Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Sacred Images and Sacred Power in Byzantium

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Sacred Images and Sacred Power in Byzantium

Article excerpt

Sacred Images and Sacred Power in Byzantium. By Gary Vikan. [Variorum CoUected Studies Series.] (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Co. 2003. Pp. 246.)

Beginning in the late 1970's, Gary Vikan began to publish a series of articles that fundamentaUy altered the way many of us understand the relationship of the sacred and its physical manifestation in objects and images. The present volume brings together fifteen papers, which appeared between 1979 and 1995 in a variety of venues, many of which scholars of the Late Antique and Byzantine periods will already know. Vikan has spent most of his career in the museum world - he is currently the director of the Walters Art Museum - and the studies have in common the author's perceptive observations of material culture as a reflection of spiritual concerns in the Late Antique and Byzantine world. Eschewing the hermeneutical approach that has dominated much of the writing on Byzantine religious art, Vikan's method is both common-sensical and appealing, best represented in his Study V, "Byzantine Pilgrimage Art" (1998), an updating of a booklet he prepared to accompany an exhibit at Dumbarton Oaks in 1982 (and now available on-line through Dumbarton Oaks' web site). Indeed, many of the studies included here are devoted to pilgrimage art, and to the souvenirs pilgrims took with them from holy sites. As the author notes, "Ultimately each pilgrim was driven by the same basic conviction: namely, that the sanctity of holy people, holy objects, and holy places was somehow transferable through physical contact" (Study IX, p. 66), and many of the studies examine the role of visual imagery in the process of transfer.

The approach to the Byzantine icon is sinular, and in Vikan's formulation, "Relics have helped to give birth to icons" (Study I, p. 10), and they are similarly capable of creating a sacred presence. In several studies, the Lives of St. Symeon the Elder and his namesake Symeon the Younger are brought into the discussion. …

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