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Sarah Burnett

Thesis: A Saint between East and West: The Cult of Saint Nicholas in late medieval Italy
Supervisor: Donal Cooper

Research Summary:
My research interests are concerned with the cultural and artistic relationships between the Byzantine Empire and the Latin West, in particular southern Italy and Venice. My PhD research explored the cult of St Nicholas which flourished in Italy in the middle ages. In 1087 the relics of Saint Nicholas were stolen from Myra in southwest Turkey and translated to Bari in southern Italy; as a result his cult became one of the largest in medieval Europe. Venice in turn claimed to own the body of St Nicholas, who was promoted by the republic as an important state saint. The enormous popularity and wide dissemination of the cult of Saint Nicholas within many diverse cultures, in both the orthodox east and the Latin west, has produced many different, and in places contradictory, identities for the saint. In Italy, St Nicholas was especially favoured by seafarers, and his shrine at Bari quickly emerged as one of western Europe's principal pilgrimage destinations.
Through studying the cult of St Nicholas in medieval Italy it is possible to learn about the important social and political roles that were assigned to the cults of certain saints. In the case of St Nicholas, his cult and iconography were adapted for particular audiences, allowing the cult to respond to a variety of specific needs. In turn, the adaptability of his cult ensured exposure to an increasingly wider audience. The main issues I addressed were how the cult of St Nicholas came to be so successful in medieval Italy, and to what extent, and how, his identities and iconographies were manipulated, and subsequently appropriated, with particular reference to the visual aspects of his cult. I endeavorured to answer the broader question of how far iconography depends upon literary accounts of saints’ lives, attributes, and miracles, and to what extent saints’ visual identities are developed, adapted or exploited for personal or political means. I also explored the significance of religious phenomena such as pilgrimage and the crusades for the cult of St Nicholas, and identified important influences that shaped the development of the cult.
My research was funded by a Warwick Postgraduate Research Scholarship. I also received a generous grant from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, which enabled me to spend three months in Venice in the autumn of 2007. I was also awarded a Rome Award by the British School at Rome, and spent three months studying in Rome at the British School, in the spring of 2008.
Sarah Burnett 
Giovanni di Francesco Toscani