Sharon E.J. Gerstel, Rural Lives and Landscapes in Late Byzantium: Art, Archaeology, and Ethnography, Cambridge University Press, 2015, ISBN 9780521851596, 34 b/w illus., 90 color illus., 3 maps.
Sharon Gerstel’s Rural Lives and Landscapes in Late Byzantium: Art, Archaeology, and Ethnography has been selected as the recipient of the 2016 inaugural book prize of the International Center of Medieval Art.
Published in 2015 by Cambridge University Press, Gerstel’s study takes an ambitious and original tack in addressing the landscape of a village and its inhabitants through medieval art. Drawing together an impressive and convincing range of methodologies from art history, archaeology, and ethnography, Gerstel’s book is an elegantly composed, compelling read. The author takes real interest in people and all the traces they left behind. She looks at the Greek countryside and the rhythms it gave to villagers in order to follow this pace closely, considering what has survived and what can be reconstructed. In this study, which has implications for the field of art history as a whole, the author raises the important issue of how meaning was perceived by individuals, finding new answers beyond the established dichotomy of the learned and the illiterate. Her explanation, for example, of the sound-meaning of a painted text between the images of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, which names donors and was signed by the painter, is simply superb. Here the lives of medieval women and men are revealed through art in chapters that address food and malnourishment, illness and pregnancy and need, offering access to significant but little studied parts of each culture.
This monograph stands out for providing one of the first systematic inquiries into the role of art and architecture in the shaping of the cultural landscape within the dimension of villages. As such, it offers an important counterpart to the wide-spread tendency in Byzantine studies to focus on the court in order to reconstruct the losses at its Constantinopolitan core. Gerstel has given us an extremely thoughtful book, in which the results of meticulous research are used to work out a truly interdisciplinary analysis of a hitherto neglected topic. The impact of this excellent volume will long be felt in medieval art historical studies.