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Christian Iconography Essay

1. Compare and Contrast: Hosios Loukas, Greece (before 1048) v. San Marco, Venice, Italy (building consecrated 1073; mosaics 12th c.) and the Cappella Palatina, Palermo, Sicily (1142/3) Typical Byzantine churches, like all architectural forms, employ relatively standard layouts and similar mosaic programs. Hosios Loukas, preceding both San Marco and Cappella Palatina, is an example of adherence to Byzantine conventions of visual programs and spatial planning. However, the churches of San Marco and Cappella Palatina are departures from such convention. Experiencing greater influence from the West, the churches of San Marco and Cappella Palatina, in their architectural forms and decoration, at once show their Byzantine roots and strides toward westernization. Hosios Loukas, though appearing irregular in its floor plan, is actually two adjoining churches. Built on the space that marks the site of Saint Lucas’ death, the church is an excellent example of Byzantine planning and decoration.

With a large central dome, the church can be divided into three main parts: the sanctuary, which is east of the dome; the naos, which is the central portion; and the narthex, or entry porch. Possessing a cross-like plan, the church is for the most part centrally planned. In the narthex, the typical mosaics of the Pantokrator, the Crucifixion and the Anastasis are employed. The apse mosaic, which is at the far end of the sanctuary, depicts the image of Theotokos sitting on a throne with the Christ Child; above the alter and the apse mosaic rests the mosaic of the Pentecost in the domical vault. In the central dome, which houses the Pantokrator, the circle converts to the square through an octagonal form, a feature shared by Cappella Palatina. The squinches created by the octagon depict scenes from Christ’s life. Furthermore, the likenesses of saints decorate the church. Most importantly however, the decoration of the church contains little extraneous detail.

San Marco, however, exists as a transition from the traditional Byzantine format to more westernized looks. Still displaying a cruciform floor plan, the basilical form is integrated into the church. The four lateral domes and one central dome imply this focus on symmetry and centrality, while still allowing for the western influence. The naos is elongated, to create greater linearity and the cross arm of the cross-square is actually a transept. Though exhibiting much of the same scenes, those of San Marco have a particularly greater focus on narrative. One can observe such effects in the Anastasis scenes of both churches. In the Anastasis of Hosios Loukas, only five figures appear: Christ, David, Solomon and Adam and Eve; the five figures possess enough detail to identify them and the scene.

In the San Marco example, eleven figures are present. The crowded quality enhances the narrative, allowing them to be read as more of a story and less as a symbolic image representing an event. Similarly, the crucifixion scene of Hosios Loukas and San Marco are respectively simplified and elaborate. Cappella Palatina, built by Roger II a Norman, focuses even greater narrative. The church also further employs the basilical form, while displaying forms from all the cultures that influenced it. Baring less architectural resemblance to the Byzantine church, Cappella Palatina’s mosaics, though depicting much of the same scenes as Hosios Loukas and San Marco, are composed in a rather haphazard way. For example, the nativity, which is usually streamlined to the most integral parts, shows multiple scenes in the same mosaic.

In fact, some figures, such as the magi, appear more than once. This technique, allows the viewer to trace out the story of the birth of Christ. The eastern apse looks like a traditional Byzantine church, with a Pantokrator and seated Virgin. However to the west, the basilical nave shows the Western Christian influence. Its use of Old Testament imagery references Western precedents—from Genesis to Jacob wrestling the angel. Similarly, while the walls depict the same scenes as Byzantine churches, their format is different. Its use of registers is unseen in Byzantine counterparts. Also, the multiple Pantokrators that appear in the church, while a Byzantine form, are used in a uniquely un-Byzantine way. Lastly, the church ceiling, which is decorated with muqarnas, shows the Islamic influence.

The basilical influence in San Marco and Cappella Palatina is unmistakable. Much of the imagery and its hierarchical placement—with the holiest at the top and most earthly at the bottom—is drawn from Byzantine churches. However, the use of Old Testament scenes and the greater focus on narrative are symptoms of the western influence. San Marco and Cappella Palatina are consequences of the time and place. They are at once Churches of the West and parts of an imperial history and religious tradition from the East. As a result, their appearance reflects the Byzantine influence, in its similarities to Hosios Loukas, and their Ravennic and Roman precedents.

