Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 11, 2007
Eunice Dauterman Maguire and Henry Maguire Other Icons: Art and Power in Byzantine Secular Culture Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 232 pp.; 8 color ills.; 150 b/w ills. Cloth $58.00 (0691125643)

At stake in this book are the very identity and stability of Byzantine art. Accustomed to understanding Byzantine art as a settled category, we often perceive this material culture as expressions of the powerful piety and pious power emanating from Constantinople. The authors of this book, however, perform a remarkable feat in undermining those perceptions to the point where new categories become possible. Remarkable is the persuasive power of their prose, which is measured, self-effacing, and lucid. Moreover, their book is methodologically unthreatening: The prose is streamlined, the notes are not fat, and the illustrations are many, often unusual and wisely chosen. The book’s arrangement and presentation are nothing if not tasteful, and its arguments diplomatically made. Indeed, in such a highly conventionalized field, this study will be easily and readily assimilated. But I would argue that if read carefully and sympathetically this book is a rich source for re-thinking fundamental assumptions we hold about Byzantine art. For it reveals ways in which objects in the world Byzantines inhabited sought identities and fought type. We need to contend now with this world that produces such active and changeable objects.

In typically modest fashion, the authors state in their introduction that they intend to look again at some old works, many of which might be known to specialists, and to bring into the discussion an often-overlooked medium, namely pottery. This wide range of objects allows the authors to deal as practically as possible with an elusive notion in Byzantine studies—popular culture. In this realm, one can glimpse, they assert, the world people lived in behind that frozen “façade of golden solemnity,” normal for many of us when thinking of that distant world. One glimpses it through those “other icons.” This felicitous phrase says a good deal here, because it attaches the same energy, status, and level of discourse that is normally the reserve of objects hallowed by ecclesiastical and imperial contexts. “Power” (to pick up on another component in the title of the book) accrues to all things made; persuasion, subversion, authority are all now visible in those things. Profane objects, they argue, were no less potent than sacred ones, and the play and contest of objects make the narrative of this book compelling. Considering the most obvious medium, one must acknowledge that radical revision is taking place when Byzantine ceramics convincingly disclose aesthetic, intellectual, and social purposes.

The first chapter, “Novelties and Inventions,” begins this careful revision. It focuses on received imaginary creatures like the centaur, siren, and sphinx (the griffin was considered an authentic, if rare, creature), and its theme is the struggle between (logocentric) official and (image-centered) popular positions. The first part of the chapter unpacks various Middle and Late Byzantine texts on these hybrid creatures, and it presents examples of the uneasy fascination they had for Byzantine writers. The second part of the chapter deals with images of such composite creatures, and it discusses silver bowls, ivories, sculpture, and ceramics in that vein.

The organization of the chapter follows this divergence in modes of communication and of interpretation. The theme of novelty and innovation then becomes a way of presenting a textual history that is relatively conservative and suspicious of these fantastic creatures. (A good use of an endnote would have been to give some context to these terms, i.e., novelty and innovation, or at least the Greek that they are translating.) Material culture, in contrast, is the energetic and creative purveyor of a richly imagined world. Texts were also imagining that world, but with a relative poverty of possibilities, because order or taxis was threatened by the uncontrollable elements in imagined creatures, and so it imposed restraints on those creatures’ meanings in language.

The crux of the interaction between literary and material cultures, however, is rather straightforward for the authors: “In spite of the official condemnation of hybrids and other monsters, they were portrayed frequently and with relish by Byzantine artists” (11). As they note later (162–64), images were simply freer because they were not constrained by words; inscriptions are absent on these non-devotional images exactly to encourage iconographic drift in their audiences. But the work that words and images perform with and against each other is more complicated, surely, and hybrid creatures reveal that difficult relationship. In Other Icons, hybrids “were diametrically opposed to the very principles of orthodox art and, thus, diabolical” (6). Diametrically is, of course, a tricky adverb, one that appears here to preclude deconstructive analysis. However, it is just the intermixing of hybrid creatures in all aspects of culture that makes them so fascinating; it is their category-defying nature that gives them power.

On the one hand, creatures like centaurs and sirens were indeed edifying (pace); for instance, page 20 of the now-destroyed Smyrna Physiologus showed these creatures, and it was juxtaposed with the battle between Peter and Simon Magus for didactic purposes (see Massimo Bernabò, Il Fisiologo di Smirne, Florence: SISMEL edizioni del Galluzzo, 1998). The range of illustrations provided in this book, especially the ceramics (figs. 15–17), reveals the valences of these creatures, which travel easily from one medium to another. In other words, these valences make clear the limitations of categories like secular and religious. Sirens and centaurs are not the categorical opposites of saints (and vice versa); as the Physiologus demonstrates, they define each other by contrast and collusion.

On the other hand, the process of looking at these unconstrained creatures was also surely pleasurable (see page 24), but that pleasure led to and excited other cognitive functions. At points such as this in chapter 1, some reading of theoretical discussions would have helped, I believe, complicate the relationship between the verbal and visual captures of hybrids. (Here the leanness of the notes can seem like undernourishment.) For instance, Peter Mason wrote about hybrids: “It is when a shift occurs from the visual to the mental plane, when what is seen is transformed into what can be understood and interpreted, that a reduction takes place. The monstrous races, the monstrous births, and the hybrids return to us precisely what is left behind in such a reductive process. They restore the source to the pleasure of looking and stand in the way of a reduction of the other to self” (“Half a Cow,” Semiotica 85 (1991): 35). This statement formulates the difference between the closing qualities of verbal renderings of hybrids, like sirens and centaurs, and the expansive, unpredictable play of their visual markers. The visual strangeness of their hybrid composition resists comprehension and assimilation.

