrestrial authority. It is in this [End Page 82] context that we can place later uses of the story and its imagery at the Byzantine court. For example, a number of poems by Manuel Philes, court poet of Emperor Andronikos II (r. 1282–1328), reference that imagery in the imperial palace in Constantinople:
On a picture of Life which represents a tree, in which a man is gaping upwards and quaffing honey from above, while below, the roots [of the tree] are being devoured by mice: On seeing this symbol of the shadow of [earthly] things, bear in mind, O man, the end that is hidden from you. Standing upright, you are enjoying the honey of pleasure, while a dragon with gaping mouth awaits your fall to destroy you.73
Even without explicit mention of a unicorn, the story is unmistakably the parable from Barlaam and Ioasaph, with which the poem’s audience is expected to be familiar. Philes moves from describing the imagery itself to addressing that audience, equating the reader or listener with the man in the tree while, at the same time, making the reader the spectator. The image—both the actual picture referenced by Philes and the poet’s mental picture—constitute a mirror into which the audience looks to see its own image reflected in the man’s perilous predicament.
Meanwhile, the story’s protagonists came to be understood as mirrors of holiness, since both Barlaam and Ioasaph were venerated as saints and frequently included in the pictorial cycles of later Byzantine churches. The earliest monumental depiction of Saints Barlaam and Ioasaph is at the Church of the Virgin at Studenica (1208/9, now in central Serbia), where they are situated on the southwest pilaster. Ioasaph is pictured on the left face of the pilaster with a scroll in one hand, while his other gestures toward the Virgin and Child at the right (Figure 4.14). Although bearded, he still appears youthful; sanctified by a halo, he also wears his royal crown (Figure 4.15). The depiction of Barlaam, on the face farther to the left, follows conventions for representing ascetics: an unruly beard, wild hair, and more gaunt physiognomy (Figure 4.16). Saints Barlaam and Ioasaph appear in those churches under the influence of Athonite monasticism, as Sharon Gerstel has shown, highlighting the regional influence of Mount Athos in popularizing the tale.74 For, as we recall, it was there that it was first translated into Greek by the monk Euthymios, and where the luxurious Iviron copy resides to this day. The story’s celebration of a royal prince turned monk and his ascetic mentor would resonate especially strongly in a monastic community that included many former aristocrats.
Moreover, Gerstel argues that a related iconographic program also begins to appear in the fourteenth-century churches of Thessaloniki and its hinterland, precisely because both concern monastic life and the rite of the Holy Mountain: [End Page 83] John Klimakos’s Heavenly Ladder or Ladder of Divine Ascent.75 In one particularly striking and unusual fresco in the exonarthex of the Vatopedi monastery on Mount
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Athos, dated to 1312, monks are depicted striving, eagerly and earnestly, to ascend the ladder despite taunting demons; Christ awaits at the ladder’s summit and a dragon lies below to catch those who fall. A lavish banquet is shown immediately adjacent on the left, and its detailed attention to sumptuous cosmopolitan dress and rich feasting has been described as reflecting the “the attachment of Late Byzantine officials to material wealth and worldly pleasures.”76 The image’s pointed juxtaposition of sacred and secular spheres has also been read in light of [End Page 85] works by contemporary theologians and intellectuals, who “stressed the importance of obtaining spiritual perfection within the existing visible world” and, more specifically, as reflecting the concerns of the noble-born inhabitants of the Vatopedi monastery.77 Spiritual striving and corporeal indulgence are also deliberately juxtaposed in the fourteenth-century Paris copy of Barlaam and Ioasaph, where the man’s flight from the unicorn is positioned directly below the sumptuous banquet
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scene. This pairing serves to tie the parable to its frame, as noted above, but it also sets up a contrast between indulgence and striving.
