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Byzantine iconoclasm as a problem in art history* The following paper represents an attempt to place Byzantine iconoclasm in a wider context than it is sometimes seen, locating it firstly in terms of the views of Christians at various times as to the use to which religious art could be put, and secondly in terms of the attitudes towards religious art displayed by Jews, Muslims and western Christians as well as Byzantines. It is with some trepidation that I draw on material from such a wide area and trespass on the domains of so many specialists. Nevertheless, whatever the imperfections in the execution of this paper, the interest of both the material and the conclusions which are suggested seems to justify the attempt which has been made. We may begin by considering the role which Christians of the fourth, fifth and early sixth centuries saw religious art as playing. Overwhelmingly, they seem to have seen the function of such art in terms of its ability to arouse responses in those who beheld it: "amazement, love, wonder and joy" were evoked among people in Africa early in the fifth century who contemplated a picture of a miracle worked by St Stephen,1 while Gregory of Nyssa wept whenever he saw a picture of Isaac about to be sacrificed by Abraham.2 Generally, however, art was seen as acting on the mind rather than the emotions. A work of art could be seen as a book capable of speech,3 for art, like speech, could be used to make a * Anyone working in this area quickly becomes aware of the vast amount of research it has inspired. In a short study of this nature it has been necessary to be selective in providing references; I hope that apparent bibliographical lacunae will not be taken to indicate ignorance of, or - worse - indifference towards, various contributions. Standard abbreviations for collections of sources: CCSApoc Corpus Christianorum Series Apocrypha CCSL Corpus Christianorum Series Latina CSCO Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium Mansi Sacrorum Conciliorum Amplissima Collectio, ed. J.D. Mansi MGH Monumenta Germaniae Historica PG Patrologia Graeca PL Patrologia Latina PO Patrologia Orientalis 1 PL 41:851. 2 PG 46:572C; as a participant at the second council of Nicaea remarked when this passage was read out in 787, if the picture had such an effect on a learned man, how much more would it have on the ignorant and unlearned? (Mansi 13:9D). 3 Gregory of Nyssa (?), Laudatio S. Theodori, PG 46:737D. 2 J. Moorhead uvnun A By the time of the iconoclastic controversy the equal dignity of written or oral catechesis and images was an old rhetorical topos,5 so that a petition allegedly presented to the emperor Theophilus by a council which met in Jerusalem in 836 was able to assert that the apostles had adorned the church with pictures and mosaics of Christ before the writing of the Gospels.6 One recalls that John Chrysostom was said to have kept an icon of St Paul which he would look at while reading his epistles, 7 and that a disciple of Daniel the Stylite had a portrait of the holy man painted while he himself tried to write his Vita, activities seen by the holy man as constituting the one "pious work",8 for art was particularly useful for those who could not read.9 Doubtless other approaches to art were possible in the early church,10 but a way of looking at it in terms of its ability to teach or inspire was central in the early centuries, and never 4 Asterius, ed. F. Halkin, Euphemie de Chalc£doine, Brussels, 1965, 6. 5 Jean Gouillard, Art et litterature th^ologique & Byzance au lendemain de la querelle des images, Cahiers de civilisation m£di£vale 12, 1969, 1-13 at 1. 6 This document is known to me only through the translation of Cyril Mango, in The art of the Byzantine empire 312-1453, Englewood Cliffs, 1972, 176f; see now R. Cormack, Writing in gold: Byzantine Society and its icons, London, 1985, 122 f, which became available when this paper was in proof. 7 B. Kotter, ed., Die Schriften des Johannes von Damaskos, vol...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1832-8334
Print ISSN
0313-6221
Pages
pp. 1-18
Launched on MUSE
2013-04-03
Open Access
No
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