News

July 22, 2009

Sarah Kolba ’10 Examines Images from Byzantine Medieval Text

She writes about her research with Ida Sinkevic, associate professor of art

Sarah Kolba ’10 (Chelmsford, Mass.), who designed her own major in medieval and renaissance studies, is working on EXCEL research with Ida Sinkevic, associate professor of art, studying the medieval legend of Barlaam and Joasaph.

Barlaam and Joasaph are no longer commonly recognized names from medieval literature. However, the legend Barlaam and Joasaph, recounting an Indian prince’s conversion to Christianity and glorifying the ideals of monasticism, received a great share of attention in the medieval period. The Greek translation, dating from at least the 11th century, had a significant impact in the Byzantine world, and the work was subsequently translated into numerous other languages. Both characters, Joasaph, the Indian prince who abandoned his riches and defied his father to become a monk, and Barlaam, his teacher, received recognition as saints in the medieval Orthodox Church. Joasaph also served as an example of royal renunciation of power to retreat to an ascetic life.

The majority of current research on this romance is on topics concerning the text’s religious influences and possible connection to the story of the life of Buddha. However, there are six illustrated copies of the Greek text, the earliest from the 11th century, which provide examples of secular Byzantine art. Professor Sinkevic is beginning a project to study the iconography of these manuscript copies and the relationship of the images to the text itself, their development over time, and their impact on Serbian art in particular. Because the existing research on the historical art aspect of the legend, though valuable, is significantly dated and only available in French, the project will both provide a needed addition to the field and make it more widely accessible.

For the preliminary stage of this undertaking, I am studying the French scholarship on the Barlaam and Joasaph images and providing summaries and reviews of the author’s discussions and ideas. I will then add my own analysis of the relationship between the images in the various manuscripts and the text itself. For example, the romance contains narrative sections as well as theological discussions and a number of short allegorical stories, so we will be looking at which parts of the text are represented in the illustrations and whether that changes in later manuscripts.

I have worked with Professor Sinkevic on several projects, but I am particularly enjoying the research experience that this one is providing. For my thesis in the fall, I will employ a similar approach to study representations of knights in 13th century French secular histories.

The close comparison of text and image this summer will provide valuable experience in this type of analysis. In addition, my work has given me my first significant exposure to using French for historical art research rather than just in a language class, building both my proficiency and confidence. This will serve me well for my thesis and also if I decide to continue with art history in graduate school. My current EXCEL work and subsequently my thesis will also serve as examples of the type of research I would do in graduate school, thus offering me a chance to assess my interest in continuing similar research in the future.

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