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  • Figure and Likeness: On the Limits of Representation in Byzantine Iconoclasm
  • Maria Vassilaki
Charles Barber , Figure and Likeness: On the Limits of Representation in Byzantine Iconoclasm. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2002. Pp. 208. 38 black-and-white illustrations. Cloth $47.50.

"Any art historian who turns to the subject of Byzantine iconoclasm might well ask whether it is a topic proper to the field of art history" (p. 7). Thus, Charles Barber begins his book on Byzantine iconoclasm. It is a rhetorical question that the author, as an art historian, addresses to himself as well as to the reader, and it is a question to which he provides an answer just a few pages later. "For the art historian it [Iconoclasm] presents a particular challenge. It was a crisis that focused upon objects that have come to be understood to exist within the province of art history, and yet the discourse on these objects has tended both to rob them of their status as 'art' and to downplay the specifically visual problems that engaged the participants in this debate" (pp. 10–11). Even if he had not made this statement, Barber's numerous publications on the topic made it clear long before the appearance of this book that Iconoclasm presents a particular challenge to him. In all of his previous scholarship, he has tried to restore to the objects that were the products of Iconoclasm their status as objects of art.

A book on Byzantine Iconoclasm written by an art historian might at first glance seem redundant, given that it has already been the subject of numerous studies, including the well-known work by André Grabar, L'iconoclasme Byzantine (1984, second edition). More recently, a book on the sources about Iconoclasm by John Haldon and Leslie Brubaker (Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era [ca. 680–850]: The Sources. An Annotated Survey, 2001) appeared which includes a great deal more information about art than its title would suggest. The first question to be asked when considering Barber's book then is: what new contribution can it possibly make to the literature on a subject that has been studied so often and so thoroughly? It quickly becomes clear, however, that this book offers novel and different interpretations of this well-known subject. The book consists of six chapters bearing the following titles: "Matter and Memory," "Icon and Idol," "Truth and Economy," "Figure and Sign," "Form and Likeness," and "Word and Image." These titles may appear at first sight to be quite abstract, but they make good sense once one grasps how Barber approaches his subject.

What Barber successfully accomplishes in this book is the adoption of Byzantine image theory for the reading of Iconoclasm. In doing so Barber has had to exploit the sources of Iconoclasm and make them play a very decisive role throughout the book. The art historian will not find visual sources that are not [End Page 134] already known; in fact, they are all very familiar, but because of the way Barber uses textual sources to guide his examination of them, the reader comes to see them in a different light. Barber has produced an amazing study by translating into English all the long Greek captions that accompany the images and then using these texts to inform his analysis of the images.

In the first chapter, "Matter and Memory," the author tries to define the status of the icon in seventh century religious thought; i.e., before the outbreak of Iconoclasm. Through the use of objects, such as the Sancta Sanctorum reliquary box, pilgrims' flasks (ampullae), and pilgrims' tokens, he explores the close link between art and its audience and, more importantly, between icons and relics. He brings to his discussion the evidence of these icons not made by human hands, the so called αχειροποίηται, especially the Mandylion and the Kamouliana image. The writings of Leontios of Neapolis and of George of Pisidia provide him with a vehicle to undertake a deeper exploration and to achieve a better understanding of how images were understood before Iconoclasm. Logos and Incarnation are, in his view, the central concepts that shaped how the nature of icons was understood before Iconoclasm...


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