Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.04.45 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.04.45

Henry Maguire, Nectar and Illusion: Nature in Byzantine Art and Literature. Onassis series in Hellenic culture.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. xx, 198; 14 p. of plates.  ISBN 9780199766604.  $55.00.  

Reviewed by Paroma Chatterjee, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (


This study may be regarded as the final part of a triptych which includes the two classic volumes penned previously by the author, namely, Art and Eloquence in Byzantium) (Princeton University Press, 1994, and The Icons of their Bodies. Saints and their Images in Byzantium (Princeton University Press, 2000). As in a triptych in which motifs are repeated, extended, and elaborated over three panels, so too are the three books united by Henry Maguire’s interest in certain recurrent themes, including the relationships between rhetoric and art, connections between religious and non-religious imagery, and the impact of Iconoclasm on pictorial products and practices. Nectar and Illusion moves away from the realm of biblical cycles and holy persons explored in the prior studies to focus on the representation of nature in Byzantine art; on the depiction of flowing rivers, verdant trees, and frolicking birds and beasts in a visual tradition which is regarded as predominantly religious and devoid of such “extraneous” elements as flora and fauna. In turning his attention to these elements, Maguire accords a central role to what is usually relegated to the margins, not only in the scholarly literature, but also in the works of art themselves.

Chapter 1, “Nature and Idolatry,” explores the efflorescence of natural imagery in fifth- and sixth-century churches, despite the fact that the representation of nature remained a controversial issue until the eighth century and the advent of Iconoclasm. Athanasius of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and Nilus of Sinai condemned pagan cults and the worship of animals, plants, and rivers, actual or depicted; accordingly, not all churches reveal the abundance of natural motifs as do the early ones. When the Iconoclastic dispute erupted in the eighth century, iconophiles were forced to justify certain kinds of images, such as those of Christ and the saints, against what were perceived to be pagan images, such as those depicting nature. In preparing their defense in the favor of icons, the iconophiles neatly turned the tables against their iconoclast detractors by arguing that the latter allowed images of animals, such as “the ass, the dog, and the pig” (46), to flourish in their churches – a most perverse preference – while they burned the image of Christ. But whether Iconoclast churches did in fact display such motifs remains in question, thus leading Maguire to contend that “both parties were at pains to avoid depictions that might confirm the truth of the charges against them” (47).

This deep-rooted ambivalence toward the depiction of nature is further analysed in Chapter 2, “Nature and Rhetoric,” which argues for a similar attitude toward rhetoric in Byzantium. It was through the mode of ekphrasis that natural motifs were most often described, thus proffering an intriguing imbrication of the universe of rhetoric with that of nature. Writers and orators extolled the bounties of the natural world, but they also derided nature for its ephemerality. However, in the middle Byzantine period, the notion that nature was “corruptible, fleeting, and transient” (58) was tempered by the idea that it had been “redeemed and sanctified through the incarnation of Christ” (59). The latter concept enabled verbal and pictorial depictions of nature to flourish, as is evident, for instance, from the motif of springtime and its celebration in homilies, and in icons such as the famous example of the Annunciation to the Virgin, dated to the twelfth century and located at the Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai. But, as Maguire points out, this particular icon is exceptional, as other scenes of the Annunciation rarely offer such an exuberant display of birds, fish, and plants. This was not the case, however, with depictions of the Annunciation to St. Anne, which nearly always incorporate a lavish panorama of flora and fauna in their pictorial composition. Although Maguire suggests, on the basis of a sermon by Emperor Leo VI, that this difference was due to the fact that the birth of Christ was regarded as a miracle “above nature,” the reasons behind the relative austerity of depictions of the Annunciation to the Virgin require more thought and a more persuasive argument than the one offered.

Chapter 3, “Nature and Metaphor,” focuses on one important aspect of Byzantine rhetoric and its application in art and literature throughout Byzantine history. As in the previous chapters, Maguire’s argument discloses the alternation of acceptance and avoidance that characterized the depiction of metaphorical images derived from nature. Again, it was in the domain of art that this ambivalence was most acutely observed, whereas in the literary realm of sermons, hymns, and homilies, metaphors associated with nature were constantly deployed. Through an analysis of images and texts dedicated to the Virgin (specifically the Akathistos hymn) and to the prevailing notions of Paradise, Maguire argues for continuities in verbal metaphors, but a reluctance on the part of artists to depict the rich effusion of nature. This may, perhaps, be explained by a ruling of the Quinisext Council of 692, which called for the substitution of the image of the lamb by the image of a human being so as to emphasise Christ’s humanity (87). This attitude continued until the demise of Byzantium, although in the twelfth century there was a brief hiatus in which artists celebrated the natural world with the same subtlety and love of detail as did their literary counterparts. The concluding section of the chapter offers a brief overview of attitudes toward natural imagery in the medieval West. Maguire contends that in the eighth century, “there was a parting of ways between the Christian art of the West and the East with respect to the depiction of nature” (103). In an interesting twist, he argues that since sacred icons in Byzantium were believed to furnish direct access to their prototypes, the same principle could apply to profane images as well, which was precisely the danger of which Orthodox churchmen were wary. On the other hand, since in the West all images, sacred and otherwise, were regarded as distant, indirect reminders of their prototypes, profane images were read in a similar vein, thus losing their potential for idolatrous or deviant veneration. Consequently, churches in the West, specifically in Rome, display a far more expansive repertoire of images from nature than do Byzantine monuments. This is attested to by the fact that in Byzantium nature tended to flourish only in “relatively inconspicuous locations” (105), such as in the privately commissioned manuscript, rather than on the walls of churches.

