"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Warrior Saints and Historical Methodology

The great historian Robert Taft has noted that, for all our theologizing about icons as being not physical representations but instead incarnations of spiritual reality, the Byzantines nonetheless quite straightforwardly approached icons as realistic representations of people as they actually existed. Elsewhere he has noted, in his reflections on historical method in his book Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It  (reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies by Peter Galadza),  that one of the useful means for filling in historical lacunae is to look at indirect evidence. If, say, one is trying to understand the position of children in the liturgy of the Great Church in the tenth century, sources treating this topic will only take one so far. But other sources, ostensibly on other topics, may be unintentionally useful insofar as they report relevant details and would have no reason not to do so in a manner relatively free from any distortion or tendentiousness. Thus, in addition to reading treatises directly on children, one might also read priestly rubrics for the administration of Holy Communion to understand if children were present, and how they received the Eucharist if such were mentioned in those rubrics.

Now Brill tells me today of a new book that has come along to approach questions of war and iconography using a similar method: 
Piotr Ł. Grotowski,  Arms and Armour of the Warrior Saint: Tradition and Innovation in Byzantine Iconography (843–1261), trans. Richard Brzezinski (Brill, 2010), 704pp. 

The publisher's blurb tells us:
The question of the independence of Byzantine iconography continues to draw attention. Following extensive research on the persistence of Classical motifs in Byzantine art, interest has recently turned to the originality of the latter and its reliability as a historical source. This study examines whether military equipment (armour, weapons, insignia and costume) shown in images of the warrior saints reflects items actually used in the mid-Byzantine Army or merely repeats Classical forms. Such representations are compared with documentary evidence gathered chiefly from Byzantine military manuals. The author demonstrates that military equipment, being a vital branch of material culture subject to constant evolution, provides a good indicator of iconographic innovation in the art of Byzantium.

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