Recent controversies remind us that popular perceptions can be as crucial as plinths and pedestals for propping up monuments. A perfect storm of controversy in 2016, and again in 2020, led to the dismantling, veiling, or relocating of dozens of statues of southern slaveholders and confederate generals in the United States. In Ukraine 1,320 Lenin monuments that outlived the end of the Soviet era were systematically toppled between 2014 and 2017. One survived in situ. An artist transformed the communist leader into Darth Vader, turning a symbol of a real empire into the legendary leader of a fictional one.
My book explores similar, seminal moments in the biography of a contested medieval monument. Justinian’s triumphal column was a colossal monument of empire: the tallest, freestanding column of the premodern world was crowned by arguably the largest metal, equestrian sculpture created anywhere in the world before 1699. The Byzantine empire’s bronze horseman towered over the heart of Constantinople, assumed new identities, spawned conflicting narratives, and acquired international acclaim. An equestrian sculpture that started its life as a representation of a Theodosian emperor (late fourth c. – early fifth c.) for centuries served as a statue of Justinian (ruled 527-65 CE) before ending its material life as a curious pile of colossal fragments in the sixteenth century. Because all traces of Justinian’s column were erased from the urban fabric of Istanbul in the sixteenth century, it is difficult for us today to appreciate its powerful impact upon medieval viewers.
It was the Eiffel tower of its epoch. No other Roman triumphal column was crowned with an equestrian statue. The monument soared to heights rivalling the dome of Hagia Sophia. For travellers arriving by sea it was one of the first features of the city to become visible on the misty horizon. Justinian’s column defined the city’s skyline for 900 years.
I argue that the monument’s astonishing longevity was not accidental. During centuries when countless other monuments and statues succumbed to fires, storms, earthquakes, decay, or Crusader pillaging, this one endured and was repeatedly restored. The monument’s longevity directly correlates with its ideological power and talismanic elevation above other monuments of the city.
The horseman quickly became a barometer for contemporary views on empire. Globality was embedded in the monument itself. The horseman held in his left hand a cross-topped orb, the imperial symbol of world domination. The horseman was an enduring imperial model and protector, as well as a locus of a dialogue with the mythical past, the worrisome present, and the uncertain future. For detractors of imperial power, it presented ripe possibilities for questioning the limits of Byzantine imperial authority.
Its impact in visual culture was arguably the most extensive of any Mediterranean monument. The monument’s reach was as wide as possible for any stationary object. Its maximum discursive range stretched roughly 3000 km to the west, more than 2000 km to the north, and roughly 2000 km to the east. The horseman therefore provides a valuable lens for studying Byzantium’s own hierarches of value and Byzantium’s place in the larger world. My book analyzes Byzantine, Islamic, Slavic, Crusader, and Renaissance historical accounts, medieval pilgrimages, geographic, apocalyptic and apocryphal narratives, vernacular poetry, Byzantine, Bulgarian, Italian, French, Latin, and Ottoman illustrated manuscripts, Florentine wedding chests, Venetian paintings, and Russian icons to provide an engrossing and pioneering biography of a contested medieval monument during the millennium of its life.
The horseman’s fascinating life after death is one of the most compelling aspects of its story. The horseman’s ability to exert cultural influence in both east and west for over a century after its material demise speaks to its agency. The most intriguing images of the horseman created after obliteration emphasize triumph and transcendence. In doing so they deny the Ottomans the last word in its long story and they contest the finality of its end after 1453.