Glenn Peers, Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin, email@example.com.
edu 1628 words Architecture as Icon: Perception and Representation of Architecture in Byzantine Art, ed. Slobodan Curcic and Evangelia Chatzetryphonos, Princeton-New Haven: Princeton University Art Museum-Yale University Press, 2010.xix, 356 pp.; color and b/w ills. $60.00 (paper) (030012211X) Architecture as Icon, a collection of four essays and entries from an exhibition held in Thessalonike and Princeton in 2009-10 (I saw the latter only), is the result of a long-term project to explore the meanings of non-monumental traces of architecture in the Byzantine world and its cultural-religious satellites. It represents only a portion of that work apparently, but it is a substantial and handsome volume that accomplishes a great deal: the principal authors and editors, Slobodan Curcic and Evangelia Hadjitryphonos, have made strong cases for understanding representations of architecture—in twodimensional paintings or in three-dimensional carvings, indeed in every form—as symbolically charged. The editors also command bibliography in the western languages necessary for such a study, but also writings in Greek and Slavic languages that few readers, even most Byzantinists, will have known or read. The book stands as a bridge document between worlds of scholarship that ought to be in fuller communication; the crossing is arduous work, and we should be grateful for these authors’ efforts. The catalogue shows signs of editorial care in the high quality of photographs, and their curatorial energy is revealed in the range and interest of the objects (the English version of the catalogue has eighty entries, but the Greek version of the show had different objects from the American). The major essays by the editors and two other contributors (Helen Saradi and Kathleen McVey) are more or less discrete and make infrequent references to objects in the exhibition, but the success of the argument must be evaluated on the basis not only of the essayists’ work, but also of the integration of objects into their work. To make a convincing case for seeing architecture as icon, in short, the contributors need to make us see architecture in the icons as significant generators of meaning for their viewers. Argument is lacking from entry writers, and the catalogue is mostly a useful description of object and bibliography. Basic terms, however, were left undefined or loosely applied, and the title itself, in the event, points to conceptual open-endedness from the outset. Icon is applied broadly, as any sort of image, both mental and material, and it therefore represents the widest understanding of images in that world. It also gives the editors broad powers for application of icon as term, and likewise, other key terms are left undertheorized: perception in the subtitle is never given very much attention, except to understand it as a ‘natural process’; and space is always a fascinating problem, but only when one tries to define it, and in her essay, Saradi deals with many interesting issues, but without theoretical self-awareness or necessary connection to the exhibition’s thesis. Symbols for all the authors are disembodied openings to the incomprehensible divine, and all the objects in the exhibition likewise exist here as something other than their present selves, inert things that minds pass through to enter an ethereal reality. Yet all the
For Curcic. 1) that was suspended just overhead and in front of a partition at the beginning of the main exhibition room. In the second place. In one case. It was a compelling and inadvertent display that allowed one to see the intensities that museum lighting—and its absence—brings. genuflecting. And the show focused strongly on the symbolic resonances of architecture. The encyclopedic range of the catalogue and show was impressive. she prayed several times a day. realities. no. One can see inside and outside. but each thing was so different from the other (one of the pleasures of the show was the visual complexity of the various media. and the historical distinctions among them—time. The true showstopper was a polycandelon (lamp holder. then. the autobiographical testimony concerned a modern Orthodox ancestor. and its dramatic presentation encouraged pause and from that vantage point the rest of the exhibition was nearly all visible—a powerful point of reflection and anticipation. to my mind. Indeed. In part it read. scales and materialities on offer) that their unique work of making architecture symbolize never clarified. and one of the basic premises of the show. place. for it encompassed some fifteenhundred years and many thousands of square kilometers. It was lighted from above so that its shadow was cast onto the wall. In the first place. ethnicities—were not raised. while the Panagia was left in darkness facing the wall. crossing herself. respectively) was lighted in such a way that only the side with the Crucifixion with architectural stage-set was fully visible. 