The RCS Book Is Here!

Purchase a ClubNFT subscription and get the RCS book Free!

Get Your Copy
Crypto Histories
September 25, 2023

The Byzantine History of NFTs

Alex Estorick finds the true value of tokens in a world apart from art and capitalism
Credit: nómisma of Constantine VII with Christ Pantokrator (obverse), 945 CE. Collection of Dumbarton Oaks
Now Reading:  
The Byzantine History of NFTs
This essay is published to coincide with the release of artifacts, a new project by Ana María Caballero and Alex Estorick in collaboration with Emergent Properties.

People often ask: “What is art?” My usual, rather facetious, response is: “art is a word.” And as a word, it is folded into a constellation of competing interests and ideologies. Sometimes, it is also confined to a moment in (linear) time. In his seminal work, Likeness and Presence (1990), Hans Belting set out “A History of the Image before the Era of Art.” This remarkable and controversial text distinguished between the holy images, or icons, produced before the Renaissance and the “art” that came after. 

In his book, After Art (2013), David Joselit sought “to link the vast image population explosion that occurred in the twentieth century to the breakdown of the ‘era of art.’”¹ In his view, “What results after the ‘era of art’ is a new kind of power.” For Joselit, this “image power” derives “from networks rather than discrete objects.” Given the importance of community engagement to the success of digital artists, it is hard to dispute Joselit’s argument that “connectivity produces power.” However, NFTs also commodify digital objects as discrete and separate tokens, thereby rupturing the endless flow of images that has helped to fuel Web2’s information economy. 

We have Kant to thank for establishing art as a world apart from functional images like religious icons. Yet today, it is hard not to view his hallowed hall of supposedly “disinterested” spectatorship as anything more than a colonial knowledge regime. For Max Haiven, any real autonomy that art might once have claimed has now been fully “enclosed by capital.”² Digital art is not exempt from this enclosure. Indeed, NFTs have financialized digital creativity in unprecedented fashion. Yet they also offer a stake to a class of creative laborer that was once scorned by the mainstream art world. 

The increasing importance of utility to the new creative economy suggests that art’s functionality has finally returned.

At RCS, we established a category of articles, titled “Crypto Histories,” as a space for new media genealogies to emerge — plural histories that reflect the full range of communities invested in digital culture. Given the inherently “outsider” origins of the crypto art movement, these genealogies are designed to challenge the narrow envelope and opaque artspeak that continue to buttress the mainstream art world. 

If there is one field of art history that is as derided as NFTs it is that of the Byzantine Empire — the Orthodox Christian Empire centered on Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) from 330 to 1453 CE. Byzantium was a world of icons, but it also witnessed the flourishing of a token economy that imbued matter with healing power for the nourishment of pilgrim communities. Much of the antipathy toward NFTs stems from a fear of the unknown, but we have been here before, we just need to go back far enough.

The Divine Liturgy, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

Byzantine Parallels

… The painter, the stone carver, and the one who makes images from gold and bronze, each takes matter, looks at the prototype, receives the imprint of that which he contemplates, and presses it like a seal into his matter.³ (Theodore of Stoudios)

In Byzantium, images were not windows into another world but tactile surfaces to be touched by the eyes. Following the contemporary scientific theory of extramission, light rays were understood as emerging from the eyes of the viewer rather than from a light source like the sun. To gaze at an image was therefore not only an optical experience but a haptic exchange between an active worshiper and a holy figure. More important than the material of the image, which might be ivory, mosaic, or metal, was the fact that it had been imprinted with the Holy Spirit. For St. John of Damascus, it was “through bodily vision [that] we come to spiritual contemplation.⁴ 

Here was a fundamentally different image culture to that of the Renaissance or indeed Late Rome, which regarded images as disembodied illusions rather than embodied experiences. In her famous essay, “Situated Knowledges,” Donna Haraway “insist[ed] on the embodied nature of all vision.”⁵ While recent studies of the posthuman have sought to replace the Cartesian knowledge regime, with its severance of mind and body, with a new kind of embodied intelligence not seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality. 

The debate continues in Web3. For just as haptic technology is presently converting human touch into digital activity, so the metaverse threatens to reduce all tactile experience to a state of disembodied immersion. What is striking about the blockchain is its creation of a new culture of the imprint which parallels that of Byzantium, replacing the Holy Spirit with the stamp of block time. Right now, anyone can right click save an image; what matters is who owns the token on the chain.

