Media @ McGill

The Imperial Image Imprinted: Circulation, Materiality, and Translation in Kievan Coinage, c. 980-1054

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Alexandra Kelebay


Cultural, artistic, and imperial ties between Kievan Rus’ and Byzantium flourished throughout the late tenth and eleventh centuries. However, despite the dynamic nature of this relationship, scholars have categorized the cross-cultural exchange either as passive and unidirectional by examining Byzantine influence on Kievan art, or as nationalistic and triumphant, viewing Kievan art as the victorious culmination of local styles and artistic practices. This chapter calls for a critical reassessment of both polarizing views by insisting on a more nuanced approach to Kievan-Byzantine material culture. Using Kievan coins as a case study, this chapter reorients the discussion towards two less explored issues: firstly, it considers the ways in which aspects of Kievan material culture intersected with, but also diverged from, Byzantine artistic and iconographic conventions; and secondly, it challenges the notion that medieval coins were artistically stagnant by emphasizing the active role they played in visually constructing the imperial image throughout a period of thriving Kievan-Byzantine relations.

Grand Prince Volodymyr (r. 980-1015) was the first Kievan ruler to strike his own coins. Taking this phenomenon as a point of departure, this chapter investigates how and why such a practice became central to, yet failed to thrive beyond, the late tenth- to mid-eleventh-century Kievan court. It is my contention that the striking of Kievan coins was an essential feature of empire-building at precisely a historical moment during which Kievan-Byzantine relations were strongest and the success of imperial posturing hinged upon the circulation of portable objects that could be easily recognized and widely disseminated. Crucially, despite geographic distance and linguistic difference, both Volodymyr and his son, Grand Prince Iaroslav (r. 1036-54), imprinted their coins with translated variations of the imagery and iconography from the wealthiest and most powerful city of the Byzantine Empire: Constantinople. Yet their sources were not exclusively Byzantine; they each selectively appropriated other symbols of power by incorporating aspects from Khazarian culture and regional iconographic variations in the clever crafting of a uniquely Kievan imperial image. Such an active, strategic, and dynamic process reveals a shared understanding—yet also a distinct translation—of the visual vocabulary used to convey imperial power, identity, and ideology in Kievan Rus’ specifically and across the medieval Mediterranean more broadly.

A Media@McGill Graduate Research Fellowship would allow me to continue my research and writing of this chapter, which comprises one of three main case studies of my dissertation. Throughout the duration of my award, I plan to further develop my Ukrainian and Russian language skills with a private tutor. This will enable me to complete translations of several key sources, including primary source material and secondary source literature. Dedicating focused attention to developing my language skills and translations would not only help significantly advance the research and writing of this particular chapter on Kievan coins but would also lay the linguistic and historiographical foundations for my other two case studies.