Glenn Peers

title.none: Parry, Depicting the Word (Peers)

identifier.other: baj9928.9708.002 97.08.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Glenn Peers, Kitchener, Ontario

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Parry, Kenneth. Depicting the Word: Byzantine Iconophile Thought of the Eighth and Ninth Centuries. The Medieval Mediterranean, vol. 12. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996. Pp. 216. $88.50. ISBN: ISBN 9-004-10502-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.08.02

Parry, Kenneth. Depicting the Word: Byzantine Iconophile Thought of the Eighth and Ninth Centuries. The Medieval Mediterranean, vol. 12. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996. Pp. 216. $88.50. ISBN: ISBN 9-004-10502-6.

Reviewed by:

Glenn Peers
Kitchener, Ontario

The "grip of a crisis of over-explanation" has surely relaxed since Peter Brown's warning in 1973 ("A Dark-Age Crisis: Aspects of the Iconoclastic Controversy," The English Historical Review 346 (1973):1ff.). In the intervening quarter century, many studies on the origins and course of iconoclasm in eight- and ninth-century Byzantium have, in fact, offered both more interpretations and more precision. The complexity of causes and the sophistication of thought in the period have clearly emerged for scholars to appreciate, if a consensus over roots and meanings has not.

Kenneth Parry brings a focussed eye to the theological and philosophical issues Iconoclasm raised in Byzantium. He briefly discusses historical events, but personalities and circumstances are peripheral to his dissemination of the history of ideas. His principal focus is the theology of the iconophile leaders in the eighth and ninth centuries, John of Damascus (ca. 675-ca. 750), the patriarch Nicephorus (ca. 758-829) and Theodore (759-826), abbot of the important monastery of Stoudios in Constantinople. These theologians left behind large deposits of work combatting iconoclastic emperors and churchmen and Parry mines this rich vein of image theory in a way that reveals familiarity and close engagement. Parry is an historian of theology and this book does not often make concessions to readers unfamiliar with the intricacies of Byzantine theological discourse. Depicting the Word will not, in other words, be the place a person new to the field or to the problem of Iconoclasm ought to turn for an introduction to the theology or theory of the period. And, with Jaroslav Pelikan's Imago Dei of 1990, the need for another such introduction may not be so very pressing at the moment. It needs to be admitted that this reviewer, an art historian-- though with some familiarity and much interest in the issues Parry raises--must necessarily evaluate the work from a position closer to a generalist reading than to the expert evaluation that Parry's book deserves and will presumably receive elsewhere.

From that point of view, beginning with the difficulties Parry's book presents to the non-expert is appropriate. The book is divided into two principal sections, "Philosophical Themes" and "Theological Themes;" these sections are bracketed by an "Historical Introduction" and a "Conclusion." The two principal sections are subdivided into a further eighteen chapters. Most of these are concise presentations of individual topics that are intended, presumably, for easier access to ideas common to the three theologians who are his focus. However, some awkward repetition results in the bifurcation of the material. Some philosophical issues are not at all distinct from the theological pursuits of iconophiles; chapter 3 "Image and Prototype" and chapter 10 "Image and Likeness" cover similar ground, and chapter 6 "Aristotelianism," while possessing a great deal of interest and originality, raises issues that are returned to without contextualisation in later, "theological" chapters. Within the chapters, organisation of material is often equally arbitrary: the logic of the sequence of paragraphs is not always self-evident or is simply subservient to a chronological imperative distinct from the natural exposition of ideas; topic sentences for paragraphs are often misleading; and the lack of any summation at the end of chapters is a serious hindrance to the synthetic force of Parry's arguments. These stylistic and organisational flaws make it necessary for the reader to confront Parry's work from the perspective of thorough reading and complete digestion of the entire work. This necessity will surely discourage students and non-specialists from appreciating the novelty and worthiness of Parry's analysis.

