Cross-Cultural Interpretations of Imagery in the Middle Ages

By Zeitler, Barbara | The Art Bulletin, December 1994 | Go to article overview

Cross-Cultural Interpretations of Imagery in the Middle Ages


Zeitler, Barbara, The Art Bulletin


There can be little doubt that the encounter between medieval Western Europe and Byzantium is an issue of great complexity. In art-historical writing this engagement between East and West in the Middle Ages has conventionally been explained in terms of the "influence" of Byzantine art on the art of the medieval West.(1) The encounter, however, can be considered in much broader terms as the interaction of two related, yet very different cultures. From the perspective of the visual arts, this encounter can be analyzed in terms of one culture perceiving the visual imagery of the other.

The work of Ernst Gombrich, in particular his Art and Illusion, has made an important contribution to our understanding of how viewers perceive images, pertaining both to their own and to other cultures.(2) The cross-cultural perception of imagery in the Middle Ages, however, is still largely uncharted territory.(3) How did viewers familiar with the visual culture of medieval Western Europe interpret imagery associated with Orthodox Christianity? Conversely, how did Byzantine and other Orthodox viewers engage with the imagery of the Christian West?

A comprehensive analysis of how the cultures of Western Europe and the Orthodox East understood each other should include visual as well as verbal evidence. Here, I want to consider three instances which document engagements with the arts of another culture. In one example the perception of Western art by an Orthodox viewer will be examined. The other two will be used to investigate interpretations of Orthodox art by Western viewers. My main focus will be on texts describing images. Texts documenting cross-cultural interpretations of imagery are unfortunately rare--too often such texts refer to images which no longer survive, as indeed is the case with two of the three examples discussed below. Despite this difficulty the cases selected will, it is hoped, enable us to gain some insight into the cross-cultural reception of imagery in the Middle Ages.

A striking example of an Orthodox viewer's reaction to Western imagery can be found in a passage from the Memoirs of Sylvester Syropoulos which records a statement made by Gregory Melissenos during the church council at Florence in 1438-39:

When I enter a Latin church, I do not revere any of the [images of] saints that are there because I do not recognize any of them. At the most I may recognize Christ, but I do not revere Him either, since I do not know in what terms He is inscribed. So I make the sign of the cross and I revere this sign that I have made myself, and not anything I see there.(4)

This is an intriguing statement not only for what it reveals about Orthodox attitudes toward Western European art, but also because it indicates that the imagery of the Latin church looked alien to Orthodox viewers and may in some cases even have been unintelligible to them. Gregory's characterization of this imagery, however, is embedded in a specific historical situation, the Council of Florence, and occurs in a text which embodies a particular view of the council that may not have been shared by his fellow participants. The possibility of a certain bias in the text suggests that both Gregory's remarks and the text in which they occur require further investigation.

The Council of Florence was convoked by Pope Eugenius IV at a time when the ailing Byzantine empire was suffering from a continuous onslaught by the Ottoman Turks. The council's aim was to bring about the union of the Latin and Orthodox churches. Emperor John VIII Palaiologos and Joseph, the patriarch of Constantinople, led a Byzantine delegation consisting of both secular and ecclesiastic dignitaries. Gregory Melissenos, the emperor's confessor, was part of that delegation.(5)

The Memoirs of Sylvester Syropoulos, a deacon and official of the Great Church of Constantinople, focus in particular on the meetings between the Latin and Orthodox delegations and dwell at length on the discussions among members of the Byzantine delegation of ancient points of contention between the two churches, such as the Latin doctrine of Purgatory and the Filioque clause. …

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