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‘Well speaks the Physiologus’: The image of the Virgin and Unicorn in the ninth-century Byzantine marginal psalters and their relation to the Smyrna Physiologus

Stephan-Kaissis, Christine

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Since Antiquity, fantastic beasts and their fabulous lore have attracted the attention of audiences all over the world. Among the most popular characters was the untameable unicorn caught by a pure and beautiful maiden, featuring in the Physiologus, a Christian moralizing book on the natural world. While no illustrated Byzantine Physiologus manuscript prior to the eleventh century exists today providing information about how the set of animals and their respective moral interpretation was visualized in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, in the case of the Physiologus chapter on the unicorn, illustrated by the image of the Virgin and Unicorn, we possess evidence starting with the ninth-century. Close visual correspondences of the composition in the eleventh-century Smyrna Physiologus and the same scene in a set of Byzantine marginal psalters led scholars to conclude that the image of the Virgin and Unicorn derived from a visual model common to both types of texts, reflecting the archetype in the original Physiologus cycle. However, this view creates some fundamental art historical problems that have not yet been satisfactorily resolved. By introducing into the scholarly discussion an alternative version of the Virgin and Unicorn, largely overlooked until today, this paper aims to shed new light on the dynamics of the image-making process in the medieval Byzantine world.

Document type: Preprint
Place of Publication: Heidelberg
Date: 2023
Version: Primary publication
Date Deposited: 09 May 2023 12:13
Faculties / Institutes: Research Project, Working Group > Individuals
DDC-classification: Hellenic languages Classical Greek
Subject (Propylaeum): Byzantine Studies
Controlled Keywords: Smyrna-Physiologus
Subject (classification): Postclassical Greek
Countries/Regions: Byzantine Empire