Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Likeness and Prescence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Likeness and Prescence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art

Article excerpt

Likeness and Presence:A History of the Image before the Era of Art. By Hans Belting. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1994. Pp. xxiv,651; 12 color plates. $65.00.)

This book undertakes a monumental operation, the description of the visual direction taken by the holy Christian image from the period of Late Antiquity as far forward as the eighteenth century. Belting's avowed aim is to focus on the history of the holy image, defined as figural but non-narrative, and to trace the development in its artistic and conceptual treatment. It is unsurprising that it takes him twenty chapters, 688 pages, and 306 illustrations to carry out his task as he follows the icon from Byzantium to Medieval Europe, Renaissance Italy and on to Protestant Germany.

Likeness and Presence synthesizes evidence from East and West impartially. Continuity and change, link and contrast between the two are highlighted. This dual focus is a rare thing in medieval studies; Belting looks to offer evidence of the connections between Eastern and Western Christian images; his great achievement is to show how intimately the two cultures depend on each other. He undertakes a far-ranging marshalling of empirical evidence, of the sources and images in a variety of languages from all across Europe. It is as stuffed with facts as an egg is with meat. As such, it is a fascinating treasure trove for the medieval art historian seeking information, the history of particular holy images, the legends associated with them.

The drawback of such colossal erudition, however, is that it has no space to pause and reflect, to analyze, to ask, why is this happening to images? …

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