2. Compare and Contrast: Pilgrim eulogia ampulla, Crucifixion and Women at the Tomb, pewter, 6th-7th c. v. The Limburg Staurotheca, 968-985 Though created centuries apart and strikingly different in size and style, the pilgrim eulogia ampulla and the Limburg Staurotheca are similar in many ways. Both are vessels of holy materials and depict Christ and various religious figures. However the ampula represents the more egalitarian form of relic collecting. The Limburg Staurotheca, on the other hand, in its materials and relics is one of the most elite forms of collectorship. Both the Pilgrimage ampulla and the Limburg Staurotheca are composed out of metals. The ampula is made out of pewter, a metal that was readily available at the time and not costly. The Limburg Staurotheca, on the other hand, is made out of gold gilt medal, enamels and gems.

The difference in materials is indicative of their intended patrons. The ampulla, which predates the Staurotheca, was created for pilgrims that visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The latter, however, was commissioned by an imperial official and was intended to be viewed by elites. Additionally, both possess the ability to be hung. While the ampulla often hung around the neck of a pilgrim, the Staurotheca, which has a hoop at the top, could have been hung in a devotional space or carried during processions. The function—to hold holy objects—also differs due to its intended viewers. Ampullae such as this were often used to hold holy liquids or soil. However, due to the inscription and its iconographic reference to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the True Cross, this pilgrimage ampulla was used to hold the oil from the True Cross. Therefore, in a sense, both of these vessels hold parts of the same relic.

However, the portability and reproducibility of the oil, made it better equipped for pilgrim patrons. The Staurotheca, contrastingly, holds seven splinters of the true cross. Arranged in such a way to show the historical form of the true cross, the slivers are held in place by jewels and gold framing. Additionally, the Staurotheca also was a reliquary for various other relics, such as Christ’s purple robe, the hair of John the Baptist, etc. Housed behind the ten different panels with inscriptions describing that which is behind them, the Staurotheca is an interactive reliquary. The viewer is able to open the panels and see the relics. The iconography of the vessels also differs. The ampulla depicts two scenes. The first is the Adoration of Cross. The meaning of the iconography is twofold. It looks like the scene of the Crucifixion, with the other two crucified flanking Christ and with worshipers in attendance.

However, the more pertinent interpretation of the imagery, as it relates more directly to the vessel, is the pilgrims visiting and worshiping the True Cross. On the back of the ampulla, the Women at the Tomb is depicted. It also has two significances; it can be read as the Mary’s visiting the tomb of Christ and pilgrim women visiting the tomb of Christ erected within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The iconography, therefore, draws parallels between the events of Christ’s life and the activities of pilgrims. The Staurotheca, on the other hand, is rich in detail yet does not contain any narrative. On the front of the reliquary is Christ enthroned, with Theotokos, John the Baptist and arch angels flanking him. Above and below are three pairs each of the apostles. Surrounding the nine conjoined panels, are portrait busts of saints.

Upon opening the lid, the viewer is confronted with the slivers of the True Cross described above. Depictions of angels adorn the interior as well, and flank the inscribed panels behind which rest other important relics. Rather than expressly depict the relics that were encased, the reliquary simply depicted the True Cross and the portraits of angel, all of which were considered to be the image of God himself. Therefore, the ampulla and the Staurotheca differ in their iconography, their function and their materials. All results of the intended viewers and collectors, both the ampulla and Staurotheca represent the Byzantine desire to obtain primary and secondary relics. Representing the power of Christ and God, these vessels’ contents gave their owners assurance of success and salvation.

3. Essay Question Related Directly to Readings: The issue of images in Byzantine art The lineage and use of images in Byzantine art is perhaps on of the more interesting and complicated aspects of Christian iconography. The Christian imagery in Byzantine art, as noted in Heaven on Earth, became intertwined with imperial icons and ceremony. The course of Iconoclasm, however, remains the most controversial historical discourse about Christian images and their appropriate role. The Iconoclasts believed that images were inappropriate in worship and were similar to the worship of idols, which breaks one of the commandments. Iconophiles, on the other hand, venerated images and opposed the Iconoclasts in the destruction of images. Given the volatile opposition of the two, understanding the Christian image in Byzantine art allows one to understand their forms of worship and relation to the holy. Firstly, it should be noted imperial and religious tradition often created a relationship between Christ and the Emperor.

