Kosmos Embodied: Eunuchs and Byzantine Art in the Ninth through Twelfth Centuries

Lora Webb, M.A.

My project Kosmos Embodied: Eunuchs and Byzantine Art from the Ninth through Twelfth Centuries considers Byzantine eunuchs through the lens of art history. In the Byzantine world, eunuchs were viewed with both awe and suspicion. On the one hand, they were considered greedy and uncomfortably feminine. On the other, they were also thought to be perfectly suited for domestic and ecclesiastical service as castration meant they were incapable of producing heirs and thus were considered less tied to familial interests. Within the palace of Constantinople, eunuchs were ever-present at the emperor’s side, managing the treasury, wardrobe, accounts, and palatial ceremonies. Further, as my project will show, their unique appearance manufactured through castration and cultivated at the court lent them an angelic aspect which I liken to the bejeweled surfaces that also filled the palace and its churches.

Although the place of eunuchs within the organization of the empire has been established, their aesthetic role with in the court has yet to receive consideration. Historical studies have marshalled pertinent primary sources to uncover the elusive but important role of Byzantine eunuchs within the social hierarchy of the empire; and although previous studies have provided ample evidence that eunuchs participated in public imperial ceremonies, their representations in art are rare. For this reason, art historians have been hesitant to explore their trace in the visual record. However, attending broadly to images and texts, including handbooks of ceremonies and saints lives, allows me to look for eunuchs' presence in areas not previously considered. I expand my study into the visual realm to understand how the made nature and marginal (both in the spatial and social sense) position of eunuchs allowed them to transcend social hierarchy while actively preserving it. To do so, this project will address three interrelated aspects of Byzantine eunuchs from the Ninth through the Twelfth centuries:

  1. their visual representation
  2. their patronage of art objects, and
  3. the way that elite eunuchs themselves could be construed as art objects.
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