Veneration of Saints Barlaam and Ioasaph was also cultivated in the service of dynastic affiliation, especially within Serbian territories, as Vojislav Đurić has shown.78 The foundation narrative of the powerful Namanjid dynasty was celebrated as a parallel to the story of Ioasaph and his royal father: when Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja (ca. 1113–1199) abdicated in 1196, he joined his youngest son who had already committed to the monastic life at Vatopedi on Mount Athos. This dynastic history was then aligned allegorically with King Abener and Ioasaph in a variety of rhetorical works.79 The churches founded by Serbian rulers, in turn— including Studenica (above)—featured images of Saints Baarlam and Ioasaph in close proximity to founding portraits, thus interweaving monastic cult and royal dynasty through this forged analogy. Later Serbian rulers would style themselves, explicitly, as “new Ioasaphs.”80
In many other contexts, however, the saints offered a clear manifestation of monastic power as distinct from that of the ruling elite. Efthalia Constantinides has differentiated between the Serbian dynastic messages of the story and church programs in Greece, where the saints embody the renewed spiritual authority of the monks vis-à-vis the emperor. These express the monastic challenge to imperium, an especially pointed message in light of the Hesychast controversy of the four-teenth century.81 This helps to explain the resonance of the most celebrated ruler to adopt Ioasaph as a monastic name, Byzantine emperor John VI Kantakouzenos (ca. 1292–1383), a fervent support of hesychasts and close friend of the movement’s founder, who abdicated the throne in 1347 and lived out the last thirty years of his life in the monastery of St. George of the Mangana in Constantinople. A luxurious edition of his many polemical, historical, and theological writings includes a unique double portrait showing him as both Emperor John and monk Ioasaph (Figure 4.17).82
Rather than serving as a mere witness to purportedly lost roots or a waystation along a one-way trajectory of transmission, the global tale of Barlaam and Ioasaph [End Page 87] became a mirror for both monks and princes, reflecting the Byzantine world and its concerns with worldliness. The wealth and complexity of its translations, adaptations, manuscript copies, and monumental representations speak to the ubiquitous appeal of the story. Furthermore, some manuscripts are so luxuriously illuminated as to complicate or comment on the narrative’s themes of restraint and renunciation, making their “strict ascetic message … almost an oxymoron,” in the words of Barbara Crostini.83 On another level, the tale participated in a
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process of worlding or world-making, as a story set in distant India is reframed as a Christian apostolic project, prompting a reassessment of the worldly roles of monastic communities as agents of artistic production and political power. In both the tale and its transmission, we see monks forging and shaping a world from which they would also attempt to set themselves apart.
As stories travelled throughout the medieval world “with merchants and caravans, monks and scribes, envoys and artisans, soldiers and slaves, the retinues of exogamous brides”—as Geraldine Heng has put it—mutability went hand in hand with mobility.84 In her primary illustration of global literatures avant la lettre, she offers a brief but brilliant sketch of the Buddha’s travelling life over two thousand years, attributing its global diffusion more to its subversive potential than to its edifying qualities:
While scholars commonly focus on the pull of moral-metaphysical instruction the story enacts, key elements of the story also dramatize resistance to power and authority, stage critiques of corruption, and offer celebrations of evasion and concealment of embedded sociopolitical attractions that no doubt helped to drive the story’s global motility.85
The story’s “motility” is an allegory for medieval globalism: in biology, the capacity to be self-generative, to move spontaneously and independently. This motility lends itself not to a grand plan of transmission, where roots and routes dictate the parameters of the conversation; instead, it draws attention to the seemingly myriad possibilities of random encounter and ensuing recalibration. In motility, then, we have an apt term for the cultural work done by what I have called the worldliness of Barlaam of Ioasaph in its myriad manifestations, travelling across boundaries and borders, changing shapes and shaping change. [End Page 89]
Cecily J. Hilsdale(firstname.lastname@example.org) specializes in the arts of Byzantium and the wider Mediterranean world. She is the author of Byzantine Art and Diplomacy in an Age of Decline (Cambridge University Press, 2014) and numerous articles dealing with cultural exchange: in particular the circulation of Byzantine luxury items such as diplomatic gifts; as well as the related dissemination of Eastern styles, techniques, iconographies, and ideologies of imperium.
