Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 24, 2002
Maria Vassilaki, ed. Mother of God: Representations of the Virgin in Byzantine Art Exh. cat. Athens: Benaki Museum, 1999. 531 pp.; 226 color ills. (8881187388)
Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece, October 20, 2000-January 20, 2001

This exhibition and its catalogue represent a swimming against the millennial tide, as the director of the Benaki Museum in his Foreward presents the exhibition in relation to the festivities that celebrated the turning of that new year’s clock. The exhibition is an unusual contribution to the new-epoch declarations of the last two years, and its unusual qualities lie not least in its aim to engage only the phenomenon of Marian devotion in Byzantine culture. Recent exhibitions on the Virgin Mary have been wide ranging, like Wellesley College’s Divine Mirrors, which engaged art, music, and culture. The Athens organizers concentrated their energies on an un-modern phenomenon with a highly conventional focus: the intense and defining devotion to the Virgin Mary from the Early Christian period until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The exhibition engaged a period of more than a thousand years in what Maria Vassilaki, the curator and editor of this Heraklean enterprise, rightly states to be “a comprehensive study of the Virgin in which issues of cult, theology and art are considered” (xvii). The need for such exhibitions is clear when the organizers gather objects from around the Greek-speaking world, including Mount Sinai but not Athos, and from collections abroad as well. Such gatherings are useful stock-taking enterprises, but the theme in this case is not especially challenging, neither to received scholarly wisdom nor to curatorial practice as they relate to Byzantium. Hardly millennial in the sense of looking forward to a new era of approaches to Byzantium, an exhibition such as the Mother of God relates to a Byzantine sense of time, the eternal present.

Unfortunately, I cannot speak of the exhibition itself, not having traveled to Athens to see it personally, but the catalogue alone is a monumental testimony to the benefits of encyclopedic exhibitions—if also a warning of their limitations—within specific periods that draw in scholars of different countries, traditions, and fields. This catalogue will be an indispensable resource not only for medievalists generally, but also for specialists in all aspects of Mariology. The twenty-seven essays are uniformly and solidly informative, with some breaking exciting new ground, and scholars will want to turn to these essays for their interpretations, presentations of monuments and historiography, extensive bibliographies, and especially for the color photographs of the eighty-six objects displayed at Athens and the 228 mostly-color photographs that accompany the essays.

The catalogue is divided into three broadly defined sections: Cult and Theology, Representing the Virgin, and the Catalogue essays and entries. Few will likely read the book cover-to-cover, and each chapter within those sections is self-contained. The number of essays, at any rate, makes some repetition inevitable. These three sections are followed by a highly useful bibliographic section and glossary. The last should make this catalogue accessible to nonspecialists, who will likely turn to the it with specific questions of Byzantine parallels.

Certain broad conclusions are possible, cutting through the meticulously laid layers of study represented by these essays as a whole. In sum, the cult of the Virgin Mary began with a slow start, overshadowed until the sixth century by now-faded stars like Thekla. Only with the fifth-century Councils at Ephesus and Chalcedon was the Virgin’s elevation initiated, as she became a central lynchpin in Christological arguments. In art, nevertheless, most of her representations concern the narration of events from her life, with the great Marian icons of Rome and Sinai exceptions to the rule. But these precious Early Medieval panels reveal an evolution of a new role and newly exalted status for the Virgin in her role as the Mother of God, that is, as the intercessor of humanity before the divine will, implacable except before the interventions of God’s human mother. In art, theology, and cult after the end of Iconoclasm in 843, this role made the Virgin the hope and solace of all Orthodox believers and determined much of her popularity in art.

