Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 17, 2011
Thomas F. X. Noble Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. 496 pp. Cloth $65.00 (9780812241419)

This is a big book in every sense. In seven long and detailed chapters Noble offers nothing less than a survey and analysis of Byzantine and Carolingian theology around the question of the place of images in religious worship, with a dash of historiography thrown in for good measure. It is a thought-provoking study which places the issues in historical, political, and social contexts, and raises crucial questions about the relationships between Byzantium and the West. It is a book that should change the ways that we think about issues concerning art in the eighth and ninth centuries.

Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians is structured chronologically with recurrent themes underpinning the chapters. It opens with a discussion on the debates concerning art and its place in religion in the European Mediterranean world before the period of Byzantine Iconoclasm: this scene-setting chapter introduces the terms of reference and the background, specifically the textual background, from which the eighth-century disputes grew. It then moves to the first period of Byzantine Iconoclasm and asks important questions about the ways in which scholars have understood this period as a phenomenon, in particular with reference to the theology of icons. Leslie Brubaker and John Haldon (Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era (ca. 680–850): The Sources, Burlington: Ashgate, 2001), Noble argues convincingly that Iconoclasm has been overplayed as both an event and as a theological issue. It is in this context that he situates Carolingian debates over religious art. In his lengthy summary of the Opus Caroli, Noble shows that it was a deeply sophisticated, carefully constructed theological text. He locates the text within the Frankish world and, more widely, in Frankish writings, in particular within the context of Frankish relations with the papacy, where he outlines the differing perspectives of the two parties. The final two chapters of the book engage the second period of Iconoclasm in Byzantium and ninth-century Frankish responses to the period, notably the records of the Paris Colloquy of 825. Noble also addresses the image debates within the Frankish world through the writings of the iconoclastic bishop Claudius of Turin and the rebuttals of Jonas of Orléans and Dungal of Pavia, as well as those of Agobard, Einhard, and Walahfrid, among others.

Noble aims to set these texts in a wider understanding of concerns, attitudes, and knowledge in the Carolingian world. He identifies three significant areas as the basis of the Frankish debates. The first area is tradition and the desire of the Carolingians to locate themselves in historical and ideological time, apparent above all in the Opus Caroli where adherence to tradition is a key argument in Theodulf’s wish for the Franks to replace the Byzantines as God’s Chosen. The next is order, which includes questions on how to run a state, the qualities that make up a good ruler or bishop, how government should function, and the way the Franks and the papacy interact. This topic is seen as one of importance for both eighth- and ninth-century Frankish writers. The third sphere is worship, which is where most of the material on “art” is found, and Noble identifies this as an area of concern in the ninth century rather than in the eighth. Through discussion of these themes, Noble cleverly draws out a picture of a changing social and political climate between the eighth and mid-ninth centuries, while emphasizing the importance of the image debate in the relations between the papacy, the Carolingians, and the Byzantines. Although Carolingian concerns were related to Byzantine Iconoclasm, the texts tell us that the debate was, in fact, over the Carolingian court in the last years of the eighth century and its sense of identity and purpose.

Noble offers close readings of the relevant texts, including careful, detailed summaries of many of the Western written sources that have not been translated. This makes his book a valuable source. But it is far more than that. Noble is concerned with the texts’ meaning to readers at the time and what this conveys about those readers and their beliefs. By considering how each text might have been interpreted, he constructs a carefully thought-out model of the Franks’ understanding of these images and their place in worship. He argues that, for the Franks, images were not necessary but they were acceptable; words were more potent vehicles of religious truth. But the Franks were not iconoclasts. Though Frankish authors believed that Christian images could not be worshipped as God is worshipped, other writers in this period held a variety of views ranging from the belief that no images were to be reverenced to a position that some images were appropriate in certain circumstances—for example, to help with the recollection of the mysteries of the faith. There were not many Frankish writers, other than Claudius of Turin, who thought that Christian art should be destroyed. Further, Noble shows clearly that the concept of art as a way to teach the illiterate was more important to the Carolingians than to the Byzantines.

A crucial part of Noble’s argument is that the Carolingians possessed the theological sophistication to grapple with complex issues surrounding Christian art. Indeed, in the eighth century, Theodulf’s ideas were considerably more advanced than those of Byzantine image theologians. Noble suggests convincingly that rather than sophisticated Byzantine theology being misunderstood by less-able Franks, the quality of thought in the Opus Caroli was considerably higher than any from Byzantium in this period. In this reading, the debates of Byzantine Iconoclasm were not as dominant in Western minds as has been thought. Rather the Carolingian response as framed in the Opus Caroli was more tenuous in its links to Byzantine Iconoclasm and more wide-reaching in its discussion. Noble also takes issue with traditional ideas about the cult of icons and its development in the sixth and seventh centuries, and makes the case that the veneration of icons was not a part of ancient church traditions, but was articulated in the eighth century and after. Conventionally, there has been an assumption that things tended to move East to West, from the superior Byzantines to the less civilized West. This idea has been challenged within art history in the context of the movement of works of art (enamels, for example): Noble extends this idea further to eighth-century theological and political philosophies. The Carolingians were not dependant on Byzantium for image theory, but they had their own complex concerns that were crucial in the development of the Western medieval world.

In many ways, this is not a book on art as art, but on the place of art within the Christian society of the Franks. Few of the texts are about Christian art; rather they are concerned with the art Christians might have had and how it was employed. As Noble points out, in all of these words about images, the role of pictures as things of beauty is almost irrelevant. Although Noble sees Theodulf as wishing simultaneously to legitimize and to control art and its beauty, Carolingian writings on art are less about aesthetics and more about functionality and veracity. Art’s role in communicating the divine is at stake, particularly in its relationship with words: pictures can deceive, but words, or perhaps writings, are invariably true. Images are both less and more important than we had previously realized: they are more important because they were the springboard for sophisticated theological debates, and less important because they were not considered works of art. Reading these Carolingian texts today, we have no knowledge of what the images looked like, but we can gain a sense of what the images represented and the areas for debate they stimulated.

As a result, this is a book without pictures. While this is understandable, it is also disappointing. There are points where Noble’s discussion would have been enhanced by an image—for example, Hrabanus Maurus’s figured poems or the covers of the Lorsch Gospels, which the reader is left to try to remember their appearance. The book already offers so much that it seems unfair to ask for more discussion on how the texts and the actual works of art relate to each other; that, perhaps, is a sequel.

Noble describes Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians as the first comprehensive attempt to discuss Western responses to Byzantine Iconoclasm, and the first to offer a thorough reflection of the Carolingian view of images. However, this statement does not reveal the complexity of the task, the detailed way in which it is carried out, or the insights into our understanding of the importance of religious images in both the Carolingian and Byzantine worlds. Noble argues cogently that Carolingian ideas about images are central in understanding Carolingian ideas about state, society, and faith, and thus are crucial in the development of Western attitudes to sacred art. It is a book that convincingly shakes up the accepted picture.

Liz James
Professor, Department of Art History, University of Sussex