“No one has ever seen God,” St John the Apostle famously declared. But where there’s a will there’s a way: many Christian images offer surrogate viewings of the Unseen One. Examples from the time roughly between the Edict of Milan and the outbreak of Byzantine Iconoclasm form the focus of Bergmeier’s study. The period is marked, he writes, by a “wish for pictures” and a desire to partake of the divine through one’s eyes, by an interest in religious visions and in making the invisible God visibly present. Collective dispositions like these are termed “expectation for visions.” This Visionserwartung informed “the mental and cultural constitution of people in late antiquity” (175), so that a number of Christian images can be understood as its tangible expression. Such images had no precedent in pre-Constantinian times, since Graeco-Roman gods were either believed to inhabit their respective cult statues or were directly identified with them. Still, Roman art—imperial as well as religious—contained certain iconographic details that could be used for making Christ’s depictions God-like. New images were thus formed as “synthetic combinations of non-specific theophanic motifs and pictorial elements” (267) and linked to the scripturally attested visions of prophets or apostles (Is 6:1-3, Ezek 1:26-28, Matt 17:1-8, Rev 4:1-11, etc.). Bergmeier points out that scholars have traditionally classified this synthetic imagery under distinct iconographic headings—Christ’s throne (Ἑτοιμασία), celestial Cross, celestial XP-monogram, Traditio Legis, Ascension, and so on—but all of it should be subsumed under the single denominator “theophanic.” “[T]eophanic images were original, novel products of Christian culture; little else demonstrates cultural change in late antiquity as clearly as they do” (69-70). By the seventh century, depictions of Christ in theophanic form “were anchored deep in the collective unconscious” (257).
Compared to other scholars who have recently studied early Christian theophanic imagery,1 Bergmeier’s approach is more systematic. First he defines a late antique Visionserwartung on the basis of textual evidence for Greek, Roman, Judaic, and early Christian beliefs in visible manifestations of the divine (23-70). Then he interprets various iconographic compositions as a response to this Erwartung by Christian image-makers, who were constrained by the Second Commandment and unable to resort to traditional cult statues (71-179). Finally he argues that such compositions were originally perceived as pointing to the present moment, rather than to the biblical past or a future Second Coming (181-259). Amply lit and placed high on the church walls, theophanic images were geared toward passive, contemplative viewing; they “are not a direct representation ( Abbildung) of liturgical ritual” (166). Once sacred figures were shifted closer to the floor, the risk of their illicit worship became palpable and provoked a reaction in the form of Iconoclasm (255-7).
It must be noted that Bergmeier is concerned only with iconography and not with the Visionsgestaltung (as it were) that older people such as myself would call “style”.2 His psychologising vocabulary ( Wunsch, Interesse, Erlebbarmachung, Erfahrbarmachung, kollektives Unterbewusstsein) will probably not be to everybody’s liking, but I think that even if presented in different terms, his book’s premise would remain valid: an expectation ( Visionserwartung) that Christian viewers brought to bear upon religious pictures influenced these pictures’ subject matter.
At times the author’s reasoning is too rigid to be entirely convincing. In spite of the acknowledged “intersecting of different temporal levels” (212-13), he treats images as verbal forms that must be assigned a past, present, or future tense (181-220). Although “the pictorial language of late antiquity was one that particularly valued the allegorical and the polysemous” (191), he asserts that as complex a composition as the Traditio Legis was based on a single biblical passage (200-208).3 The date and original context of the Hosios David Church in Thessaloniki are far from certain, yet he confidently writes that “on observing their apse mosaic [there], the sixth-century monks [!] could choose which kind of visionary experience [outer projection / interior contemplation] and which form of (monastic) life [urban / solitary] they preferred” (155).
I have a few more quibbles about dating: the allegedly sixth- or seventh-century (209) Sinai icon of the Ascension (fig. 77) is certainly ninth-century, that of Christ Emmanuel (12, with pl. 2) is very similar to the recently discovered eighth-century murals at Deir al-Suriani,4 and the floor mosaic in pl. 36 is to my mind a twentieth-century forgery. There are various (sporadic) typographical errors: “den König” (218) should be “das Königreich”, “apokalpytisch” (262)—“apokalyptisch”, “Angheben, gezeigt” (263)—“Angheben gezeigt”, “Kirvaum” (297)—“Kirschbaum”, ψυχῶῃ (154)—ψυχῶν, ξυλον (196)—ξυλου, ἔλαπεν (206) —ἔλαβεν, μάκρος (236)—μάκαρος, etc. Many of the photographs used as illustrations were made by the author himself, and a few of these (figs. 45, 66, 73, 76, 121) are not clear.
The above are but minor blemishes on a fine book that offers, in effect, an overview of four key centuries in the history of Christian art. Bergmeier discusses an impressively large number of monuments (including relatively unpopular but important ones such as Casarano, Albenga, or Alahan Manastırı) and proposes an elegantly simple solution for a complex set of iconographic problems.
1. Herbert Kessler, Spiritual Seeing: Picturing God’s Invisibility in Medieval Art (Philadelphia 2000); Valentina Cantone, Ars monastica: iconografia teofanica e tradizione mistica nel Mediterraneo altomedievale, V-XI secolo (Padua 2008).
2. Cf. André Grabar, “La représentation de l’Intelligible dans l’art byzantin du moyen âge”, in: Actes du VI e Congrès International des Études Byzantines, II (Paris 1951) 127-143.
3. In English, see Armin Bergmeier, “The Traditio Legis in Late Antiquity and Its Afterlives in the Middle Ages”, Gesta 56 (2017) 27-52.
4. On their chronology, see Karel Innemée, “Mural Painting in Egypt: Problems of Dating and Conservation”, in: Philip Sellew, ed. Living for Eternity: The White Monastery and its Neighborhood (Minneapolis–Saint Paul 2010) 2-6, 13-14.