Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.9.6


Lyn Rodley, Byzantine Art and Architecture: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Pp. xiv + 380; ill., maps. $85.00. ISBN 0-521-35440-4 (hb). $29.95. ISBN 0-521-35724-1 (pb).


Reviewed by Nancy Patterson Sevcenko, Princeton University, Nsevcenko@aol.com.

A new book on Byzantine art is not exactly an annual event. To do proper justice to the civilization, such a book must begin in the late antique period and go at least as far as 1453, when the city of Constantinople fell to Mehmet the Conqueror, and the art known today simply as "post-Byzantine" was born. It must take into account areas controlled at some period by Byzantium, areas ranging from South Italy to Eastern Turkey and from the Danube to Mount Sinai, as well as treat the neighboring areas under its sphere of influence, especially Georgia and Armenia in the Caucasus, and Bulgaria, Serbia and Roumania in the Balkans, even Ukraine and Russia. The task is enough to daunt any author and publisher, and books of this sort are rare.

Teachers of Byzantine art have generally relied on John Beckwith's Early Christian and Byzantine Art (Penguin, 1970), a well-documented survey by a museum scholar, which is plagued by small black and white photos as well as too much emphasis on the minor arts, or on Irmgard Hutter's small volume, Early Christian and Byzantine (Universe History of Art and Architecture, New York 1971), which has some color illustrations, and brief but incisive comments on stylistic developments. There are some splendid monographs, but much of the fine work being done in the field of Byzantine art, especially in this country, is still being published primarily in the form of articles or catalogues. Thus the announcement of a new survey of Byzantine art by Lyn Rodley, a British archaeologist specializing in the Byzantine churches of Anatolia, was a welcome one.

It is painful to have to report that the new book is a disappointment on almost every level. The text is straightforward and honest, but fundamentally dreary, the plates terrible, the bibliography inadequate and sorely out of date, and there are just enough minor errors to make any teacher hesitate before assigning it to students.

First, the text. Its scope is broad: it embraces works in every medium except pottery, coins and seals (these are treated briefly in an appendix), and includes the wall-paintings of Georgia and Serbia (though not those of Russia), treating them rightly as part of the Byzantine heritage. The author warns against our assuming that everything was made in, or initiated by, the capital, consistently elevating the role of the provinces and the influence of the West, especially in the medium of sculpture, and she properly downplays the importance of the classicizing trends in Byzantium. She has made an admirable effort, in a field where objects are periodically redated by a couple of centuries without anyone raising an eyebrow, to concentrate on monuments about which there is some solid evidence for dating.

But her introductory chapter, and the sections entitled "general issues" that close each later chapter, are almost entirely devoted to reminding us of our inability to sketch overall patterns of development, given the dearth of precise information about the individual monuments involved, and this cleansing, cautionary tone, however valid, is ultimately very dispiriting.

Any search for larger themes is abandoned in favor of a strict archaeological approach. Objects are marshalled and presented without context, without cultural background, without flesh and blood; in the end, we know little more about them than their name and serial number. The description of the church of St. Sophia, for example, is concerned exclusively with the origin of its plan and elevation; there is nothing about the effect of its design, interior space or carving. Stylistic subtleties are avoided: works are characterized throughout as either "naturalistic" or "stylized" (with "expressive style" characterizing the art of the entire 12th century from Asinou to Lagoudera); there is a equally polarized choice between "narrative imagery" and "formal imagery", the former referring to multifigure compositions, the latter to single portraits.

Each chapter opens with a short historical introduction, which is followed by sections on architecture, monumental art (mosaic and wall painting), sculpture, minor arts (including illuminated manuscripts), and, finally "general issues". This sort of division means that buildings that contain painting and/or sculpture are chopped up into their various constituent parts; though some monuments bob up again in a later section, all sense of the integrity and complexity of a single monument is lost. The churches at Mistra appear under architecture, but then are inexplicably awarded only a brief unillustrated paragraph from the section on Palaiologan painting.

The plates are well located, nicely coordinated with their mention in the text. The ground plans are both numerous and helpful, especially those showing the location of mosaics or painted programs. The problem is that the photographs are of extremely poor quality and/or badly printed: many are so small and dark as to be indecipherable, and no point of iconography or architectural detail made in the text can be understood or verified by looking at these dim pictures. The plates show some works of art before they were cleaned (figs. 27, 54, 77, 202). Images of important monuments such as the Barberini ivory (fig. 65) and the Anastasis mosaic at Nea Mone on Chios (fig. 175) have been reversed (as is fig. 215). The captions seem to have been composed separately, and the information they provide often clashes with that correctly given in the text (fig. 65 vs. p. 92; fig. 103 vs. p. 136; fig. 116 vs. p. 151; fig. 140 vs. p. 180; fig. 152 vs. p. 202). Nonetheless, errors in content are relatively few for a work of this size. Some of the simpler mistakes are listed for reference at the end of this review.