That development marks the overall view that an ascent through these essays affords, but the pieces of landscape passed through on that ascent are more compelling than such generalizations can be. The first section, on Cult and Theology, comprises seven essays on aspects of the Virgin in Byzantium: her early cult, her place in the Gospels and Apocrypha, and her role in Iconoclasm of the eighth and ninth centuries. Scholars with much experience add magisterial touches to the discussion of these historical developments: Averil Cameron’s essay on the early cult possesses deceptive ease in its range and perceptiveness; and Cyril Mango’s examination of the Virgin in early-medieval Constantinople is a careful sifting of textual and material evidence on the city’s development as “Theotokoupolis.” The essay by Alexei Lidov on the miracle-working icons of the Virgin lays out plans for an almost neo-Bollandist project of investigations of hagiography, history, and art, but it is especially interesting for those without Russian as it provides an interesting description of the project along with some of the data.

The second section further breaks the topic down into constitutive pieces. It dissects the representational body of material into its separate media and analyzes each in its own context, including mosaic, fresco, icons, illuminated manuscripts, ivory, enamel, steatite, silver plate and revetments, coins and lead seals, Coptic textiles, jewelry, and sculpture. This approach goes against the grain of recent scholarship, for instance, the multi-media studies of Henry Maguire, which tries to gain comprehensive evaluations of iconography and cult by casting a wide net through different media. This section may be the hardest going for readers, as it approaches cataloguing as virtue at different points, and it is certainly the hardest to defend methodologically, except as the traditional sine qua non of “the catalogue.” One looks at recent contributions like Brigitte Pitarakis’s essay (“À propos de l’image de la Vierge orante avec le Christ-Enfant (XIe-XIIe siècles); l’émergence d’un culte,” Cahiers Archéologiques 48: 45-58) as a new model for careful and fruitful analysis of neglected media like seals and pectoral crosses. But rewards will come to those who persevere in that section of Mother of God: in particular, Robin Cormack’s essays on mosaic are tremendously insightful, never more so than when he gives his views on the thirteenth-century Deesis mosaic in Hagia Sophia.

Partly because it comprises nearly half of the pages of the book, the final catalogue section may carry the most weight, despite some of the efforts of the preceding sections. It carries weight, however, not because of a necessary engagement with the exhibited objects, although those connections do exist, but because the subjects chosen speak to more specific problems that the material generates. An essay that does not hold that promise in its title, Charles Barber’s on early representations of the Virgin, does deliver. Barber examines the material evidence of early attitudes towards icons and uses such an examination as a useful corrective to Leslie Brubaker’s considered essay in the Spoleto proceedings published in 1999 (“Icons Before Iconoclasm,” Morfologie sociali e culturali in Europa fra tarda antichità e alto medioevo, Settimane di studio del centro italiano di studi sull’alto medioevo 45, Spoleto: 1215-54). Barber looks at early Roman manifestations of the Virgin’s cult, by way of the magnificent Sinai icon known as the Virgin and Child with saints and angels (cat. 1), and argues then for a connection between images and relics. In itself, this assertion is not new, though it is nicely reasserted here because it comes to explain these early icons not as transparent windows, but rather as “sites of exchange” between viewer and object of devotion, where the pictorial surface is active with hopes and delivery. Maguire’s essay concentrates on the private nature of the Virgin’s art, and he sees a move from impersonal narrative to personal depictions of the Virgin where she is the intercessor for each person’s devotional aspirations. Maguire manipulates texts and a wide range of objects to discuss the implications of these developments, which include the nether-topic of magic’s role in the Virgin’s popularity. Annemarie Carr provides an essay on the Virgin’s public guise, against a complex matrix of military, imperial, and civic concerns. These three essays represent the most compelling reason for such a catalogue, since looking at and contemplating this conventional cross-section of Byzantine material clearly induced some hard questions to be asked by thoughtful scholars.

Though the exhibition is now closed of course, its catalogue will surely have an influential afterlife; for the book’s high standards of production and scholarship one can be very grateful. Yet one can also hope for more challenging exhibitions in the future. The field of Byzantine art is still in many ways in its infancy, in the need for basic exposition of key monuments, but at the same time, if it is to escape charges of being inescapably convention-bound, curators need to start thinking beyond devotional parameters and engage exciting ideas, even modern ideas, found in the production, viewing, and collecting of Byzantine art.

Glenn Peers
Professor, Syracuse University