In addition to an anonymous reader, I would like to thank the following colleagues for conversations about the topic or feedback on the piece, whose shortcomings remain my own: Barbara Crostini, Shannon Gayk, Aden Kumler, Amanda Luyster, Peggy McCracken, Christina Normore, Jonathan Sachs, and especially Carol Symes. While Brooke Andrade and Sarah Harris of the National Humanities Center offered bibliographic assistance at the early stages of this project, Alexandra Kelebay, Catherine Becker, and Columba Stewart were instrumental in sourcing the final images. This research was funded by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
9. See e.g. de Blois, “On the Sources.” The importance of Christian paideia is stressed by Crostini, “Spiritual ‘Encyclopedias’,” 213–29, esp. 227; as well as Crostini, “Eleventh-Century Monasticism,” 216–30. I would like to thank the author for sharing this essay with me in advance of its publication.
10. Gimaret, Le Livre, offers an extensive study of this Arabic narrative, its diverse source materials, and variations. My account of the story’s transmission is simplified for clarity: for example, I do not discuss the Manichean fragments of the text nor do I elaborate the stemmas of the different versions.
12. On the routes of Kalila wa Dimna, see Kinoshita, “Translatio/n, Empire,” and also below. On the confluence of these frame-tales and their trajectories, see Uhlig and Foehr-Janssens, eds., D’Orient en Occident.
13. Building on Gimaret’s work, Lopez and McCracken (In Search, 54–89) contextualize the Arabic version within the framework of Muslim understandings of Buddhism. On the sectarian issues raised by the two Arabic recensions, see de Blois, “On the Sources.” See also Gimaret, “Traces”; and, more recently, Genequand’s contribution to Uhlig and Foehr-Janssens, eds., D’Orient en Occident, 67–77.
16. Lopez and McCracken, In Search of the Christian Buddha, 133. The textual sources are thoroughly discussed by Volk.
17. The tale was translated into Latin in Amalfi in 1047/8, but a second twelfth-century translation was the main catalyst for the European dissemination of the story. On the French and Latin manuscripts, see Sonet, Le Roman. In addition, another entirely independent Greek-to-French vernacular translation was made in Constantinople in the thirteenth century, in the margins of Iviron 463 (see below). A critical edition of this French text is underway; for now, see Egedi-Kovács, “La Traduction française.”
24. That is, following full-page author portraits: the Paris manuscript portrays Barlaam standing, dressed in monastic garb (fol. 1v); while the Iviron copy shows its author seated at a lectern, in accordance with conventions for evangelist portraits (fol. 1v).
27. Of the six manuscripts studied by Der Nersessian, four include an illumination of this scene: see her chart on p. 36, plus discussion, with line drawings, on 63–68. In the Iviron codex, there is a lacuna between folios 38v and 39r, where the miniature presumably would have been: see Volk, 271; Toumpouri, “L’Illustration,” 12. Note that this parable and other portions of Barlaam and Ioasaph also found expression in later monumental programs in Romania, Serbia, Greece, and elsewhere.
31. This manuscript (Smyrna Library, Evangelical School B8) was destroyed in 1922: Demus, “Physiologus”; Bernabò et al., Il fisiologo; Corrigan, “Smyrna Physiologos.” For a recent study of its scribe, see Hutter, “Τheodoros βιβλιογράφος.”
34. The former is Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Barb. Gr 372, dated to before 1092. For the latter, see Anderson et al. Barberini Psalter.
35. In the Theodore Psalter, this scene appears on fol. 182v, with the caption μονοκέρωτος ἡ θάνατο(ς); in the Barberini Psalter it appears on fol. 237v, with the caption μονοκέροτο(ς)— θάνατο(ς). Such imagery occurs in select later Psalters, as well.
36. While it is, according to François de Blois, “the only shared story that is definitely of Indian origin,” its source is mediated: it “is manifestly taken from a literary source in Arabic and not directly from some Indian or Buddhist work” (“On the Sources,” 17). Cf. Gimaret, “Traces.”
