Steiner: Byzantine Enamel and Material Power
Beginning in the ninth century, artisans in the Byzantine Empire mastered the complex process of cloisonné enameling - fusing colored glass to metal plaques divided into compartments by delicate metal strips. Enameling demanded fluency in the physical properties of multiple materials and proficiency in what we know today as graphic design. This project considers that the ability to manufacture enamel was significant in and of itself, and explores how cloisonné enamel became infused with cultural meaning in Byzantium through the rarefied technical knowledge employed in its making.
The medieval Greek term for enamel, erga cheimeuta (ἔργα χειμευτά) or “poured work,” belongs to a larger vocabulary pertaining to chemistry and alchemy (χημεία). A large corpus of Byzantine alchemical texts reveals that the relationship was more than etymological. Many contain “recipes” for coloring and fusing glass and metal alongside treatises on the creation of gold or the manufacture of incendiary substances, linking enameling to technological endeavors ranging from counterfeiting currency to developing thermal weapons.
I argue that enamel was more than a field for representation in Byzantium; it was also the aesthetic manifestation of material sciences and a potent statement of technological prowess. This study brings the material characteristics of key enameled objects into dialogue with literary evidence of deliberate use of Byzantine enamel in negotiating relationships with the Empire’s allies and rivals, including the Ottonian Empire, Venice, Georgia, and Kievan Rus’. Notions of material power are the ideological undercurrent running below the surface of this medium, hinting that the expert manipulation of minerals, glass, and metals could also stand in for Byzantine mastery over the natural world itself.