BMCR 2001.06.08

Subtle Bodies: Respresenting Angels in Byzantium

, Subtle bodies : representing angels in Byzantium. The transformation of the classical heritage ; 32. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001. 1 online resource (xv, 235 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9780520925137 $37.50.

For the thirty-second title in Peter Brown’s landmark series on ‘the transformation of the classical heritage’, Glenn Peers offers us a dissertation on Byzantine angelology. While it may be easy today to dismiss the discussion of angels as one step too far into the abstrusity of speculation (how many angels on a pin-head?), it is nonetheless true that angels figured significantly in early medieval discussion (as Peers shows) and that the problem of how to represent them was a genuinely interesting element within the larger Byzantine debate about images, aniconism and iconoclasm. Despite the authorial disclaimer that he is an art historian (p.11), this is a book devoted largely to texts and to complex theological argument. Peers is certainly right that his specific theme is an entrée into a larger and still valid set of problems.

The book is structured as five chapters (plus an introduction and conclusion) which in their way tread around the questions of what may be appropriately represented and how, which we are more usually familiar with in discussion of the image of Christ. The Introduction is in my view still too close to a doctoral thesis in its plunge into details and is insufficiently general in pointing the reader to the broader issues we need to grasp in order to feel situated in a rather obscure topic. Peers is right to focus on theology and cult (what he calls at p. 13, an ‘incorrigible cult’), but his approach works better when he focuses on a specific example, that of St Michael (pp. 6-8), than in making general statements. This is a pity, because a brief general summary of the core issues based on a mature grasp of a field which not many have recently trodden would have been welcome. Among the problems he raises but does not exhaust are the issue of localism in the particular cults of angels (that is, their popularity in certain contexts and shrines by contrast with others) and the origins and parallels of the cult of angels in Judaism and pagan polytheism. Given the richness of the Old Testament apocrypha and pseudepigrapha in precisely the area of angelic visions, one wonders why he neglects these sources.

Chapter 1 has a discussion of the intellectual issues in representing angels—from the conceptual problems of imaging the incorporeal to specific debates within the Iconoclastic Controversy. Peers follows Averil Cameron in presenting Byzantine Iconoclasm as a polarisation of attitudes to symbolism and literalism in matters of art and worship but emphasises the differences between representing angels and representing God or Christ. Angels not only had no material being, but they made no images and left no relics; yet their very intervention on earth was a matter of performing an illusion of reality to interact with humans. This theme might have been pushed further since it raises—within Medieval art—the question of illusionism that has always lain at the heart of the Western visual tradition. When Peers turns to actual objects in this chapter, he is less convincing than in generalisation—though he successfully shows the complexity of the iconographic origins of the angel type. Why is the early icon now in the Bilbiothèque Nationale in Paris (figure 1) certainly an Archangel and probably Michael? We are told he has wing-stumps—but would these have been obvious to all viewers? A number of Peers’ list of potential angels (especially from the tradition of representing them as indistinguishable from men) can hardly be described as certain identifications. The attempt to trace the winged visual tradition to pagan victories and erotes is very oddly handled. On p. 26, Peers wrongly states that ‘Pagan figures, such as nikes and personifications, are invariably female; Christian angels, male’; on p. 28 he specifically distinguishes (male) angels from (female) seasons in matters of gender. Only in a footnote (27) does he finally come clean that the majority of third century (and later) seasonal personifications in Graeco-Roman art are in fact male! All this makers very heavy weather of confusing a relatively uncomplicated iconographic ancestry.

Chapters 2 and 3 focus interestingly on arguments for and against the representation of angels. Given the current consensus that early Christians were not opposed to images (a reversal of the pre-1980s communis opinio pioneered by the work of Paul Corby Finney and Mary Charles Murray), Peers’ affirmation of the aniconic stance of Epiphanius of Salamis—as well as other less well known (and less Orthodox) theologians such as Macarius Magnes and Philoxenus of Mabbug—is certainly salutary. The basic reflex underlying this opposition, as presented by Peers, was that ‘the ultimate spirituality of angels could not be communicated by material images’ (p. 78). In his examples of positive writings on the images of angels, Peers uses Pseudo-Dionysius and the very interesting epigrams on St Michael collected in the Greek Anthology by Agathias. It is a pity he does not ground the elite Christian text/image discourse of epigrams in a discussion of earlier cycles of such epigrams in the Greek Anthology, such as the Hellenistic epigrams on works of art (notably Myron’s Cow), some of which are very revealingly examined by Simon Goldhill in an essay in his and Robin Osborne’s Art and Text in Ancient Greek Culture.

Chapter 4 gives a general and interesting overview of the veneration of angels and their images—again signalling how the author seems more comfortable with handling theological disagreements than in discussing works of art. Chapter 5, taking the case study of the Archangel Michael, looks at two examples of his cult at Colossae in Asia Minor and at Monte Gargano in Apulia. One wonders whether the range of examples might have been extended (to Mont St Michel, for instance?), and one would certainly have benefited from more comparanda. But the suggestions about how divine presence could be evoked in pilgrimage contexts without relics are interesting. Overall, then, this is a useful addition to the literature, which might have benefited from a longer pause and more reflection between the completion of the author’s thesis and the publication of his book. But the game of academic production seems above all a matter of speed and quantity now.