68: eighteenth and fourteenth centuries. Objects ranged from the Early Christian period to the nineteenth century. In his essay. Its identity appeared here timeless and therefore without history or emplacement. was the long continuities of Orthodoxy. they signify positions. The essays are silent on this reality except to the degree that the church is frequently said to be a realization of the heavenly realm on earth. But it revealed little about architecture and its work. Such a position can be held. ideas. For her. a double-sided icon of the Crucifixion and the Panagia with Child (no. the icons were living presences identical with the saintly figures whom they represented. the exhibition opened with a quotation from the late Thelma Gouma-Peterson on a wall panel that led viewers to a different expectation than what the show and catalogue actually delivered.objects refer to something. nor did the catalogue entry. Arms extend from the base to hold the lamps. one cannot assume without preliminary definitions that ‘symbol’ is really the natural or necessary way to understand such objects from the Byzantine world. The polycandelon is in the form of a basilica. but just the same. In the absence of a unifying political or a geographically bound entity. and they do those things through their embodied agency in time and place. of course. “To these images. Orthodoxy provided the conceptual cohesion for the exhibition. and the sacred function of the object was folded into the real building’s through the inclusion of the altar. Neither essays nor exhibition allowed their objects to regain agency or present themselves as other than symbol. never addressed as such. this emphasis on the formless. Curcic describes the contradictory qualities of the striking object. but the range of meanings and individualities collapsed under the weight of dominant Orthodoxy.” A number of issues arose from this panel’s text. and kissing them. and the altar is visible inside through the openings in the basilica’s colonnade. the
. transhistorical power of architecture as symbol in show and catalogue led to an erasure of the compelling admission by Gouma-Peterson at the beginning of the exhibition: no identity or living presence was found. Every thing accumulated to the overriding thesis of symbol leading to devotional release.
a lamp holder.” In the platonic universe. Milan. This lack is a missed opportunity in light of Herbert Kessler’s recent argument for its post-conquest manufacture in Egypt (in Medioevo mediterraneo. it argues strongly for and marshals a wide range of sources against the position of Robert Ousterhout (Master Builders. scale and any other particularities do not matter at all. and of course. Other sites play a role. one can make a case for the intellectual commitment of theologians to such a worldview—many have done just that. the basilica would properly show through lights held in its outstretched arms. a very different experience. and its relationship to real architecture “cannot be denied. the material actuality of all these objects resists that understanding. Not a scrim.
. if one lets them. though costly and obsessively-sheathed (by order of the owners) beneath double plexiglass.” For him. 2007). Pairing photographs of the polycandelon and a ruined basilica is good visual rhetoric. Two other themes are of interest to scholars in this and related fields. 1999) for one (who is unfairly grouped with those who have argued against plans and models ‘In a somewhat facile manner”). that relationship “… underscores the point of central importance: the vast difference in scale between the real basilica and its bronze counterpart demonstrates the irrelevance of physical scale in symbolic expression. ed. it was a source of illumination in a dim interior and within that source was the haloed miniature building. but embodying imagination and experience of their work lead to areas where theologians’ ideas meet resistance and complexity. for the range of the project could have extended beyond Christian-controlled areas and beyond over-reaching explanations of Orthodoxy’s control. A. Sforzesco ivory of St. and Menas does not appear in the essays otherwise.C. Hadjitryphonos’s dense essay is a useful argument to consult for the sides of the debate over the use of plans and models by Byzantine architects. but that act tells us little. Intellectual decisions about the mental processes involved in these objects’ work may lead to symbolic homogenization of reality in the service of a divine one. However. But the experience of the object is really quite a different matter. Surely. 10). Menas (no. and rather than being lighted from above. 22) was one of the gems of the show. after all. and the well-known. Quintavalle.polycandelon evokes ruins of basilicas in Syria today (see figures p. The entry is rather uninformative. The first is the focus on loca sancta. specifically Jerusalem. the symbolic nature of the object was enhanced and ramified through its very materiality and discreteness. and denying scale’s relevance is aided by that rhetoric. Finally. Its dramatic presentation shows forcefully its scale and something of its context—though the object is.