The relevant bibliography is handily situated in footnotes at the bottom of the page on which the monument is described. Primary sources, especially for the early period, are frequently included, which is excellent, even if they are almost all limited to those already offered in Cyril Mango's Sources and Documents volume: The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453. The author seems to have opted to restrict her bibliographic references to primary publications of the work of art, and synthetic studies are studiously avoided. As a consequence, the Early Christian chapters never refer to Ernst Kitzinger's Byzantine Art in the Making (though it is cited in the short list of recommended readings), the later chapters omit the work of Kathleen Corrigan (Visual Polemics in the Ninth Century Byzantine Psalters), Robin Cormack's Writing in Gold, Henry Maguire's Art and Eloquence in Byzantium, Anna Kartsonis' Anastasis, and Hans Belting's monumental Likeness and Presence (although to be fair the English version of this book appeared only in 1994). Richard Krautheimer's Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture appears in occasional footnotes, but not on the recommended reading list.

One significant book on late Byzantine manuscripts and patronage, Hans Belting's Das illuminierte Buch im spätbyzantinischen Gesellschaft, is attributed to Hugo Buchthal (p. 325 note 40)! Recent monographs are not cited, such as Annabel Wharton Epstein's on Tokali kilisse, James Morganstern's on Dere Agzi, even Lydie Hademann-Misguich's on Kurbinovo, let alone the monographs on Greek and Yugoslav churches such as St. Nicholas Orphanos in Thessalonike, or Sopocani, Milesevo, Studenica and Gracanica.

References to manuscripts ignore recent facsimiles (e.g. those of the Joshua Roll, the Vienna Genesis, the Leo Bible, the Vatican Kokkinobaphos). The major corpus of color plates of Byzantine manuscripts on Mount Athos, the 4-volume Treasures of Mount Athos, as well as the magnificent volumes for the art on Mount Sinai and Patmos, even Kurt Weitzmann's publications of the Sinai icons and manuscripts (the latter with George Galavaris), are all absent. There are so few publishers outside of Athens who undertake to reproduce Byzantine art in color, that references to color plates, when they can be found, should be an essential component of any bibliography on a manuscript.

The book is strongest on architecture, and good too on sculpture, especially architectural sculpture. The manuscript sections are weak (and frequently involve faulty call numbers, see below), and there is little to be found here on icons, despite the fact that work in these two particular areas has involved some of the most exciting new research in the field over the last ten years.

A textbook needs to be clear and accurate, but it needs to be more than that too: it has to elicit some kind of response from the reader. Were the plates in this volume spectacular, one might well excuse the uninviting text. As it is, a curious reader opening this particular book might justifiably wonder what the fuss about Byzantine art is all about, and be excused if he or she turns instead to a recent textbook in a different if related field, Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom's The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250-1800 (Pelican History of Art, Yale University Press, 1994). This new book on Byzantine art, meant to be an invitation, has, I fear, managed to shut the door politely and firmly in the face of the prospective student.

A list of some minor errors follows: p. 19: the Studite church of St. John is so called because it was dedicated to St. John; the founder was named Stoudios, not John Stoudios. p. 157: The Vita Basilii speaks of the struggles and contests of the martyrs, not of their miracles. p. 161: Alexander does not juggle monograms; his hands are too busy holding imperial insignia. p. 165: The story of the origin of the Mandylion given here is inaccurate. The Veronica legend is not part of the Eastern tradition, which connects the Mandylion with the request of King Abgar. p. 168: The Limbourg Staurotheke is in the Diocesan Museum in that town. Its lid does not lift, but pulls out like the cover of a box of chessmen. The relics include more than those of the Crucifixion. p. 179: Menologia are manuscripts that contain longer vitae of saints; the brief notices are contained in a Synaxarion. The "Menologion" of Basil II is actually a Synaxarion (cf. p. 187). The 9th-century Psalters are written in minuscule, not uncial, script. p. 187: Echo is not named in the Paris Psalter. The Menologion of Basil II does have 430, not 413 miniatures as is stated on p. 188. p. 224: The cycle is devoted to the Forty Martyrs; the image is of John the Baptist. p. 250: The Walters marginal psalter dates from the 14th century. p. 251: The Moscow menologion of 1063 (now bearing the call number gr. 9) has vitae only for May through August and is the final volume of readings for the church year. This type of text was originally copied in ten separate volumes, not two, as is suggested; another manuscript from the same "set" as the Moscow one, a November menologion, is found on Mount Sinai (Sinai gr. 500). p. 252: The location of the Kokkinobaphos monastery is not known. p. 253: The second figure is Gregory of Nyssa, not Gregory of Nazianzus. p. 254: Theophanes is not depicted in proskynesis (which looks like prostration), but merely bows his head. p. 288, note 16: The author is Slobodan Curcic. p. 341: The frescoes associated with the school of Michael and Eutychios are in the Protaton monastery on Athos, not in the Great Laura. Faulty call numbers: the Leo Bible is Vatican Reg. gr. 1 (fig. 144 and note 60); the Joshua Roll, Vatican Pal. gr. 431 (fig. 146 and note 62). The second Gospel manuscript cited in note 42 on p. 330 is in the Laurentian Library in Florence, not in the Laura monastery.