The observations on metaphor segue nicely into Chapter 4, “Nature and Abstraction.” The argument is provocative; it contends that pre-iconoclastic churches displayed nature in all its specificity, whereas post-Iconoclasm “motifs from nature were represented in an undefined manner that clearly demonstrated their inferior status” (106). This trend is noted primarily in the depictions on the floors of churches. Indeed, tessellated mosaic floors with their naturalistic portrayals gradually disappeared after the ninth century (with a few exceptions), and were replaced by abstract compositions in opus sectile. Along with the general change in aesthetic taste that might have been responsible for this shift, Maguire posits the growing influence of monastic asceticism in Byzantium, which associated the lavishness of nature’s bounty with gluttony and lust. Yet another factor that might have contributed to the effacement of vegetal decoration in churches is the pressure of Islam, which had banned the representation of all living beings from mosques. However, the greater degree of abstraction invited a correspondingly higher degree of imaginative input on the part of Byzantine beholders who, to judge from the written evidence, saw lush meadows and breathtaking gardens in the slabs of colored stone even when they – to our eyes, at any rate – resemble such vistas least. But Maguire’s most interesting observation is that along with the diminishing details in the representation of nature, Byzantine art saw the parallel trend of a fastidiously delineated scheme for the representation of saints. Where the distinctions between various plants were not depicted after Iconoclasm, the saints were scrupulously differentiated from each other in terms of their facial features and dress. Yet another fascinating insight concerns the Byzantine distinction between variegated marbles, which were usually perceived to represent terrestrial matter, and monochrome materials, which were regarded as expressions of the divine. Ultimately, it is argued that contrary to the conventional view of Byzantine art as an abstract depiction of the spiritual, it is, in fact, precisely the latter which, in being depicted in meticulous detail, detracts from an abstract delineation. Abstraction per se was reserved for the quotidian, the mundane, and the earthly.

Chapter 5, “Nature and Architecture,” appears at first glance to explore explicitly man-made structures, but instead its thesis centers on an intriguing question regarding nature: to what extent did depictions of architecture substitute for those of animals and plants as conveyors of Christian meaning? The discussion is rooted in the metaphorical significance of architectural elements, such as stairs, gates, ciboria, and columns; the differences between physical and immaterial space; stability and mutability; and the absence of architecture altogether from images. The author posits that as elements of the natural world became more problematic for Byzantine artists and viewers, architectural motifs “assume a greater role in conveying symbolism in Byzantine religious art” (164). Continuing the argument of the previous chapter, Maguire observes that the depiction of architectural details symbolized the earthly domain, whereas a relatively undefined space stood for the immaterial realm. Furthermore, the alterations in architectural space from image to image suggested the mutability of these manufactured elements, highlighting in contrast the essential immutability of the sacred figures depicted on holy icons. In a visual system based on the juxtaposition of opposites (such as physical space and its denial), meaning emerged through the deliberate emphasis on difference. Although investing architecture with metaphorical meanings entailed a degree of ambiguity (for instance, it is not clear that a viewer looking at the picture of a column always linked it with the Virgin), such features could – and evidently in some cases, did – stand in for Christian values in a way that elements of the natural world increasingly could not.

Nectar and Illusion marshals an impressive corpus of visual and textual evidence in support of its arguments. In the process, it raises a number of questions, some of which it addresses directly and others which, hopefully, shall be taken up in future studies. For instance, what sort of audience was privy to the depictions of nature? Can one distinguish between elite and non-elite viewers on the basis of the distinction between private and public spaces (delineated briefly in Chapter 3), and if so, what might be the implications of such distinctions? Can one enlist the Quinisext Council in support of the notion that nature lost currency in images when the cited canon does not outright condemn such images? Indeed, how does one interpret documents such as the canons of a council and, by extension, the literary output of an entire culture when making arguments about the visual discourse that it apparently influenced? If Byzantine viewers read elaborate figural representations into the surfaces of stones, can these, then, truly be deemed “abstract” compositions? Is the concept of “abstraction” Byzantine at all, and if so, what might be the specific terms (linguistic, pictorial, or social) in which it was framed? Nectar and Illusion is invaluable not only for opening up the above questions, but also for reminding us forcefully that Byzantine visual culture is far richer, more varied, and often, more puzzlingly and delightfully inconsistent than its stately icons of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints would have us believe.

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