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Artifices of Eternity

The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700): Vol. 2, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine

by Jaroslav Pelikan
University of Chicago Press, 329 pp., $16.50

Venezia e Bizanzio

by Sergio Bettini and others
Electa Editrice (Venice), 224, 131 plates pp., $18.75

Icons and their History

by David Talbot Rice, by Tamara Talbot Rice
The Overlook Press, 192, 191 plates pp., $35.00

Armenian Manuscripts in the Walters Art Gallery

by Sirarpie Der Nersessian
Walters Art Gallery (Baltimore), 108, 243 plates pp., $52.00

The Celtic Churches: A History, AD 200 to 1200

by John T. McNeill
University of Chicago Press, 289 pp., $10.00

Irish Medieval Figure Sculpture, 1200-1600

by John Hunt
Irish University Press (Dublin) and Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, Vol. 2, 340 plates and index pp., $70.00

The Book of Kells

with a study of the manuscript by Françoise Henry
Knopf, 226, 201 plates pp., $65.00

Any visitor to a museum or art gallery will in due course come to realize the extent to which medieval Christianity in its varying forms fostered the growth of visual art. The books reviewed here are a testimony to some of its manifestations. Françoise Henry presents new reproductions of large parts of the great Gospel Book of Kells, now preserved in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. Icons of Byzantium and Eastern Europe, scattered in museums throughout the world, are catalogued and ingeniously dated by David and Tamara Talbot Rice. The catalogue of the exhibition of 1974, “Venice and Byzantium,” reminds us that in San Marco in Venice we have a living museum of the art of Constantinople at its peak. Sirarpie Der Nersessian has commented on eleven of the luxuriant manuscripts of the Armenian communities scattered throughout the Near East, now preserved in the Walters Art Gallery. The humble craftsmanship of the tombs of Ireland from 1200 to 1600 catalogued by John Hunt provides us with an index to the difference between great art and the day-to-day demands of craftsmanship in a provincial culture. Furthermore, we have guides to the very different societies that produced such art: the masterly survey of Professor Jaroslav Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700), can be fruitfully contrasted with the northern world evoked in the enthusiastic narrative of Professor John T. McNeill; The Celtic Churches: A History, AD 200 to 1200.

With books such as these we learn to enter a world where the patronage and execution of works of art could not be taken for granted. The brittle magnificence of the monasteries of the Celtic world, as fragile and isolated as the courts of their neighbors and patrons, the Celtic chieftains, collapsed at a touch with the Viking invasions of the ninth century. The history of many of the icons dated by David and Tamara Talbot Rice is the history of feudal families living at risk in the ravaged Balkans. The tranquil masterpieces of Russian art were produced in towns overshadowed by the Tartar horsemen: “I painted these four pictures of the temple and those of the Evangelists which you saw when I, in fear of Yedigei, fled to Tver and found refuge with you in my grief, and showed you all the books which were left to me after my flight and ruin.” Even in the few periods of peace, in early medieval Ireland and Byzantium, leisure and wealth were a volatile surplus, hurriedly placed beyond the envy of time in the form of those great works of religious art that we now admire in the solid comfort of galleries.

There is a yet greater gulf which we must leap. A majority of the works of art discussed here have a theme in common. They were considered, in their varying ways, as points where men and the supernatural could meet. Each of them asked to be judged by the degree of success they achieved in helping the mind to that high peak from which another world—a world palpable, ever present, and hidden only by the passing mist of the human body—might be viewed. A revolution in Western religious sentiment stands between ourselves and this early medieval zenith of Christian art.

We in this present period expect religious art to instruct us, to stir up appropriate feelings in us, to clutter our childhood imaginations with tasteful vignettes of Near Eastern life inserted as illustrations to our Bibles and Sunday School textbooks. We do not expect a work of art to be a direct bridge to the holy. Yet an icon, for instance, is just this: it is a clean patch in the misted pane of glass that stands between us and the invisible presences that press in around us from the other world. The Russian acquaintance of a friend, when presented with a bad copy of the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, dismissed it instinctively: “No,” said he, “it is not transparent enough.” It is this translucence of the good icon that made it, as it were, a window opening on to the other world. Art and closeness to the supernatural converge: “The icons which came to be most revered and admired in Russia, and credited with miraculous powers, are also among the finest from the aesthetic point of view” (Talbot Rice, page 90).

To understand why this should be so we may turn first to Professor Pelikan’s Spirit of Eastern Christendom. It is a pleasure to salute this masterpiece of exposition. The foundation of this model book is to be found in its margins, where reference follows reference down the side of the page, indicating an astonishingly deep absorption of the primary evidence. Through these, Professor Pelikan enables us to hear the Eastern Christians speaking in their own language about the concerns that were built into the heart of their theology.

