BMCR 2008.02.12

Art and Text in Byzantine Culture

, Art and text in Byzantine culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xv, 230 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 26 cm. ISBN 0521834090 $80.00.

[Titles and authors are listed at the end of the review.]

Liz James begins her introduction to Art and Text in Byzantium by saying that the interface between the two is one of the oldest issues in art history. She continues by asking if art can stand alone or if it is always expressed in the written and the oral, making it thereby exposed to subjective interpretation. In Byzantium, says James, the very security of the state depended on the right interface between images and words, and, “above all, Christ, the Word of God” (1). The Empire was the only major world power that experienced political mayhem resulting from arguments about art. Iconoclasm and the accompanying debates about religious images established “the place of art in society and the relationship of art to words” (2). James concludes her introduction to the essays that follow stating that although art and text may influence each other the contributors to the volume “seek to explore the complexities of the relationship” (9). This relationship between images and words is the unifying theme of the work.

Ruth Webb is the author of the first essay in the book: “Accomplishing the Picture: Ekphrasis, Mimesis and Martyrdom in Asterios of Amaseia”. In her essay, she discusses ekphrasis, a ‘description of a work of art’. Webb cites the experience of Asterios of Amaseia who had seen the sequence of four paintings depicting the trial and torture of Euphemia. Asterios’ work has been used in different ways over the centuries according to agendas lying behind the various means of viewing and describing it. According to Webb, ekphrasis as representation of experience introduces a new level of mimesis into the complex layering of word and image. The Byzantines, in contrast to modern viewers, concentrated on the effect art had on the viewer.

In the second essay, “The Rhetoric of Buildings in the De Aedificiis” Jas Elsner discusses what he calls the rhetoric of buildings in the work of Procopius. De Aedificiis, Procopius’ last work, “offers us a masterly meditation on the problem of turning monuments into discourse” (34). Procopius, combining panegyric and description in De Aedificiis, celebrates Justinian as a masterful builder, which he sees as a reflection of his greatness as emperor. Elsner terms Procopius’ De Aedificiis a “bravado text that transposes real monuments into a textual discourse” (50). In this text and others, Elsner believes that the work of Procopius mirrors the paradoxes besetting the role of emperors since Augustus.1

In her essay, “Every Cliché in the Book: The Linguistic Turn and the Text-Image Discourse in Byzantine Manuscripts,” Leslie Brubaker states in the opening sentence “Images show; words describe,” explaining that “art and text produce parallel streams of communication that create a dialogue between what words can describe and what a picture can show” (58). According to Brubaker, since words and images describe the same thing in different ways, it creates tension. In Byzantium, images helped to convey a message to an audience that was only partly literate. Word and image combined, by contrast, would have had a different impact on a reader of a manuscript who was also the viewer of its pictures. Brubaker concludes that in Byzantium illuminated manuscripts were the medium that communicated ideas more powerfully and effectively than any other (78). We need to add to this observation that such communication was limited to a relatively small literate group.

The fourth essay by Charles Barber is called “In the Presence of the Text: A Note on Writing, Speaking and Performing in the Theodore Psalter” (an eleventh century manuscript in the British Library). Barber describes the images that disrupt the text: figures of Christ, King David and an angel spearing a man. He calls it “an eye-catching image of the power of prayer” (83), and explains that the relationship between images and text are established by a scribal mark. Barber thus assigns priority to the scribe, whom he envisions placing the verbal performance above visual imitation.

Robert S. Nelson prefaces his essay “Image and Inscription: Pleas for Salvation in Spaces of Devotion,” with a quotation from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s ‘Early paintings and recent restorations in Venice (1790)’.2 In this quotation Goethe points to the importance in Byzantium of the holiness of icons. Although figures like Mary or Christ can hardly be mistaken, he states, icons always bear an identifying inscription. Nelson cites Matthew 22:15-22 where Jesus is described as calling for a coin, then asking “Whose image ( eiko~n) and inscription ( epigraphe~) is this?” (100). In spite of this early example of image and inscription on a Roman coin, it has been pointed out by Henry Maguire and Karen Boston that identifying inscriptions are rare on early icons. Nelson sees this development as a consequence of the debates during the Iconoclast controversy when it was formulated that the prototype of an image had to be clearly identified. A saint, being no ordinary human, had to be addressed by his or her nomina sacra. It is later, after the fall of Constantinople and with the impact of Western European art that “the discursive rules for word and image on Greek icons change” (116). It had become increasingly important after the Iconoclastic controversy that the holy person, not the picture, should be venerated.

