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 and 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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.