We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Byzantines are notorious for their rhetoric. The impression given by most surveys is of a contentious world, where the streets of great classical cities were filled by clashing bands of circus factions and slogan-chanting monks. Professor Pelikan has abandoned this facile image. He has rediscovered for us the sustained poetry of the Eastern Christian argument with itself. Precisely for being so resolutely abstract, this is as true a picture of the realities of Eastern Christian society as is the more fashionable interest in the garish aspects of Byzantine factionalism. We are dealing with a society whose leaders had inherited from the classical world a yearning for retirement—where the cultivated intellectual would chirrup like a cicada in the long summer sunlight of scholarly leisure—and had reinforced this tendency by seeking the solemn shelter of great monasteries, in which many of the masterpieces of Eastern Christian theology came to be written.

Beneath the overt issues of each of the many controversies that raged in the Eastern Christian world is the logical development by which each problem unfolded out of the other. This is what Professor Pelikan calls the “hidden agenda” of Eastern Christian thought, and he shows rare intellectual flair in uncovering it. The book flows like a great river, slipping easily past landscapes of the utmost diversity—the great Christological controversies of the seventh century, the debate on icons in the eighth and ninth, attitudes to Jews, to Muslims, to the dualistic heresies of the high Middle Ages, to the post-Reformation churches of Western Europe. Not the least value of Professor Pelikan’s treatment is his refusal to adopt a false phil-Hellenism. His book succeeds in being a study of the Eastern Christian tradition as a whole.

His evocation of the development of the Nestorian tradition—of a Christianity, that is, that developed outside the frontiers of Byzantium, in Persian and, later, Islamic, territory, and that expressed itself in Syriac not in Greek—is exceptionally illuminating. A book that can realize the stature of Babai the Great and Abdisha of Nisibis alongside the well-known figures of Maximus the Confessor and Saint John Damascene can only help us to appreciate more fully the richness of a great Christian tradition. For in the Nestorians we have a truly Eurasian Christianity. In great fortress-like monasteries in the hills of northern Mesopotamia Nestorian thinkers grappled with the problems shared by Christian intellectuals in Constantinople and Antioch; while in the wake of soldiers and traders Nestorian monks and clergymen carried their ideas to the oases of Central Asia, to Malaya and Peking. In 635 AD the emperor of China was presented with a statement of their faith which, beneath its alien language, was a faithful echo of the basic concerns of Eastern Christian thought.

Within his exposition of the evolution of Eastern Christian teaching in all its multiplicity, Professor Pelikan offers us the austere road to an understanding of the need for icons in the Eastern Church. As he frequently makes plain, the basic concern of Eastern theology was the manner in which the divine world is revealed to humans, frail as they are. Thus the constantly recurring apprehension that “things divine are real” was for ever in the grip of the question which asked: if they are real, how are men, alienated by the Fall and their own sins, to recapture a reality that is so close and yet so far? The icon offered one such bridge to the other world. In front of an icon, the Eastern Christian felt his ever-labile mind come to rest; its grave face, “expressive of the silence of God,” was a “nest” to which the fluttering soul, its wings tired with the ill-directed flights of imagination, could return.

For over a century, in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, the fate of the icons hung in a balance. Their role in the church was challenged by the iconoclastic movement in the Byzantine empire. This movement did not object to art as such. Professor Pelikan’s and other studies have made plain that the iconoclasts were concerned to replace icons by what they considered to be yet more effective vehicles of the holy—by the blessed Eucharist and the compact symbol of the cross. They shared the Eastern Christian obsession with bridging the gulf between the human and the divine; only the vehicles they chose were different. Thus in the victory of icons what was won was not art itself; it was the role of the visual element in man’s perception of the divine.

Icons gave precision and location to the immensity of the invisible world, much as a shadow, hitherto blurred, takes on clear, hard lines as the sun emerges from behind a cloud. The icon took the believer to the threshold of the visionary experience which always has remained the warm heart of Eastern Christendom. For what the prophet or the holy man had seen with his own eyes, the average man could rightly imagine in the icon, its tones as clear, as sharp in outline, and as shadowless as a dream. An icon showing an event in the Gospel did not attempt to instruct the believer, or merely to mobilize his feelings: it strove “to transfer the event from the terrestrial world in which it had occurred to the celestial, to which the persons concerned had been transported” (Talbot Rice, p. 93).

The icon, therefore, was a patch of clear visibility. This, of course, was vision, or perception, going in two ways. The “red corner” in a Russian house where the icons were hung was also the corner from which God and His saints watched their human protégés. The icon scanned with silent gaze the crises of domestic life. In Greece, so we are told, the discreet adulterer would cover the face of the icon—for if you gazed at it, it gazed at you. Throughout the Eastern Christian world, icon and vision validated each other. Some deep gathering into one focal point of the collective imagination—a subject that remains to be studied—ensured that, by the sixth century, the supernatural had taken on the precise lineaments, in dreams and in each person’s imagination, in which it was commonly portrayed in art. The icon had the validity of a realized dream. Often it served as an Identikit: the dreamer, on waking, would find out by referring to his icon which invisible protector had appeared to him in the night.

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