The point with regard to Other Icons, however, is a question of necessity of vision: why does it matter that such creatures were visualized? Giving primacy to the texts and then opposing them so bluntly to the visual evidence diminishes the special work art does. Such a tendency is strongly evident in these pages, but when it is suppressed and visual analysis takes control of the argument, the effect is brilliant. For example, the passage subtitled “Disorderly Icons” (153–56) unpacks two ceramic bowls in terms of their insubordinate references to religious imagery. In one, four faces circulate the bowl in type like iconic images, but are disordered and unorderable. On another, a man holds a woman on his lap; naturally, the religious valences of this figure group add a certain transgressive frisson to its earthly clutch. Passages like this one open up a world of possibilities, and they make the movement among contexts and media highly freighted in ways familiar perhaps to other fields but potentially very stimulating indeed for this one.

Other chapters offer similar pleasures. The second chapter focuses on courtly marvels, and here again the instability of categories emerges forcefully. Food at banquets, “power cooking,” was evidently labile and able to provoke wonder through its unnatural qualities and actions. Again, ceramics reveal the category-shifting that iconography like that of sirens could perform; a bowl with a siren at Corinth signified through its performance as object and its inscribed figure a multiplicity of persons, animals, and ideas (54–55). The notion of such objects communicating power relations among individuals is compelling in the hypothetical uses of silverware by the emperor in intimidating his “guests.” Art as a cruelly coercive tool is seldom revealed so starkly.

The third chapter focuses on the magical uses to which images of animals were put in the Middle and Late Byzantine world. The authors argue for the differing uses of animals in the Early Byzantine and later periods. They see a variety of approaches in the earlier period, most importantly a symbolic mode of interpreting animals, that is shrunk by the later periods to exclude that symbolism. Consequently, they argue, the talismanic quality of rendering animals intensified. In the course of this chapter, numerous raptors, felines, and dragons are discussed, and the use of relief sculpture and ceramics is again an exciting venture. The concluding pages of the chapter, “From Symbol to Icon” (90–96), explore some fascinating ramifications of changes in animal imagery, namely that the increasingly nonsymbolic nature of representations of animals led to an erosion of differences between sign and signified for Byzantines. “Like holy icons, images of beasts and raptors were ‘alive’ with the presences they summoned” (96). This insight speaks to essential issues of Byzantine views of the world, and it deserves more general discussion. However, the chapter is again laid out in a dichotomous fashion, with an either/or model, and I do not agree that animalism symbolism fell away in the ninth century (witness the Physiologus and its traditions, which had long lives [see Glenn Peers, “Thinking with Animals: Byzantine Natural History in Sixteenth-Century France,” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 68 (2006): 457-84]). This methodological caveat notwithstanding, powerful profane icons of animals did circulate and interact among their religious counterparts, and they cross-fertilized the other to the degree that they themselves became alive with what they represented.

The final two chapters discuss the Byzantine body, and they deal with a host of issues relating to clothed and unclothed, controlled and frantic bodies. Again, the play of the visual across boundaries brings out a rich world of interconnections, densely woven by signs constantly colliding and attracting. Joy and anxiety, two sides of the same coin, were provoked by the nude in Byzantine, and that mutual dependence is shown vividly in the examples in chapter 4. The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste reveal their meaningful nudity, while street performers and such expose their transgressive bodies on objects (like the ceramic chafing dish from Corinth in fig. 105). Each needs the other, just like the lovely adolescent statuette of Dionysus from the second/third century was neutralized for enjoyment with the addition in the eighth/ninth century of a ribbon of Psalm inscribed across his curving hips (see catalogue entry in The Road to Byzantium: Luxury Arts of Antiquity, London: Fontanka, 2006, 171). Here, the collision and attraction played out on Dionysus’s skin. While the authors assert that Chrysoloras marked a change to appreciation of ancient statuary in the fifteenth century, such remade statuettes speak of the dangerous attraction these figures possessed. In any case, the authors’ contention that nakedness in art was dangerous and needed neutralizing is well borne out by this statuette and their examples discussed pages on 125–32.

The movement of objects into the religious from the secular was a well-worn path using such markers as inscriptions and crosses. The additions were not always particularly apropos, like the Psalm-sash of Dionysus or the naming of the emperor and empress as Sts. Sergius and Bacchus on the Rothschild cameo (Cyril Mango and Marlia Mundell Mango, “Cameos in Byzantium,” in Martin Henig and Michael Vickers, eds., Cameos in Context: The Benjamin Zucker Lectures, 1990, Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1993, 162). But words made these intensely attractive objects possible and, if not without risk to the viewer, at least contained. If only the travel back and forth along those paths could be found; objects of the natural world did travel, like trees and eggs (see Peter Mason, “A Dragon Tree in the Garden of Eden,” Journal of the History of Collections 18 (2006): 169–85, and Nile Green, “Ostrich Eggs and Peacock Feathers,” Al-Masaq18 (2006): 27–66). And one wishes for the possibility of studies like Maria Ruvoldt’s “Sacred to Secular, East to West: The Renaissance Study and Strategies of Display” (Renaissance Studies 20 (2006): 640–57). In Byzantium, the situation was different, and this book shows the troubling side of profane art for authority, for the power of images was immanent in all manner of images in this world. Once Byzantines invested religious images with power, all images could partake. And here categories become difficult and sometimes artificial. To the great credit of the authors of this book, we can now begin to see their and our categories for what they are.

Glenn Peers
Professor, Syracuse University