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  • The Sensual Icon: Space, Ritual, and the Senses in Byzantium by Bissera V. Pentcheva
  • Robin Cormack
The Sensual Icon: Space, Ritual, and the Senses in Byzantium. By Bissera V. Pentcheva. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. 2014. Pp. xvi, 327. $89.95 clothbound, ISBN 978-0-271-03584-0; $44.95 paperback, ISBN 978-0-271-03583-3.)

In recent years, art historians have found that many more icons have survived from the Byzantine period than was previously thought. Correspondingly, attention has shifted away from the study of manuscripts, once the dominant area of interest, and away from mosaics and wallpaintings, for a period seen as the major achievement of the culture. Instead, the “icon” has become the center of scholarly attention. This conceptual shift began in the United States with the experience of Kurt Weitzmann of Princeton University, who participated in a series of visits to the monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai in Egypt in 1958, 1960, 1963, and 1965. He intended to study the manuscripts in the library (and their importance is such that a program of digitization is now in progress) but was shell-shocked (intellectually, that is) to come across some 2000 icons in the monastery, the majority never discussed in print. He realized that this remote monastery had somehow acquired many high-quality painted icons dating from the sixth century onward. His priority was to catalog and describe these icons. Before his death in 1993, he had published what he saw as a number of the major pieces. His method of work was traditional, aiming to date the works, determine their place of production and the character of the artist, and interpret their iconography. This kind of work is of primary interest to the art historian rather than the theologian or church historian, although all manner of researchers have looked at the newly found icons, like the now well-known sixth-century encaustic painting of Christ.

Bissera Pentcheva in The Sensual Icon is one of a number of recent scholars who are going beyond the cataloguing stage of publishing new icons and attempting to ask broader questions. Beautifully produced, the book brings together a wealth of material, although it is essentially a restatement of her recent articles. Obviously in the present state of work, with many more unstudied icons emerging into the field and a number of exhibitions of Byzantine and Russian art being presented, both cataloguing and interpretation are necessary and complementary activities. The main question in looking at this book is to ask who can benefit from its methodology, and herein are difficulties. The fundamental problem is that the whole book depends on a false premise, summed up on page 15: “all the existing translations have started from the point of view that eikon means ‘painting.’” Pentcheva then argues that on her translations there was a change in aesthetic values in Byzantium; that from the ninth to the eleventh century, relief icons rather than painted icons became the dominant medium in the church; and that they were viewed as a sort of performance art. The trouble with this argument is that neither Lampe in his Patristic Greek Lexicon nor in the secondary art-historical literature are icons seen only as a painted medium as she suggests. Moreover, it is clear from archaeological evidence that painted and relief icons did actually co-exist throughout the Byzantine period. Contrary to her argument, made on what she calls philological grounds, it can be maintained that, depending on various circumstances, not [End Page 601] least the wealth of the patron, icons were made concurrently in a variety of different media. These included precious materials such as silver-gilt metalwork and ivory, less expensive materials such as steatite, or the most common form—painting on wood. The trouble with her thesis is that it may be true that a gold or ivory Byzantine icon is more expensive and luxurious, but that does not mean it is any the more or less effective in its visual impact on the faithful viewer. This question leads to the second main problem in reading this book, and that is the interpretation of how relief icons were viewed and how...


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