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The Critical Tradition of Byzantine Botanical Illustration in the Alphabetical Dioscorides


This dissertation recovers the history of Byzantine botanical illustration in the Alphabetical Dioscorides from its origins in the Hellenistic Period to its integration with early modern botanical illustration in the fifteenth century. Chapter 1 examines Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis

historia to establish how botanical illustration differed from descriptions and specimens as a way to create visual knowledge. It also connects the emergence of botanical illustration to Hellenistic rulers' study of botany. Chapter 2 delineates the different ways ancient botanical illustrations selectively depict plants. Chapter 3 assesses the relationship between illustration and text copying, in order to show how the makers of early illustrated herbals ensured and even emphasized the transmission of visual knowledge. Chapter 4 reconstructs Middle Byzantine (ca. 843-1204 CE) modes of botanical inquiry through a close study of the Morgan Dioscorides (New York, Morgan Library, MS M 652). It demonstrates the critical and innovative dimensions of the Byzantine botanical illustration, including the comparison and compilation of earlier pictures and the ex novo illustration of plants through direct observation of nature. Chapter 5 considers the continuation of this critical tradition and how it disseminated in the wider Mediterranean world in the Late Byzantine period (1204-1453 CE). Chapter 6 finally outlines contemporaries' shifting attitudes towards botanical illustration through close study of the frontispieces of the Vienna Dioscorides (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, med. gr. 1).

This study upsets the common scholarly view that Byzantine art and science were unconcerned with observation of the natural world. Botanical illustrations played a central role in the Byzantine botanical tradition by enabling the creation of visual knowledge. The study further characterizes Byzantine contemporaries' approaches to botanical study through the priorities expressed in their depictions of the natural world. Although researchers have routinely typified Byzantine art by its lack of natural forms and its artists’ seeming unwillingness to depict the natural world through direct observation, evidence for detailed, “from life” depictions of plants in botanical manuscripts shows that Byzantine artists were capable of looking to nature. Byzantine conceptions of the natural world were not based on received classical texts and images, but also in direct experience of the natural environments within which Byzantine people worked and lived.

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