Tag Archives: art

Book Review: Envisioning the Book of Judith, Andrea Scheaffer.

This past spring, my art history professor, Kathleen Maxwell, gave a presentation to the classics department on her research into Byzantine illuminated manuscripts. She mentioned something offhand that stuck with me: when studying these manuscripts, the art historians tend to only look at the art and the biblical scholars tend only to look at the text, mainly for text-critical purposes. The sad result of our disciplinary boundaries is that we often don’t understand these manuscripts, which were created as a unification of art and text.

sheafferI’ve since seen what she meant as I have been researching the Saint John’s Bible, trying to find biblical scholars engaging with art as visual exegesis of scripture. So I was pleased to find Judith Scheaffer’s book, Envisioning the Book of Judith: How Art Illuminates Minor Characters, which combines literary readings of minor characters in the book of Judith with analysis of Renaissance art depicting Judith. Each painting’s treatment of these minor characters serves as a springboard for the close literary readings she performs of these books. So in various chapters, she analyzes Achor, Judith’s maidservant, the Israelite crowd, Bagoas, and Holofernes. She digs deep to find how each of these characters moves the plot along and contributes to the central message of the text. I am impressed with how well she integrated the two modes of analysis, particularly since this book was based on a dissertation. (Let’s be honest: dissertation-books are often clunky and not much fun to read!)

Scheaffer left me with a series of questions to think about as I read up on Saint John’s Bible material. These are taken from page 9:

  • How does the art enable us to ‘see’ something we may have ignored in the textual narrative
  • How does the art illuminate or add to an aspect of the biblical character or text as a whole
  • How does the art alert the viewer to something important that is glossed over in the text?
  • Have artists ‘read’ the text in a different way from scholars or other readers and so present a different visual interpretation?
  • Lastly, how does our encounter with the visual representation of a character influence the way we read the narrative?

Sheaffer also pointed me toward other scholarship combining art history and biblical scholarship. I may be biased since she earned her Ph.D. at my school and now works as Director of Admissions here (we emailed back and forth when I was applying!), but I found this book useful for opening new avenues of investigation. I’m adding it to my methodological toolkit.

Review: Heaven on Earth: Art and the Church in Byzantium.

heaven-on-earth-safran-linda-paperback-cover-artByzantine art, while majestic and regal, is often accused of being bland. No creativity, just repetitive images of saints and biblical scenes. After taking a class on the topic, I am still trying to make sense of the deeper aesthetic of Byzantine art. Linda Safran’s edited volume, one of the books of my class, brings together eight major scholars of this art to connect that art with the religion that inspired it.  All of the chapters in this volume were originally talks given in connection with a Smithsonian Institute lecture series in 1991. I decided to finish the volume to see what lay in store for me. Here I’ll focus on the three chapters I enjoyed most.

While sight is invoked most often in the chapters that follow, the other senses augmented the experience of the Byzantine church-goer or pilgrim: the holy books were read aloud, hymns were sung, icons or relics were touched or kissed, scented oils were used for anointing, and the smell of incense exorcised evil spirits and accompanied veneration. From differing but overlapping perspectives, the eight chapters that follow consider how Byzantine religious arts functioned in their settings and in society, and how they responded to and shaped the circumstances of their creation — in short, how art and architecture contributed in significant ways to the experience of the faithful. (8)

Eric D. Perl’s chapter, “…That Man Might Become God: Central Themes in Byzantine Theology,” expanded on the central theme of theosis, or deification, the idea that humanity can become God or Godlike. He explores how theosis expressed itself in the Byzantines’ strongly incarnational Christology, its negative theology of Pseudo-Dionysus’ “divine darkness” and the hesychasm, and the liturgy, where God reveals himself to us through the senses. I was left with a strong sense of the Christian paradox that while God becomes human, allowing for the overwhelming sensuality of Byzantine devotion, God is also beyond all the forms of art, scripture, and liturgy.8112316284_6cd1cf9d93_z

Theology is liturgy in thought, liturgy is theology in action. (53)

In “The Responding Icon,” Anna Kartsonis explicates the multiple meanings of icons for Byzantine Christians. Icons were not just images of holy figures. They were representations of those figures, embodiments of them on earth. Byzantine literature abounds with stories of people being healed after touching icons of Jesus, Mary, and saints. Icons are themselves incarnations of heavenly bodies. I see this as the Byzantine equivalent of the Roman dogma of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist: a way to bring Jesus into concrete contact with the faithful. This kind of presence, which in folk miracles can veer on the superstitious, was one of the fuels in the Iconoclasts’ fire.

The image interrelates the prototypical event (the historical Crucifixion), its numerous representations (visual, verbal, ceremonial), and the faithful, who as beholder, witness, and participant responds to its reenactment and re-creation. In the process, the pictorial representation — the icon — remains both constant and flexible in communicating the interrelation and interaction between the prototype, its representation, and the faithful. (75)

9908301523_f597280560_zLastly, Robert Ousterhout’s chapter, “The Holy Space: Architecture and the Liturgy,” argues that Byzantine architecture was not monotonous repetition, but subtle variations on a theme designed to be decoded by the faithful. Byzantine churches, he points out, were like Byzantine liturgy in that they evoked heaven. Icons and mosaics were placed in the culture in a way too suggest transcendence: saints at the human level, biblical figures up higher, Mary and the angels at the penultimate level, and Christ Pantokrator at the high point of the dome. The Hagia Sophia, that massive and massively atypical example of Byzantine architecture, is an apt example of the evoking of heaven:

The sense of weightlessness, despite the huge mass of the building, led Prokopios to conclude that the great dome was not supported from below but suspended by a golden chain from heaven. … More than anything the architecture of Hagia Sophia was meant to transform the ceremonies it housed, the place them on a level different from common existence, transforming them into more symbolic, heavenly drama. (90-91)

3782041213_6f88dbc46e_zBy way of conclusion, I’ll share a story. I have a friend who attends Gregorian chant mass. Last month I attended at her invitation. Much of the afternoon, I felt bored: why the endless dragging out of syllables, the ceaseless repetition of incantations? Afterwards, she explained to me that the chant is supposed to evoke the angels praising God in heaven, and the chants’ length evokes the eternal bliss of God’s presence. It clicked. Perhaps Byzantine art is the visual equivalent of Gregorian chant: it seems dull at first, but only because it operates on a deeper rhythm than we expect. While Safran’s book does not make those connections — I wish there were a chapter specifically on aesthetics — it does have moments of insight. And as art history, it was solid and enjoyable.