Of prime interest is Parry's restoration of the Aristotelian basis of much of the argumentation of the ninth-century iconophiles, Nicephorus and Theodore. Aristotelianism was always available in the east and was increasingly developed in the period before Iconoclasm, although it was not a tool utilised in the polemics of John of Damascus or in the deliberations of the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. Nicephorus and Theodore, however, manipulated aspects of Aristotelian logic terminology to new ends in the defense of image worship. While this manipulation has not been neglected (in the work of Paul Alexander, The Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople, Oxford, 1958, and Marie- Jose Baudinet, for instance, in Les Etudes Philosophiques 1 (1978):85ff.), it has not been seen in a positive light, as a controlled and advanced use of a difficult system of thought. Parry sees this newly adapted terminology as a conscious reaction against the lacunae left by the theologians of 787 which allowed a second period of Iconoclasm in 815. Theodore and Nicephorus engaged the ideas raised by the anti-image stance of the emperor Constantine V (r. 740-75) because the issues raised mid-eighth century had not been properly addressed. As Parry remarks in the Conclusion, this ability to combat iconoclastic arguments with Aristotelian terminology presupposes a knowledgeable elite able to appreciate and to follow this rarefied discourse; clearly, such discourse was well established by the generation that produced Nicephorus and Theodore.

Aristotelianism provided the framework to combat two important charges made against images and their worship by iconoclasts. First, iconoclasts stated that the only true image is consubstantial with its prototype; since a material representation is made of matter, distinct from the nature of the model, it is a debasement of that venerable figure represented and its worship is simply idolatry. In answer, Nicephorus and Theodore brought to bear the concept of homonymity, that the image shares a name with the prototype and is therefore due a relative share of honour that belongs to that prototype. They argued that the model and image are distinct in terms of nature but that a divine participation between the two exists because of this homonymity. (An interesting discussion of Aristotelian categories of relation is also found in chapter 13 "Biblical Exegesis," an unhappy place for a section with more relevance elsewhere.) Second, iconoclasts argued that divinity, that is Christ as God, could not be circumscribed, or contained, and, for this reason, that images of Christ only depict the human side of Christ and so dissociate the divine from the human. The centre of the debate for iconophiles was the "existential and historical reality of the God-man" (p. 99), and Nicephorus and Theodore expended a great deal of effort to apply Aristotelian ideas of circumscription and localisation to Christian images. Again, divine participation in matter was key. Christ took a human form, lived, suffered and died as a man, and was therefore circumscribable; similarly, angels took on forms and occupied place and so they became a corollary to the crucial case of Christ's representation. In both instances, Aristotelian definitions provided the foundation for elevated discussion of issues of representability.

Those debates, newly fashioned from Aristotelian material, have other implications that Parry returns to throughout the book. The significant idea of participation and imitation has strong interest. Parry stresses the affinity between matter and spirit that comes out of the iconophile notion of relative participation. This affinity contradicts, of course, any over-emphasis of the Neo-platonism of iconophile thought. Using the source text of Genesis 1:26, distinct from the platonic approach of Gerhard Ladner ("The Concept of the Image in the Greek Fathers and the Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversy," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 7 (1953):1ff.) and from the trinitarian approach of Christoph von Schoenburn (L'icone du Christ, Fribourg, 1976), Parry explores the notion of the true Christian as a living image. Because of Christ's assumption of human form, the likeness of God in humanity can be reclaimed through virtue, that is a living participation in divinity. Parry pursues some of the possibilities this line of thought raises, such as the importance of moral beauty for Christian image making, the face as locus of sanctity (here Herbert Kessler in Iconography at the Crossroads, Princeton, 1993, has relevance), and the painter as imitator of the divine creator. Indeed, the social dimension that Parry refers to at different points is one of the book's most engaging aspects. Nicephorus used the definition of relative participation to propose a relationship between Christ and Christian that parallels the relationship between image and prototype; in this way, he was able to establish a basis in moral theology for artistic practice. Theodore applied the definition of circumscription of Christ before and after death to a unity of church and sacrament; a theosis, or deification open to all humanity through participation is directly bound up with the imperative to represent. As Parry establishes, ecclesiology, social praxis and artistic production are inseparable components in Byzantine theology of this period. Iconoclasm was not simply a recondite quarrel over images but a larger struggle over understanding the past, properly enacting a present and preparing for a Christian future.

Beyond these notable aspects just discussed, this review must, however, leave other aspects of Parry's work that have their own interest. He deals with iconophile concern with issues such as tradition, typology, imageless prayer, relics, the eucharist and the cross, and the representation of the Virgin, angels and saints. The range of material is proof of the particular attention Parry pays to the many individual matters involved in studying Byzantine Iconoclasm. If the book is sometimes difficult or awkward to consult, it ought not to be neglected by any person interested in the period of Iconoclasm or of Byzantine image theory. It testifies to the need to avoid any perception of a danger of over-explanation and to the rewards of confronting the sources with new ideas and critical perspectives.