Tuerk-Stonberg (Congress 2022)

Jacquelyn Tuerk-Stonberg
(Kean University)

“Magic and Byzantine Art”

Abstract of Paper
57th International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Online, 2022)

Session on
“The Iconography of Medieval Magic:
Texts and Images”

Co-sponsored by
the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
and the Societas Magica

Organized by Vajra Regan

2022 International Congress on Medieval Studies Program



Byzantine scholarship made substantial headway over the past few decades in publishing and analyzing significant numbers of texts and objects of ritual power, including engraved gems, mass-produced metals, and papyrus spells. The term ‘magic’ has been long understood as problematic, and accordingly, Byzantine scholars of magic have re-theorized ritual power, necessarily bringing together hitherto distinct fields of magic, religion, pilgrimage, medicine, materiality, rhetoric, language, and semiotics. Apologies for the piety or medical power of so-called magic exist in many forms, not just in manuscripts about magical objects intended as such, but also in the objects themselves. The use of orthodox texts and images on amulets, such as words from the psalms and the image of Christ, suggests an unorthodox application of orthodox beliefs. These objects enabled ritual power for individuals and established a growing, extra-orthodox authority of their own. A tradition of using amulets was predicated upon individuals’ magical thinking (that is, finding causal connections through wishful thinking). Magical thinking unfolded through the semiotic structures of words and images.

Two early Byzantine amulets from the late antique Mediterranean serve as case studies for semiotic structures of ritual power. They demonstrate conventional linguistic structures, including persuasive analogy, speech-acts, and show-acts. These linguistic structures and ways of organizing information operate equally in religious, medical, and philosophical examples as integral parts of general conceptual schemes.

Accordingly, art and texts of ritual power exemplify intersecting communities of thought and are useful for interpreting various types of social practices. Because magic studies are interdisciplinary, they open new directions for the history of art, religion, mentalities, women, and even the history of the medieval individual. An earlier version of these ideas will be published in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Art and Architecture, edited by Ellen Schwartz (2021).