"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).

Monday, July 29, 2013

Byzantine Iconoclasm

Leslie Brubaker, director of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman, and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham in England, has emerged as one of the top scholars today (if not the scholar) of Byzantine iconoclasm. I've just started reading her most recent work, Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm (Bristol Classic, 2012), 160pp. and even before finishing it I want to draw attention to it. Indeed, I'm already thinking it would make an excellent book for students in survey courses on iconography, and to that end will likely adopt the text when I teach my course on icons next year.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Byzantine 'iconoclasm' is famous and has influenced iconoclast movements from the English Reformation and French Revolution to Taliban, but it has also been woefully misunderstood; this book shows how and why the debate about images was more complicated, and more interesting, than it has been presented in the past. It explores how icons came to be so important, who opposed them, and how the debate about images played itself out over the years between c. 680 and 850. Many widely accepted assumptions about 'iconoclasm' - that it was an imperial initiative that resulted in widespread destruction of images, that the major promoters of icon veneration were monks, and that the era was one of cultural stagnation - are shown to be incorrect. Instead, the years of the image debates saw technological advances and intellectual shifts that, coupled with a growing economy, concluded with the emergence of medieval Byzantium as a strong and stable empire.
The book, as Brubaker frankly admits in the preface, distills the research of her earlier works into a more accessible format. She begins by noting that in this present work she will assume nothing, and to that end sets off straightaway noting that almost all of us today uses the word "icon" all the time given the ubiquity of computers, tablets, and cell phones, but we do not know the long historical roots of that word; similarly, "iconoclast" is frequently found in journalism today, though it is a very recent invention and often used to mean something different from those figures of the seventh to ninth centuries who went about smashing icons, whitewashing them, or gouging their eyes out. And then of course there is the whole notion of "Byzantine," a term nobody ever used prior to Gibbon because those so designated considered themselves Romans.

The text itself contains such brief definitions of terms, and is written in an accessible way, eschewing a heavy reliance on footnotes or jargon, and thus making the book, it seems to me, a good introduction to those with little to no background in the area.

Brubaker has authored other books on the topic, including, with John Haldon, the massive 2011 tome, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c.680-850: A History (Cambridge UP), 944pp. I drew attention to this book's details here.
Cambridge University Press, in 2008, also published her Vision and Meaning in Ninth-Century Byzantium: Image as Exegesis in the Homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus, about which we are told:
This book centers on the copy of the Homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus produced in Constantinople around 880 for the emperor Basil I as a gift from the patriarch Photios. The manuscript includes forty-six full page miniatures, most of which do not directly illustrate the text they accompany, but instead provide a visual commentary. Vision and Meaning in Ninth-Century Byzantium deals with how such communication worked, and examines the types of messages that pictures could convey in ninth-century Byzantium.
Finally, for the true scholar of iconoclasm, there is the invaluable (if not inexpensive) collection co-authored once again with Haldon: Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era (C. 680-850): The Sources: An Annotated Survey.

As I make my way through Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm I will post more thoughts. But it is, as I say, a very good introduction to the area. And an added, and not insignificant, bonus is that this book is easily the most affordable of all her works in the area.

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