Index of Medieval Art

Index Spotlight Series: Maria Alessia Rossi

This blog post is the first in a series focusing on members of the Index staff. Today we will be introducing Maria Alessia Rossi.

What is your background and specialization?

I joined the Index of Medieval Art initially as a Postdoctoral Researcher, and starting in September 2019, as an Art History Specialist. I earned my BA in History of Art from ‘La Sapienza’ University of Rome and my MA and PhD from The Courtauld Institute of Art. I work on medieval monumental art in the Byzantine and Slavic cultural spheres, cross-cultural contacts between the Eastern and Western Christian worlds, and the role of miracles in text and image.

Byzantine mosaic depicting Christ healing man with withered hand in the inner narthex of Chora Monastery in Turkey, dated between 1316 and 1321
Christ healing of the man with the withered hand, inner narthex of Chora monastery (ca. 1316–21) © The Byzantine Legacy.

What research projects are you working on currently? 

For the Index, I research a wide range of medieval topics, but in my individual research and publications, I have been fascinated for a long time by the role of miracles in medieval society. During the Middle Ages, miracles played a crucial role in theology and propaganda, mirroring the needs, struggles, and desires of every social class. I have been surveying Christ’s miracles in late Byzantine churches in Constantinople, Mystras, Thessaloniki, Mount Athos, Ohrid, and Kastoria, and pairing the visual evidence with textual commissions, dealing with miracles of contemporary and older saints. The underlying question is what does the interconnectedness of visual and literary evidence dealing with miracles tell us about the contemporary social, religious, and political circumstances? One major outcome of this is a monograph tentatively titled Visualizing Christ’s Miracles: Art, Theology, and Court Culture in Late Byzantium.

Another topic I am passionate about is the rich, yet little-known art and architecture of Eastern Europe between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. Modern borders, patterns of polarizations, and ideological barriers have prevented scholars from seeing a fuller and broader picture of these regions. Yet their geographical, religious, political, and cultural histories prove the interconnectedness of those territories at the crossroads of the Byzantine, Mediterranean, and Western European cultural spheres.

In this spirit, I co-founded the initiative North of Byzantium (NoB) with Alice I. Sullivan, a project sponsored by a 3-year grant from the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture, and the digital platform Mapping Eastern Europe. The aim is to place Eastern Europe on the map of art history by fostering a dialogue between scholars, promoting a sense of community, and facilitating research, teaching, and the study of its visual culture among students, teachers, scholars, and the wider public.

Screenshot of the Mapping Eastern Europe project with map of Europe and pins for locations
Mapping Eastern Europe homepage, https://mappingeasterneurope.princeton.edu/

What do you like best about working at Princeton?

What I like best about working at Princeton University, and specifically at the Index of Medieval Art, is the people! There is a unique and constant inflow of scholars and students from all over the world who come to use the Index card catalogue and database. As an Indexer, you learn about their fascinating work, you help them find new materials and discover the Index, and you get excited with them when they stumble across unexpected finds. Scholars also gather to attend the Index conference, and this is yet another opportunity to discover recent and original research and engage in exciting conversations. Every year we also see our medieval community growing, with the arrival of new students and fellows, coming in with new topics, questions, and iconographic riddles to be resolved!

What travel experience played a role in your becoming an art historian?

Ever since I was little, my parents have taken me along on their trips. But did our vacations include beaches or time off? No, they were an endless list of archaeological sites, museums, and cities to explore. This usually meant that lunches had to be delayed to accommodate the busy schedule that ended up always (and I do mean always) including the main archaeological sites between noon and two p.m. under the burning hot sun! You would expect this to have turned me away from art and archaeology, yet here we are…. In time, these trips became research-focused, and the schedule became packed with Byzantine art and architecture. On one of these occasions, we made it to the remote location of a fortress built in the fourteenth century by the Serbian king Milutin. Of course, we were exhausted, and it was the middle of a very hot summer day, but I was absolutely overjoyed (as you can see in the photo). At that moment I knew there was no going back!

Maria Alessia Rossi surrounded by bricks and architectural details at the Novo Brdo in Serbia.
Maria Alessia Rossi standing in the fortress of Novo Brdo.

What do you like best about being back on campus in person?

The best part of being on campus is resuming the conversations and debates that make the Index thrive, and with it, the Middle Ages. Screens and planned meetings have not allowed for many of the spontaneous interactions that are at the heart of what the Index is about. When we are cataloguing, working on taxonomy, or implementing changes in our browse lists, we encounter issues and questions that benefit from broader conversations with the other specialists at the Index, such as how do we differentiate between James Major, James Minor, and James Brother of the Lord, or would it be better to use scroll or roll in our controlled vocabulary? We have weekly meetings where we discuss for hours (not ideal with zoom-fatigue during the pandemic!) the topics that we have encountered during the week. And when you visit us at the Index, you may even catch us in the middle of impromptu conversations in the corridor, sipping cups of coffee or tea, and chatting about the role of Tristan’s dog, Hodain, in the Legend of Tristan and Isolde, or about what work of art we should catalogue next and why.

Coffee or tea?

It’s tough…. Being Italian I would be tempted to say that nothing beats a good cappuccino! However, I do love my tea. And by “tea” I mean any kind of infusion, including Earl Grey, matcha, mint tea, hibiscus, jasmine, and the Tough Chai from Small World, our local coffee shop. I love trying new teas and talking about tea. So yeah, probably my answer would have to be tea!