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Capturing the Light

Posted On March 13, 2018 | 10:22 am | by baileyt | Permalink
Shannon Steiner investigates the significance of Byzantine enameling

Shannon Steiner, a fellow in Byzantine Studies, is a PhD candidate in art history at Bryn Mawr College. Her recent research report, “Byzantine Enamel and the Aesthetics of Technological Power, 9th–12th Centuries,” examined the power of Byzantine enamel to express meaning through the knowledge and skill evident in its production.

Q&A with Shannon Steiner

What was the broad relation between nature and alchemy at the time?

When we think of alchemy today, we tend to think of it as a secretive and forbidden pseudoscience, but that’s not how Byzantium viewed it. Byzantine alchemy was often empirical, like modern science, just explained and interpreted differently. There was a rich philosophical tradition surrounding the properties and behaviors of different natural materials, and the transformation of matter was seen as something that occurred naturally.

One example I used was a Byzantine author observing petrified wood. How else could wood become stone if matter couldn’t transmute? And if it could, how could human beings make transmutation work for them? Alchemical knowledge was still considered exclusive knowledge, because the ultimate goal was to discover nature’s secrets, like transmutation, and harness them. But it was never forbidden. Though the documentary evidence is fragmentary, alchemy was never outlawed, or condemned by church authorities. It seems to have been considered a valid branch of natural philosophy, exploring and pushing the boundaries of nature’s potential but not subverting it, which definitely would have raised concern.


Your talk touched on the concept of aestheticized technology, that is, creating works of art with complex processes that then become part of the piece’s message. How does that concept relate to nature, alchemy, and enameling?

There probably wasn’t a separate occupational category of “alchemist” in Byzantium. Rather, scholars and other educated people practiced alchemy to discover natural properties and behaviors, and how they could be manipulated. They often observed and interacted with goldsmiths and other metalworkers, people who worked directly with physical matter drawn from the earth and knew the most about it. Artisanal expertise was incorporated into alchemical experimentation, which used these artistic techniques to think about how nature worked. So, art-making and learning the limits and possibilities of physical matter were closely related, linked by alchemy as a middle ground.

But alchemy has an agenda beyond just figuring out how matter works; the goal is really to control matter, and even make it behave in new and marvelous ways. In that sense, thinking about alchemy as technology is a good framework, because it preserves the association of power while dismissing associations with magic or pseudoscience.

Enamel enters the picture when you consider how knowledge and power over nature might take on visual, artistic form. How do you make technology into something that people in your society, as well as people outside your society, can see and admire? Enameling takes the physical materials of the world—metal, sand in the form of glass, mineral oxides, and salts—and uses human intervention, through fire and design, to demonstrate the capabilities that the Byzantines had, or believed they had, over nature. Aestheticized technology is a term I use to describe enameling as the artistic branch of this alchemical-technological project. Part of the wonder and appeal of enamel was the implication of the technology used to make it.


Could you talk about the phenomenon of bioluminescence, which you mentioned in your talk, and how enamellers attempted to replicate it?

The alchemical recipe I discussed, which tries to create a material that glows in the dark, is from a compilation on artificially reproducing gemstones. The text describes a stone that shines at night—I suspect they mean fluorite—and how to artificially reproduce it by incorporating the digestive juices of bioluminescent fish into the recipe. There’s a lot of scholarship that shows that light was one of the most important visual concepts in Byzantium, and a good portion of Byzantine artistic production was aimed at creating different effects of light. So this recipe fits in well with Byzantine artistic values in general, but it’s interesting because it’s explicitly described as an attempt to artificially replicate a powerful light feature found in nature.

The text isn’t nonsense. Now, I don’t think adding fish bile to molten glass would actually do anything if you tried it, but the author uses bioluminescent fish as proof that the phenomenon of glowing in the dark occurs naturally. The following section of the recipe describes coloring glass to achieve this effect, and it’s described as enameling. Because of the particular chemical formula in the glass, similar to the one described in the text, and the arrangement of the metal at certain angles, Byzantine enamel can actually sometimes look like it’s glowing in the dark.