Occurring fairly early in the history of Byzantium, the Emperor Justinian was likened to Christ in the apse mosaic in S. Vitale. Adorned with a halo, Justinian stands in the center among twelve soldiers and religious officials. Although, as Treadgold et al. noted in Procopius and the Imperial Panels of S. Vitale, though the artist had not intended on creating the twelve apostles symbolism, as the feet show that some of the heads were added as an after thought, the resulting effect is the same for the contemporaneous viewer. The emperor, the most powerful and godly of men, is likened to Christ. Such an occurrence, while prevalent throughout cultures and history, undoubtedly watered down the holy significance of Christ images in the realm of worship. However, as noted above, the Iconoclast controversy, which lasted from 726 to 843 AD, is most illustrative of the Byzantine treatment of images. Affecting artistic production during the controversy and in its wake, the debate centered on the appropriateness of images in the Christian context.

Iconoclasts, or “image breakers,” believed that their fellow Christians had become idolaters. Images, perhaps believed to be a source of power by laymen, the Iconoclasts contended, must be restrained. Militaristic failures reaffirmed Iconoclastic believes that they had sinned and incurred the wrath of God. In the Church of Saint Sophia, for example, depictions of saints were replaced by the cross. Similarly, St. Irene sports a cross instead of a human likeness. (The example of the Church of the Dormition in Nicaea seems to show that the Virgin and Child mosaic replaced the Cross, post-Iconoclasm.) Therefore, the Iconoclasts effectively replaced images with the Cross. Contrastingly, the Iconophiles, or “image lovers,” argued for the preservation and continuation of images, given their long history.

As discussed in the Abgar of Edessa identification, the likeness of Christ was venerated in biblical times. Being an ancient tradition, that Christ himself allowed/encouraged, images should be respected. Furthermore, as mentioned in Mango, the Iconophiles argued that God created man in his likeness, and specifically incarnated himself in the human form of Christ, and therefore allows for representation in the human form. Though they were temporarily victorious between bouts of Iconoclasm, the Iconophiles were ultimately successful in securing the role of images in Christianity. After the ideological defeat of the Iconoclasts, the Iconophiles restored much of the Christian imagery that had been washed away. St. Sophia, having had images removed by the iconoclasts, exists as a testament to the great controversy. The St. Sophia apse mosaic is an excellent example of post-iconoclast image restoration.

A mosaic of Theotokos and Child was erected with an inscription condemning the Iconoclasts; the inscription is known to refer to them as imposters. Similarly, written and illustrated texts, such as the Khludov Psalter, describe the heresy of the Iconoclasts. It likens them to the Jews. As the Jews killed Christ, the Iconoclasts washed away and killed his image. Furthermore, much of the margin illustrations depict figures holding a medallion image of Christ, as a testament to the devotion to images. The Iconophiles believed that icons and images of the holy and saintly sanctified churches and practiced such post-iconoclasm.

Post-iconoclasm, much of the ravages were rectified and restored. Beautifully decorous images adorned churches and texts in the wake of the controversy. The Psalter of Paris, for example, rather naturalistically depicts David composing the Psalms. Personifying the location and muses, the image gives the layman the opportunity to pictographically read the origin of the Psalms. Ultimately, the images not only teach through visuals, but inspire awe. The illuminating mosaics of churches produced miraculous, luminary effects that created a greater sense of the sacred.

Consequently, the use of images in Byzantine art is an issue of great complexity. Once deriving influence from the iconography of pagan religions, the Iconoclasm controversy returned to the Christian-pagan associations. The Iconoclasts believed that the worship of images was like that of idols by the pagans. In an attempt to remain in the right with God, they sought to rid Christianity of its idolatrous icons. Though, in accordance with sanctity, egalitarianism and tradition the debate was won by the image lovers, restoring the place of Christian icons.


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