Dr. Stephen Lucey is a professor of art history at Keene State College (New Hampshire, US), and teaches premodern as well as non-Western art history. His research focuses on the medieval Mediterranean world. His recent article in the Royal Studies Journal The Royal Chapel at Pyrga: Art, Agency, and Appropriation in Fourteenth Century Cyprus is an example of this.
RSJ Blog: Thank you for giving us this interview. In your article for the Royal Studies Journal, you write about the royal chapel at Pyrga on Cyprus – an architectural relic from the Lusignan rule over the island (1192-1474). Can you please introduce us (and our readers) to the problem connected with the dating of this chapel?
Stephen: I was first introduced to the chapel in a seminar at Princeton many years ago. At that time, there was very little bibliography associated with the monument and most was quite outdated. So too, I had only limited access to photographs, so it was difficult to get a sense of the fresco program as a whole. I slogged through writing a research paper upholding the 1421 date that was based on a now missing foundation inscription (recorded by a single source in the late nineteenth century) and “authoritative” stylistic studies that framed the chapel’s decoration as a “outsider” unrelated to better known and earlier examples of Cypriot painting.
Still, it was clear to me back then that there was a funerary context involved (see my argument in the article), but it was (is!) difficult to connect that with the death of Queen Charlotte de Bourbon (1388-1421/2). Though the date of her death might seem to support a connection, she is shown very much alive in the frescoes on the east wall. The dating was only one of the many unsatisfying “facts” about the chapel that appeared in the literature (and continued to be perpetrated for years to come). I am happy that I remained both vexed and tenacious – it has certainly been a long road but worth the endeavor.
RSJ Blog: So, even as a student, something about the historiographical work on this chapel struck you as somehow wrong! What struck us as most peculiar was how the mis-dating of the chapel to the early fifteenth century resulted in a completely different interpretation and assessment of the chapel’s art historical “worth” than the dating to the mid-fourteenth century. This also shows in many ways how subjective – despite all attempts otherwise – our interpretations can be, and the problem of objective judgement. Could you please expand a bit on this historiographical debate, and its meaning?
Stephen: I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it as an issue of art historical worth (for me at least) so much as affording it a meaningful context that can be supported by significant evidence – evidence that was simply lacking for the 1421 dating. So little artistic comparanda survives from early fifteenth-century Cyprus, and what there is is quite different in terms of artistic style. Scholarly interest in the chapel simply langoured until Jens Wollesen’s monograph of 2010 (see bibliography). He was the first to question the status quo. I attribute much of the apathy towards Pyrga to its Latin context – the key scholars working in Cyprus in the 1990s and 2000s were chiefly Byzantinists – and Wollesen was not of that ilk. So too, Pyrga’s ruinous state and the miserable assessment of its artistic merits were off putting – do recall that it is not part of the UNESCO set of Cypriot cultural heritage monuments.
It was a few years after the Princeton seminar that I was able to visit Cyprus and see the chapel firsthand. My immediate impression was that Pyrga’s frescoes were not at all as had been described though they are quite distressed. I have often felt that in art history it is the reading of style that can be the most subjective and misleading. So-called authoritative critiques of Pyrga’s frescoes began to seem both hyperbolic and dismissive. Even then, I was struck by how closely related the dominant style of Pyrga’s frescoes were to the great and earlier “warhorses” of Cypriot mural art – the churches at Asinou and Pelendri. Again, it took Wollesen’s work on style some years later to convince me that Pyrga was worth looking at yet again – and a number of years and numerous visits to familiarize myself with the artistic heritage of the island.
RSJ Blog: So, in a way, both the experience of your student-self that something didn’t really add up as well as the hands-on experience in Cyprus were essential for pushing this research forward, and to reach new insights. As an art historian, is it your experience that it is often the opportunity to see artworks “live” in their context that brings forth more questions and answers?
Stephen: There is no question that one must experience the actual object/monument in order to do serious research. As a teacher of global art, I am also impelled to travel and see artworks firsthand. Only then am I able to “recreate” through images (still and moving) and speech a vicarious experience for my students (with the hope that one day they too will seek to explore the breadth of human aesthetic achievement). Indeed, I am off to Peru this summer to garner “fresh” material for my “Indigenous America” lectures in my introductory art history course.
Back to the question at hand… I would also attribute my ability to reassess the Pyrga material to a growing bibliography on medieval Cyprus – in many ways the questions I was asking of Pyrga and Latin patronage were becoming au courant in the literature. And while I may be a scholar of the medieval Mediterranean, my “focus” is pre-second millenium CE. Still, I believe that my research on the early medieval church of Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome was a key factor in my interest in Cyprus. SMA’s fresco decoration is also in a poor state of preservation, and both the art and its audience bespeak a blending of Roman and Byzantine traditions.
RSJ Blog: What do the frescoes of the chapel, and the architecture of the chapel itself show us about Cyprus’ history?
Stephen: I think the chief lesson of the Pyrga chapel lies within the consideration of modes of “colonial” cultural appropriation as it applies to the late Middle Ages in the eastern Mediterranean. Early modern parallels (buzzword “colonial”) are difficult to sustain given the complexities of the history of the period and the cultures involved. Still, and beyond a doubt, the Lusignan court culture of Cyprus was acquisitive, varied in taste, but nonetheless very much aware of the import of its choices. I believe that the example of Pyrga presents some of the best information we have in that regard. Given a pan-Cypriot problem (plague), the rulers invoke both their own Latin Christianity and its ritual forms in conjunction with the intercessory power of indigenous, and ancient, prophylaxis and its visual manifestations à la maniera Cypria. We, or the social historians, still need to unpack how this can/cannot be framed in a larger “colonial” milieu of Crusader culture.
RSJ Blog: It is always great to end our interviews with a call to arms for more research! And in this case, there really seems to be much done in terms of de-constructing and re-constructing based on your new insights! Thank you for introducing us to some more of your research! As a final question, what are your new projects?
Stephen: For me, it’s back to early medieval Rome and a consideration of narrative cycles and their import for ritual activity: an invited chapter in Anne Heath and Gillian Elliott, eds. Art, Architecture, and the Moving Viewer: Unfolding Narratives ca. 300-1500 (Art and Material Culture in Medieval and Renaissance Europe Series) Leiden: Brill, forthcoming.
RSJ Blog: This does sound exciting, although quite a bit different than what you did in Cyprus. I really like how you also include the broader context and framing into your work. Good luck with early medieval Rome, and we are looking forward to reading it!