39. Ibid., 115.
40. Both Becker (ibid., 134) and Zin (“Parable,” 81) observe that none of the corresponding texts include the frame story of the transformed king—that is, the parable alone finds textual corroboration. See also Vogel, “Man in the Well”; Toumpouri, “L’Homme chassé,” 9–11.
42. See Sjöberg, Stephanites und Ichnelates (an edition is based on the oldest, twelfth-century manuscript); and Condylis-Bassoukos, Stéphanitès kai Ichnélatès (an edition that pairs the text with that of Kalila wa-Dimna). However, no known manuscripts of this text include miniatures.
45. Our Lady of Balamand Monastery MS 141 (formerly number 147): Sminé, “Miniatures”; Briquel-Chatonnet et al., Manuscrits chrétiens, 34–35. No comprehensive study of the Christian Arabic corpus exists, although Toumpouri-Alexopoulou (“Byzantium and the Arab World”) provides some preliminary remarks.
46. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS ar. 4365, fol. 43v: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b84229611/f100.item. Grube (“Prolegomena,” 320) includes a checklist of the nineteen Kalilah wa Dimna manuscripts that include this iconography of the “Perils of Life.” See also Grube, ed., A Mirror, esp. figs. 59–65; Zin, “Parable,” 46–54.
47. Istanbul, Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi, MS H. 363. See Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi et al., Topkapi Saray Museum, 50–51 and fig. 28.
48. In western Europe it appears in an impressive array of genres and materials, on portals, frescos, stained glass, and tombs. The bibliography is vast and includes Muñoz, “Rappresentazioni allegoriche”; Der Nersessian, 63–67; Einhorn, “Das Einhorn”; Einhorn, Spiritualis unicornis; Toumpouri, “L’Homme chassé”; Aavitsland, Imagining, 108–28; and Tagliatesta, “Les Représentations.”
49. There is no systematic study of this material to parallel Der Nersessian’s study of the Byzantine corpus. Some of the illuminated manuscripts are listed in Sonet, Le Roman, but without detailed descriptions. Overviews of the wider iconography include: Stammler, “Barlaam und Josaphat”; Wessel, “Barlaam und Josaphat”; Donato, “Barlaam e Iosafat.”
51. New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS 729, fol. 354v. See Gould, Psalter and Hours, 77. The use of the parable to highlight the immediacy of death was rare, if not unique. Similar imagery appears on the tomb of Adelaide of Champagne, countess of Joigny, from the mid-thirteenth century. However, there is no visual reference to the parable’s unicorn and dragon or hell mouth; just the two small animals biting the roots of the tree: see Pillion, “Un Tombeau français.”
55. Ibid. Extant or attested programs north of the Alps are found in Austria (Krems), Germany (Bischoffingen and Lorsch), and Denmark (Vester Broby).
60. Much of Barlaam’s speech delivered in the chapter that culminates in the parable of the man and the unicorn celebrates those who deny themselves the comforts of the flesh: Barlaam and Ioasaph, 12:103–4 and 12:183–215.
62. Morris (Monks and Laymen, 200) sees a fundamental tension between “the spiritual tenets of monasticism and the practical realities of survival.” For the period preceding that covered by Morris, see Hatlie, Monks and Monasteries. See also Thomas and Hero, eds., Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents.
64. Ibid., 262 (Protaton no. 7).
68. Ibid., 218–19.
69. Angold, Church and Society, 271. For the Ladder of John Klimakos, see Martin, Illustration, and the discussion below. On the saints’ lives associated with Symeon Metaphrastes, see Ševčenko, Illustrated Manuscripts.
75. Ibid. A third related program was that of Pachomios and the Angel. It should be noted that Klimakos’s Heavenly Ladder was one of the “monastic classics” whose manuscript copies received a pictorial cycle in the eleventh century like Barlaam and Ioasaph.
79. Ibid., 100.
80. Ibid., 102.
84. Heng, “Reinventing Race,” 364.