"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).

Friday, May 30, 2014

Francis in Byzantium?

The Sisters of Saint Francis of Perpetual Adoration, the official sponsors of my university, make it a point that every room on campus will have a San Damiano crucifix in it. I am no art historian, but it is obvious to me that what is taken to be a quintessentially Franciscan symbol has, in fact, antecedents in Byzantine iconography. A new book may shed further light on this question: Paroma Chatterjee, The Living Icon in Byzantium and Italy: The Vita Image, Eleventh to Thirteenth Centuries (Cambridge UP, 2014), 310pp.

About this book we are told:
The Living Icon in Byzantium and Italy is the first book to explore the emergence and function of a novel pictorial format in the Middle Ages, the vita icon, which displayed the magnified portrait of a saint framed by scenes from his or her life. The vita icon was used for depicting the most popular figures in the Orthodox calendar and, in the Latin West, was deployed most vigorously in the service of Francis of Assisi. This book offers a compelling account of how this type of image embodied and challenged the prevailing structures of vision, representation, and sanctity in Byzantium and among the Franciscans in Italy between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Through the lens of this format, Paroma Chatterjee uncovers the complexities of the philosophical and theological issues that had long engaged both the medieval East and West, such as the fraught relations between words and images, relics and icons, a representation and its subject, and the very nature of holy presence.

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