Tuesday, October 27, 2015

What Were Byzantine Icons Up To?

Mosaic icon of St. John Chrysostom

Henry Maguire, The Icons of Their Bodies: Saints and their Images in Byzantium. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996. Pp. xviii, 222.

A longtime associate of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C., Henry Maguire is an expert in Byzantine art, literature, and culture. The Icons of Their Bodies, one of his many works, is a satisfying study of Byzantine sacred iconography. The book is written at a level suitable for the novice and is richly illustrated by 167 black-and-white figures.

In his "Introduction," Maguire states that his goal is "to analyze the logic of the saint's image in Byzantium, not from the perspective of a social historian but from that of an art historian. In other words," he says, "it is my main intention to discuss not the role that icons had in Byzantine society but rather the role that society had in the design of icons" (3).

In Chapter 1, "Likeness and Definition," Maguire raises and responds to basic questions like, Did Byzantine artists really know what a particular saint looked like? If so, how did they know? And, why do the saints in Byzantine art look more like caricatures than photographs to us moderns? He answers that people of the Middle Ages were not so naive or unsophisticated that they simply could not produce what moderns would call a genuine likeness, an impression of reality that artists call illusion. Instead, what Byzantine artists succeeded in producing was an impression that would be easily recognized.

In Chapter 2, "Corporality and Immateriality," Maguire begins by noting the differences between typical depictions of soldiers and monks who were saints. While soldiers appear to swagger, monks face the viewer full on, and seem much more two-dimensional. The author asserts that such differences are the result of design. In short, the icons are calculated to communicate that, while the lives of soldiers are filled with action, the lives of monks are pretty straightforward and flat. In this way, he proceeds to discuss the images of ascetics and bishops, evangelists, apostles, and the Virgin Mary. Throughout, his argument is that the nature and activities of different kinds of saints were communicated by their icons through varying "degrees of corporality, motion, and emotive response" (65).

Chapter 3, "Naming and Individuality," sets out to explain how and why Byzantine images differed before and after the Iconoclastic Controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries. According to Maguire, works of art before iconoclasm sometimes depicted the same saint numerous times and lacked inscriptions. By contrast, following the controversy, in the artistic period known as Middle Byzantine, icons appear to be standardized and included inscriptions. The author attributes these changes to church authorities who feared that many people connected the older images to popular magic. In short, change occurred at least in part because the church reacted against heresy and extra-ecclesial power.

The argument of Chapter 4, "Detail and Deficiency," is similar to that of the second chapter. Here, Maguire compares the "visual narratives of the saints," specifically, Saints Nicolas and George, with portrayals of the Virgin and of Christ. While the depictions of the two saints' lives are relatively spare, more abstract, those of Christ highlight both his "special divine status" and "his human nature." The status of the Virgin seems to fall somewhere in between. Although a unique person, compared to Christ, she is depicted in ways that are "more detailed and earthbound" (193-94). Again, the point is that the nature and function of the saints and, in this case, the Virgin and the Christ, strongly influence the ways in which they are depicted.

In a brief, "Conclusion," Maguire provides an overview of his book, and emphasizes that understanding and analyzing the "formal values" of Byzantine art represent the key to understanding it and its reception (199).

The Icons of their Bodies is characterized by simple, straightforward language accompanied by interesting, illuminating figures. This is the way that art history should be communicated.

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