In December 2021, doctoral candidate Sarah Mathiesen participated in the 2021 annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). Sarah was part of a roundtable sponsored by the Middle East Medievalists (MEM) group, celebrating the work of Dr. Eva Hoffman and her “Pathways of Portability” article published 20 years ago. Sarah presented “The Portability of Iconography: A Cross-Legged Christ in Cappadocia,” based on her dissertation research on the monumental decorative program of Yılanlı Kilise, a rock-cut church located in the Ihlara Valley of Cappadocia, Turkey.
Since its publication in 2001, Hoffman’s article, “Pathways of Portability: Islamic and Christian Interchange from the Tenth to the Twelfth Century,” has shaped the research of a generation of scholars of the Medieval Mediterranean. Following Hoffman’s multi-centered model, scholars of medieval art have considered portable objects as active agents in cross-cultural interchange and visual identity formation.
Instead of looking to a portable object, Sarah’s paper discusses the movement of an iconographic type – the seated, cross-legged ruler. Focusing on the unique iconographic occurrence of a cross-legged Christ found in Yılanlı, Sarah uses Hoffman’s discourse of portability in which “objects extended beyond themselves, both geographically and semantically” and “mapped a common visual language across cultural and religious boundaries” to suggest that the Yılanlı Christ demonstrates Yılanlı’s participation in a visual language of authority shared across the eastern medieval world. Tracking the iconography firstfrom Abbasid, Islamic images of rulers to those of Armenian, Christian ones, and finally to a divine Byzantine, Christian ruler, Sarah demonstrates the “portability” of the cross-legged ruler iconography across not only cultural-religious boundaries but from symbolizing an earthly authority to that of divine authority.