"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, September 12, 2014

Portraits and Icons

With students in my iconography class this semester, I'm finishing up Leslie Brubaker's useful and accessible Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm and she concludes in there by noting that we can finally understand the defeat of Byzantine iconoclasm by returning once more to a theology of the Incarnation, but also to attending carefully to Byzantine understandings of representation, and the "middle place" they occupied. A recent study picks up on this central notion of representation: Katherine Marsengill, Portraits and Icons: Between Reality and Spirituality in Byzantine Art (Brepols, 2013), 463pp.

About this book we are told: 
This book examines the phenomena of portraits and icons from late antiquity until the end of the Byzantine period, and the cultural and theological perceptions that guided its reception. This book examines the phenomena of portraits and icons, and spans from late antiquity through the end of the Byzantine period. Engaging a wide range of material, it addresses persistent themes in the creation of a distinctly Christianized portraiture while analyzing the cultural and theological perceptions that guided its reception. Christian Rome inherited from antiquity its traditions and beliefs regarding portraits. Though altered for its new Christian context, these perceptions did not disappear. This study proves that within Christian portraiture, the icon is not reserved for saints alone. Instead, one must imagine the Byzantine world as one where sacred and secular art intermingled, and portraits of Christ and the saints, emperors, bishops, and holy men existed side by side in visual messages of hierarchal authority. Indeed, in the portrayal of power and holiness, there existed a range of images that can be classified as icons. Certain individuals of high-ranking status, though not saints, were portrayed in ways that recall images of saints because their spiritual or divine authority ranked them closer to God. Their positions further up the hierarchy enabled them to help others in their spiritual ascent and daily needs. Viewers in turn understood these elevated members of their community to be efficacious intercessors and their portraits to be worthy of veneration.

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