Other Icons: Art and Power in Byzantine Secular Culture

By Walker, Alicia | The Art Bulletin, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Other Icons: Art and Power in Byzantine Secular Culture


Walker, Alicia, The Art Bulletin


HENRY MAGUIRE AND EUNICE DAUTERMAN MAGUIRE Other Icons: Art and Power in Byzantine Secular Culture Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. 223 pp.; 8 color ills., 150 b/w. $49.50

For decades, scholars of Byzantium have been revamping the image of static orthodoxy and immutable tradition that Byzantine artists and authors so convincingly constructed. Among the misperceptions to be revised is the notion of Byzantium as a purely Christian and exclusively religious culture. As Henry and Eunice Maguire note at the outset of their book, religion was certainly the driving force of Byzantine society. Yet this world was also defined by a range of nonreligious practices and visual traditions, usually grouped under the term "secular." Other Icons is the first major study of Byzantine secular art to be published in English, and as such fills a long-standing gap in medieval art history. It covers an expansive time period from the eighth to the fourteenth centuries, taking as its departure point the Iconoclastic era (ca. 726-843), after which Byzantium can be said to have shifted from a late antique to a more truly medieval society.

Earlier scholarship on the secular in Byzantium has tended to isolate nonreligious art as an autonomous, marginal aspect of cultural production, independent of the sacred activities at the center. In contrast, the authors propose that the sacred and the secular intersect conceptually and visually throughout Byzantine culture and, for this reason, must be studied in relation to one another. They emphasize that the secular was not merely ornamental or entertaining but generated powerful, meaningful imagery and ideas that worked both against and in tandem with the aims of Christian works of art. In this respect, Other Icons is about more than secular Byzantine art: it explores the overlap and mutual dependence between the secular and the sacred in Byzantium. Although this perspective is not entirely new to Byzantine art history, it nonetheless marks a shift from the main current of scholarship both past and present, redirecting the intellectual flow of a subfield that perhaps too often assumes the predominance and exclusivity of Byzantium's Christian identity.

While employing the standard categories of sacred and secular, the authors cast their discussion in alternative terms as well. Most notably, they correlate "sacred" with "official" art, literature, and social practices of the church, and "secular" with an "unofficial" realm of production that offered greater freedom from Christian dictates and the power structures of ecclesiastical and state institutions. This unofficial realm is a potentially subversive space, yet one that depends on the hegemonic sphere of the sacred for its definition. The authors highlight the active dialogue between official and unofficial culture and argue that the realm of the secular is best understood in relation to the sacred, against which it was conceived.

In exploring the parameters and meaning of secular art, the authors make ample use of textual evidence from a variety of sources. These written accounts support the interpretation of Byzantine reception of nonreligious art and allude to additional categories within which medieval viewers placed objects and images that operated outside the mechanics and authority of Christianity. Much of the literature cited has not previously been brought to bear on this topic, and its synüiesis here is a major contribution. These textual sources also reflect the nature of the audience for secular art in Byzantium. Saints' lives and treatises on magic represent the popular beliefs circulating through high and low realms of Byzantine society, while imperial panegyrics and ecclesiastical writings impart the perspective of the elite. Audience is also implied through artistic genre and media. In particular, the authors make extensive use of ceramic evidence, opening important new avenues for appreciating the often neglected domain of nonelite imagery. …

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