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Thursday, November 01, 2001

Book Reviews

Byzantine Angels

Subtle Bodies: Representing Angels in Byzantium by Glenn Peers (The Transformation of the Classical Heritage XXXII). University of California Press, Berkeley, 250 pages, 2001, $37.50.

This is a most welcome book. Glenn Peers provides the reader with a sequence of incisive readings of Late Antique and Byzantine accounts of angels and their representations. These varied texts reveal both the complexity of the proposition that angels could be represented in Christian art and the skill with which Greek theologians grappled with this problem. Peers’s primary object is to reveal the grounds that made it possible to represent the bodiless angels. In so doing, he is able to show that the distinct case of angelic representation should be understood to address central issues in the discussions that revolved around the icon in general in Byzantium during the course of the eighth and ninth centuries (compare Chapters One and Three). This account is both subtle in its own right and convincing.

The book begins by identifying major examples of angelic representation in Late Antique and Byzantine art. It then discusses the opposition to these images found in such theologians as Epiphanios of Salamis in the fourth century and the iconoclasts of the eighth and ninth centuries. The third chapter introduces the symbolic defense of icons of the angels by linking the fifth-century writings of Pseudo-Dionysios the Areopagite to the arguments of eighth and ninth-century iconophiles. The fraught question of the veneration of angels is then examined in Chapter Four. These various strands of argument are brought together in an examination of the cult of the Archangel Michael at Chonae in Chapter Five, in relation to which the complexity of angelic representation is inscribed in both the landscape and in icons. Finally, the lengthy conclusion provides a brief account of the continuing fascination with the problems and delights of angels in later Byzantine writing. The author provides a full set of footnotes and a complete bibliography. While the photographs are apt, the paper on which they are printed somewhat dulls their impact.

One of the central points made in this book is that any discourse on representation is conditioned by the degree to which an object or person shows itself or themselves to an audience. In this regard, the particular discussion of the representation of angels can be said to offer an important inflection upon the basic assumption of the necessity of the body for Christian art. The idea of the angel’s subtle body is central to this argument. Peers takes the term (lepta) from Macarius Magnes (ca. 300-ca. 390) and John of Thessaloniki (d. 649?). This subtle quality indicates a fundamental difference between angels and mortals. While angels appear to have bodies in one of their many guises before men, they are by definition bodiless. This occasional body thus becomes a means of opening the angels to our vision, gifting themselves to our knowledge. It is a paradoxical giving and withdrawing of the angelic body that both confounded fathers of the Orthodox tradition, Epiphanios of Salamis for example, and gave them cause to delight in these same representations, as in the case of Agathias or Psellos.

For Peers, these works of art “excite the viewer’s desire to explore the enigmatic transparency of the images.” They provoke their audience to contend with the process of representation itself, forcing a confrontation with the very real limits of artifactual depiction. As such, angelic representations exist on the very fault-line that unveils the potential crisis in every act of representation. Hence, we find on page 136 that “the value of images of angels resided in their necessarily incomplete testimony to the incomprehensible nature of the angels.” This almost fragmentary and certainly subtle presence – ordained in the mists of time by the presence of the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant – prompted a powerful revision of the possibilities for representation in general. Peers’s excellent study both clarifies and expands upon this point, providing the reader with a satisfying account of the very real complexities of the Christian work of art.

Charles Barber is an associate professor of art history at the University of Notre Dame. His study of Byzantine iconoclasm, Figure and Likeness: On the Limits of Representation in Byzantine Iconoclasm, will be published next year by Princeton University Press.
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