Byzantine 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.
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)
Lastly, 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)
By 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.