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Art and Power in Medieval Societies: Censorship, Propaganda and Public Service in the Eastern Mediterranean from Late Antiquity to the Ottoman Era

Art and power in medieval societies
Friday, May 19, 2023, 9:00 am – Saturday, May 20, 2023, 4:00 pm


Dr. Mariana Bodnaruk (CEU GIAS, Hungary)

Dr. Anna Adashinskaya (New Europe College, Romania)

Dr. Yuka Kadoi (CEU IAS, Hungary)

Dr. Peter Martens (CEU IAS, Hungary)


With a recent methodological shift from the conventional art history toward visual, cultural, and reception studies, the scholarship became increasingly aware of performative nature of visual arts and their ability to construct new meanings in course of interaction with the audience. As the new methodologies have turned attention to the relations between the images/spaces and their audiences, the immense political and social powers of the arts returned to the spotlight. In this context, one needs to re-think the traditional understanding of the relations between art and power in the pre-modern societies, taking into consideration the ability of arts to construct the social and political meanings through the interpretation of the aesthetic content by the audiences. Consequently, our workshop proposes to investigate the propaganda content and political uses of the arts in the Eastern Mediterranean on the new methodological grounds that have been developed over the past decades (visual and cultural studies, historical anthropology, reception studies, political analysis, transregional methodologies, etc.).

Focusing on the continuity and change in the social perception of images and spaces, we will analyze the role of the arts into shaping a political discourse and influencing public perception of power and authority. We propose the participants to explore the performative strategies applied by the power-holders and the dissidents to communicate with different social groups and the role of images and architectural spaces into propaganda, ideology-building, and legitimacy-proving. We aim to study these dynamic art-political practices in different parts of the Mediterranean and neighbouring regions.

As the art-power relations balanced between propaganda, censorship, dissent, public service and commercial profit, one may wonder to what extent artists freely and consciously set out to create, or involuntary fabricated the ordered objects, images, and spaces. So, the workshop will regard the problems including but not limited to:

  • Artists’ contribution to the subject matter of their works
  • The commissioners’ engagement into the process of artistic creation  
  • The criteria of visual and ideological perfection
  • The vocabulary of power-related messages
  • The strategies of the audience-engagement

To answer these and alike questions, we propose to look at the artworks themselves (their iconography, circumstances of commission and creation, their accessibility and usage) as well as at the related textual evidences such as contracts and purchase orders, ekphraseis and other forms of interpretation, graffiti and accompanying inscriptions, descriptions of the artworks’ use and beholding techniques. Analyzing these and other testimonies, the workshop proposes to explore how art was employed to promulgate the authorities (political or religious), effect political changes and respond to the ongoing social or religious transformations.

It will also examine how the beholders approached a shared understanding of symbols and topics communicating the power-related ideas. Taking into consideration artistic mobility and multiculturalism of the region, we also suggest considering the engagement of artisans of foreign origin or different faith into the commissions celebrating power agents such as Greek mosaicists beautifying the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.