Dome mosaic of Christ Pantokrator, Daphni, Greece, c. 1100

The lesson of Byzantium is that bodily vision works two ways. In his contemporary description of a medallion of Christ Pantokrator (the “All-powerful One”) in the dome of the Church of the Holy Apostles, Nikolaos Mesarites presents Byzantium as a prototypical surveillance state:

His eyes are joyful and welcoming to those who have a clean conscience […] but to those who are condemned by their own judgment, they are wrathful and hostile […] The right hand blesses those who walk a straight path, while it admonishes those who do not.
nómisma of Constantine VII with Christ Pantokrator (obverse) and Constantine VII (reverse), 945 CE. Collection of Dumbarton Oaks

The fact that emperors from Justinian II (685-695) onwards included the very same image of the Pantokrator on the gold nómisma aligns Byzantine coinage with the experience of monumental religious imagery. It also extended the range of imperial oversight beyond the walls of the Church via a wider network of tactile control. One of the singular contributions of the NFT to art history is that it renders transparent the relationship between art and money, while also unlocking the careers of a generation of digital creators historically ignored by the art world. Byzantium was also an expanded field, one which challenged the hierarchy of different media by grouping together “[t]he painter, the stone carver, and the one who makes images from gold and bronze…”

In Byzantium, the material itself didn’t matter. What mattered was that it had received the stamp of divine approval, for “incision was considered an act of consecration.”⁷
Pilgrim Token with Image of Saint Symeon Stylites the Younger, 10th-11th Century. Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin — Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst, Berlin (32/73)

But the story is also more complicated, because while the Byzantine state developed its own centralized monetary economy comprising the gold nómisma, the silver miliarēsion, and the bronze follis, the Empire also witnessed the growth of a parallel economy of pilgrim tokens known as eulogíai (“blessings”). These took the form of terracotta or lead medallions that were stamped in the manner of the consecrated bread and gifted to pilgrims. 

Practically speaking, pilgrim tokens served as a base on which to burn incense, thereby importing the animist belief in the spirit’s presence in matter into the mainstream practice of Orthodox religion. Their circulation from the late fifth century thus infused society with the healing properties of the liturgy. Metal plaques, vessels, medals, and coins also absorbed the protective powers conferred by the imprint of a die, part of a multimedia enterprise that encrypted spirit in matter. 

Whether a hybrid currency of art and money can actually produce a more equitable economy is an open question. What Byzantium reveals is the power of border economies to alter the value system of an empire.
Ana María Caballero and Alex Estorick, artifacts (test output), 2023. Courtesy of the artists


To assert the value of an artifact is to challenge the hierarchy of art as well as the finite division between art and money, and art and science. It is to embrace plurality over exclusivity, and to accept that a single object, even a digital one, is part of a complex of layered meanings and competing power relations rather than one monolithic story. On the blockchain, artifacts also challenge the logic of linear time which dictates the need for a before and an after. For as the Byzantine parallel reminds us, while artifacts depend on their context and ritual function, they also resonate beyond.

Today’s expanded field of digital culture has inspired me and Ana María Caballero to develop our own artifacts in collaboration with Emergent Properties. This is our attempt to imagine a new token economy where both image and coinage can challenge tired histories. By harnessing the emergent potential of generative AI, these artifacts render traditional materials as hybrid, subverting canonical types while hinting at human-machine cultures not yet discovered. Inspired by the precedent of Byzantium, which proves the power of alternative economies to challenge traditional structures, we ask: what might images of pregnancy, of family, and of domesticity mean when minted onto currency? Our tokens tell simple stories of private lives but the identities of their subjects remain unknown. artifacts exist in a space of contested histories, displacing value from established, patriarchal power and situating it in our homes. In doing so, they ask the collector to join in the creation of new meanings. 

Protect your NFT collection and discover new artists with ClubNFT

With thanks to Ana María Caballero.

Alex Estorick is Editor-in-Chief at Right Click Save.


¹ D Joselit, After Art, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013, 88-96.

² M Haiven, Art After Money, Money After Art: Creative Strategies Against Financialization, London: Pluto Press, 2018, 52.

³ Theodore of Stoudios quoted in BV Pentcheva, “The Performative Icon”, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 88, no. 4, December 2006, 634.

⁴ St. John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, A Louth trans., New York, 2003, 93.

⁵ D Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege ofPartial Perspective”, Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, no. 3, Autumn 1988, 581.

⁶ Nikolaos Mesarites quoted in C Mango, The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312 – 1453: Sources and Documents, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986, 232.

⁷ BV Pentcheva, The Sensual Icon: Space, Ritual and the Senses in Byzantium, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010, 33.