"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, May 30, 2022

Relishing Rather than Rubbishing Byzance avant Byzance

The older I get the more I realize that too much Christian hagiography, and more generally treatment of pre-Christian history, in whatever context, traffics in tendentiousness and gives much evidence of focusing on chosen traumas and chosen glories, to use Vamik Volkan's invaluable language. Too often Christian renderings of history likes to posit a sharp before-and-after break, rubbishing everything before a designated date as "pagan" or "heathen" and portraying the coming of Christianity as unmitigated "enlightenment."

A forthcoming book rather complicates such tales and dynamics: Between the Pagan Past and Christian Present in Byzantine Visual Culture: Statues in Constantinople, 4th-13th Centuries CE by Paroma Chatterjee  (Cambridge University Press, 2022, 350pp.)

About this book the publisher tells us this:

Up to its pillage by the Crusaders in 1204, Constantinople teemed with magnificent statues of emperors, pagan gods, and mythical beasts. Yet the significance of this wealth of public sculpture has hardly been acknowledged beyond late antiquity. In this book, Paroma Chatterjee offers a new perspective on the topic, arguing that pagan statues were an integral part of Byzantine visual culture. Examining the evidence in patriographies, chronicles, novels, and epigrams, she demonstrates that the statues were admired for three specific qualities - longevity, mimesis, and prophecy; attributes that rendered them outside of imperial control and endowed them with an enduring charisma sometimes rivaling that of holy icons. Chatterjee's  interpretations refine our conceptions of imperial imagery, the Hippodrome, the Macedonian Renaissance, a corpus of secular objects, and Orthodox icons. Her book offers novel insights into Iconoclasm and proposes a more truncated trajectory of the holy icon in medieval Orthodoxy than has been previously acknowledged.

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