In the opening lines of the sixth essay “Epigrams on Icons,” Bissera V. Pentcheva distinguishes two types of texts “book epigrams accompanying a piece of literature as an introduction or dedication, and inscriptions usually written in dodekasyllabic verse on art objects, monumental painting, and architecture” (120). When applied to icons texts serve as written prayers, says Pentcheva. Today epigrams often survive in manuscripts while the objects on which they had been written disappeared. Art historians are now looking at these epigrams as testimony to how Byzantines interacted with images. How epigrams were positioned on icons is assumed by Pentcheva to be evidence of tactility in Byzantine visual contact, conveying the intention of the donor. She judges the icon to be “the testament to this eternal pursuit to find material expression for the ineffable. . .” (133-134).

Henry Maguire discusses names and their absence in Byzantine art in “Eufrasius and Friends: On Names and their Absence in Byzantine Art”. He takes the pre-iconoclastic period as his starting point and asks why only some images have inscriptions. Maguire speculates that “the anonymity of an image” (141) would enhance its effectiveness implying more than just one supernatural agent, and thereby increasing the power of the image infinitely. Searching for possible explanations of why inscriptions were omitted on works of art, Maguire makes “a case study” (146) of the central apse of the church of Eufrasius at Porec in Istria. In this church most of the saints can be recognized by inscriptions or costume. Three saints depicted on the right side of the dome, however, are anonymous. Maguire suggests that the mosaic in the apse of the church may have served a double function, which was both public and private. The part that had an inscription was aimed at a public audience whereas the unnamed saints represent a private “ex-voto” (157). Maguire concludes that the composition of the apse in the church of Eufrasius served a dual purpose. He sees the absence of identifying names as part of the intended meaning of the image, and by arguing for a double function for these images—some public and some private—he thereby takes the debate about images and words into new territory.

Amy Papalexandrou looks at architectural monuments in “Echoes of Orality in the Monumental Inscriptions of Byzantium.” She tries to reconstruct the ‘voices’ of the builders and visitors to these monuments, and points out that only recently have inscriptions been considered to shape architectural spaces together with formal and architectural elements; that inscriptions on buildings are the ‘voices’ of the builders and the public. Byzantine monumental inscription, according to Papalexandrou, could initiate responses in a kind of dialogue. Examples of epigrams are given in the essay. They use artistic skills, such as poetry, to assure that an individual was not forgotten. Papalexandrou concludes by saying that her focus had been on misplaced monuments “arcane material in order to suggest a methodology and pose questions, . . . namely, the reception of monuments and spaces by the human beings who inhabited and interacted with them” (181). Her essay points out that such “untouched material” needs to be looked at more closely.

In the last essay “‘And Shall These Mute Stones speak?’ Text as Art”, Liz James asks if indeed “visual signs (are) considered in terms of their visuality, rather than what they say?” (188); were words placed on objects always meant to be read, and by whom? James continues by describing the complexity of the location of some inscriptions on architectural spaces and questions if a visitor was even expected to read them. She gives as an example the epigram in the church of St. Polyeuktos pointing out that only the well-educated would have been able to read it while the rest needed to have it read to them. James speculates that the purpose of such inscribed epigrams is “an eternal evocation of piety, lest we — or God — forget” (199). The essay concludes with a discussion of inscriptions as ornaments and uses as examples those at St. Polyeuktos, Constantine Lips and the Pammakaristos in Constantinople. These inscriptions, says James, “convey eternal silent prayers” that give meaning to the buildings. It seems clear from the essays reviewed above that images and words had for all their inherent differences a similar impact on both the beholder and listener in the Byzantine Empire throughout its long history.

The book under discussion here is beautifully produced, well edited and a pleasure to read. The nine essays it contains are of high quality, accompanied by copious notes placed at the end of each essay. There are also color illustrations, an appendix of Greek texts, a selected bibliography, and an index. It is a work aimed at a readership of specialists and advanced students of the Byzantine Empire. Having said this, however, one needs to add that a general public too would find it rewarding reading.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Art and Text in Byzantium — Liz James

Accomplishing the Picture: Ekphrasis, Mimesis and Martyrdom— Ruth Webb

The Rhetoric of Buildings in the De Aedificiis of Procopius — Jas Elsner

Every Cliché in the Book: The Linguistic Turn and the Text-Image Discourse in Byzantine Manuscripts — Leslie Brubaker

In the Presence of the Text: A Note on Writing, Speaking and Performing in the Theodore Psalter — Charles Barber

Image and Inscription: Pleas for Salvation in Space and Devotion — Robert S. Nelson

Epigrams on Icons — Bissera V. Pentcheva

Eufrasius and Friends: On Names and Their Absence in Byzantine Art — Henry Maguire

Echoes of Orality in the Monumental Inscriptions of Byzantium — Amy Papalexandrou

‘And Shall These Mute Stones Speak?’ Text as Art — Liz James

Appendix of Greek Texts

Selected Bibliography



1. Anthony Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004, discusses the relationship between an educated bureaucracy and the emperor Justinian. Much of what Kaldellis says gives meaning to the term ‘bravado text’ used by Elsner in describing the work of Procopius.

2. Trans. J. Gage, Goethe on Art. London: Scolar Press, 1980, 124.