Figure and Likeness: On the Limits of Representation in Byzantine Iconoclasm

Article excerpt

CHARLES BARBER Figure and Likeness: On the Limits of Represeniaiion in Byzantine Iconoclasm Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. 208 pp.; 38 b/w ills. $39.95

Byzantine icons are timeless and timely. Thresholds to the divine, surfaces for the representation of the form and formlessness of the deity, icons have been powerful means of devotion and mediation since late antiquity. Art historians and the general public have only recently rediscovered the medium long after other areas of Byzantine art have been studied, imitated, and exhibited. The 19th century, for example, took a greater interest in the medieval architecture of the eastern Mediterranean. Surveyed and published, that architecture contributed to the Byzantine version of the Gothic Revival, as neo-Byzantine buildings were erected throughout eastern and western Europe and the United States. At the beginning of the 20th century, the European avant-garde embraced Post-Impressionism and through it discovered Byzantine mosaics, and for at least two-thirds of the century, considerable scholarly effort was devoted to finding, restoring, and publishing Byzantine murals in the Levant and Balkans. Yet more important, at least in the AngloAmerican world, was the study of Greek illuminated manuscripts, thanks to the impact of emigres from Germany.

The most prolific of those professors was Kurt Weitzmann, the author of many books on manuscript illumination. In the later half of his career, he followed the Greek scholars G. and M. Soteriou to Mt. Sinai, where the greatest collection of Byzantine icons in the world is to be found at St. Catherine's monastery.1 Thereafter, Weitzmann dedicated himself to the study of the monastery and its collections. Yet in spite of his considerable efforts, the project to publish the architecture, illuminated manuscripts, and icons at Sinai has made limited progress.2 Of the intended multivolume series on the icons, Weitzmann brought out only the first volume in 1976. This book, however, presented the early icons in stunning color, including the justly celebrated 6th- or 7th-century icon of Christ (Barber's frontispiece to chapter 5 and fig. 29), and received the Charles Rufus Morey Book Award from the College Art Association.3 In recent years, more limited studies of later Sinai icons have appeared,4 as the monks cautiously opened their collection to other scholars and permitted their icons to travel to major exhibitions.5 As a result, the Sinai icons are beginning to be written into the larger history of Byzantine devotional art, a principal concern of many in the later decades of the 20th century. Influential leaders of this approach have been Robin Cormackb and Hans Belting,7 and important work on Russian icons in this respect has recently been published.8 Thanks to Belting's book of 1990,9 research on icons has been joined to the study of Western panel painting, a subject whose genealogy is several centuries older. Another fruitful approach has been to trace the techniques of early icons back to ancient panel painting.10

But to situate and evaluate the achievements of the book under review, it is not enough to sketch briefly and impressionistically the history of the study of the Byzantine icon as object. It is as important, or more so, to chronicle another branch of scholarship that has explored the theory and theology of holy objects in the Eastern church. One broad body of literature concerns Byzantine iconoclasm (late 7th century to mid-9th century), the longest and most theoretically engaged controversy over religious images in the Christian tradition. Extensive and learned, that discourse is often inaccessible to those lacking the dozen or so languages necessary to follow it. Another strand of scholarship may be traced back to a single scholar, Andre Grabar, France's principal art historian of Byzantine art in the 20th century.

Throughout his career, Grabar explored what today is known as the Power of Images,11 especially imperial iconography, the origins of holy places, and the cult of icons and the mentalite that made it possible. …