Medieval Studies Workshop: Lora Webb and Alicia Walker

Medieval Studies Workshop: Lora Webb and Alicia Walker
Lora Webb (Art History, Stanford), Alicia Walker (Art History, Bryn Mawr)
Wed April 7th 2021, 4:00 - 6:00pm

Please join us to discuss Lora Webb’s pre-circulated chapter, “Let the Eunuch Be Reckoned as an Angel.” Alicia Walker, associate professor of History of Art at Bryn Mawr, will be Lora’s respondent.

“Let the Eunuch Be Reckoned as an Angel”
Similitude between Angels, Eunuchs, and Young Men

On folio 239r of the ninth-century Paris Homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus (Paris gr. 510), two nearly identical figures clad in white trail behind the emperor Theodosius. Bearing jeweled swords, they are almost lost amid the gemmed columns of the golden throne. Within the real-life Middle Byzantine court, figures like these were likely to have been eunuchs. In the context of the court, which (as demonstrated by Henry Maguire among others) was constructed as a permeable reflection the heavenly court, eunuchs were easily compared to the angelic hosts around Christ. When looking at these beardless, anonymous, white-clad attendants, observers were encouraged not necessarily to see men but figures—somehow otherworldly—framing the emperor, Christ’s representative on earth.

It is precisely because eunuch bodies were so often representing something other than themselves that they remain difficult to identify in representations: figures like those behind Theodosius may be identified as young men. Drawing on descriptions of heavenly attendants, Constantinopolitan court ceremony, and thinkers like Foucault, who has discussed the difficulties of representation, this chapter addresses the problems of identifying eunuchs in Byzantine works of art. Starting in the Late Antique period, it traces the mirroring between the earthly and heavenly courts and the role of attendant figures within this structure. Visionary literature, art, and ceremony constructed an entanglement between eunuchs, angels, and young men that engendered uncertainty in the bodies of all three. I argue that this ambiguity was productively employed around the emperor to create a shimmering image of the heavenly court.  At stake in this chapter is the representation of ambiguous bodies, but, more so, how representing bodies as ambiguous allowed for multiple readings to be mapped onto their forms.