Antony Eastmond

title.none: Peers, Sacred Shock (Antony Eastmond)

identifier.other: baj9928.0611.009 06.11.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Antony Eastmond, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Peers, Glenn. Sacred Shock: Framing Visual Experience in Byzantium. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004. Pp. xviii, 188. $40.00 (hb) 0-271-02470-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.11.09

Peers, Glenn. Sacred Shock: Framing Visual Experience in Byzantium. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004. Pp. xviii, 188. $40.00 (hb) 0-271-02470-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Antony Eastmond
Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London

Sacred Shock is widely researched, provocatively argued and occasionally revelatory, but it is not an easy book. The elusive and tantalising title sets the tone: it divulges little to casual browsers, and every word requires a great deal of unpacking. As a result, this is not a book I would recommend to students, or non- academic readers. Its prose is fluid, with poetic tendencies, but laden with obscure and occasionally obstructive vocabulary. The book is effectively a series of independent case studies from the early Christian period through to the Palaiologan. The ostensible subject of each of the chapters is frames and the framing of images, but this is really just a rhetorical peg on which to hang an altogether more fundamental analysis of the different visual devices in different media used across the Byzantine world over a millennium to visualise their God and their relationship to him. There is an extraordinary variety and range in the book, but this in turn raises the question of whether the sum adds up to more than the parts.

The introduction establishes Peers' goals and his explicitly post- modern methodologies. He introduces his subject--"the great age of the frame"--but quickly asserts that frames are merely tools with which to examine the bigger question of the presence or absence of God in Byzantine art. Peers is careful not to define his idea of the frame too strictly, and he certainly does not allow it to restrict him in what he can and cannot include. Frames encompass not just those traditional rectangular areas that separate the centre of an image from the world around it, but also the backgrounds of images, the wearers of images and, moving into more metaphysical realms, the space around and in front of images. There is no doubt that such a broad definition is at times frustrating, especially when trying to encapsulate it in a review, but it gives the book a refreshing freedom from the restrictive categorisation of so many academic catalogues. The variety poses questions about how to define an image, and how to relate all the different parts of an object and the space between it and the viewer.

Page 8 provides what, in any contract, would be the small print: those authorial disclaimers and self-justifications which pre-empt any reviewers' criticisms. Here Peers explains his use of a number of different methodological approaches in the course of the book. The nature of the material, he says, encouraged him to apply a different approach in each chapter, moving from iconographic to formal analysis, via the relationship between text and image. Equally, he refuses to allow us to look for developments. Even though the chapters are organised in chronological order, "no claims are made for progressive developments in imagery" and objects were not chosen to reveal "an evolution of attitudes and uses of frames." Finally, Peers alerts his readers to the limits of his approaches; most importantly his awareness of the impossibility of objectivity: he includes a salutary reminder that the choice of materials, the choice of contexts, and the choice of approach are all ultimately subjective. At the same time, he writes that "no ideal viewer" can be posited. This, however, is more problematic, as it is clear from the analyses that follow that in each chapter there is implicitly an ideal viewer. Although never named, the artists who made each work and imbued it with the visual cues to necessary to allow the interpretations that Peers promotes, emerge as the creators of meaning. The role of the artist and of artistic intentionalism remains a grey and untheorised element throughout the book.

Ultimately Peers' approach is inspired by a short phrase in Derek Walcott's poem Tiepolo's Hound, quoted as a prologue: "one epiphanic detail illuminates an entire epoch." In each case study, Peers searches each image for its "one epiphanic detail" that can act as a catalyst to elucidate the whole. In a way, Peers thereby emerges from the book as a sort of post-modern Morelli. For just as Morelli sought to identify the whole artist from those small, unconscious artistic flourishes--the drawing of the earlobe or kneecap--so too Peers seeks to reveal fundamental aspects of the processes of viewing in Byzantium through the intense scrutiny of small, sometimes incidental details of individual works of art. Inevitably, you are left wondering, as with Morelli, whether the detail can bear the weight of the whole apparatus of meaning that is built on top of it.

The first chapter looks at pectoral crosses--small engraved bronze crosses that were often worn by their owners. Peers moves rapidly between Coptic nuns, Syriac monks, Arian Ostrogoths, pious pilgrims and Byzantine emperors in a matter of pages. The heart of the chapter revolves around perceptions of the crucifixion in the first centuries of Byzantium, and it makes very good use of some little known sources, such as the seventh-century Treatise on Solitude and Prayer by the Syriac monk Dadisho. It also introduces "pathetic viewers," an idea borrowed from Louis Marin. These are figures depicted on the work of art as worshippers who then act as a model and cue to the viewer on how to behave him- or herself. Peers elaborates an interesting model of relationships between real viewer, depicted viewer and the divine, based on a model of equality and intimacy. This interpretation is revealing, but it plays down the social and hierarchical distance between these three groups. The presence of the emperor Justin II and Sophia on a cross in the Vatican, or of St Apollinaris, first bishop of Ravenna, among the apostles in the apse of San Apollinare in Classe, can be seen just as easily as a boundary, designed to reinforce social and sacral differences between viewer and viewed. Whilst they certainly provided a model to copy, these figures depicted so close to God simultaneously reminded viewers of the impossibility of them attaining the same degree of access to the divine that their social superiors had.

The main issue in this chapter is its definition of the frame, and the importance placed on it. Peers argues that, in the case of pectoral crosses, we should identify the frame with the object, and the object with the wearer. At the same time, he asserts that the endless repetition of forms--an image of the crucifixion is engraved on a crucifix, which is worn by a person who takes up a cruciform pose with outstretched arms during prayer--aided the worshipper: "the frame calls attention to the fact of representation, and from that realization of artifice follows the release of the physical eye, and this release allows the mind to turn upward" (26). This turns a stimulating chapter on the perception of the crucifixion into a more contentious and subjective discussion of how viewers relate to images and shapes; an altogether more problematic issue. It places too much emphasis on the shape of the object. However, "pathetic viewers" equally appeared on other forms of object in this period, notably spherical pilgrim ampullae (as Peers' figs. 13 & 14 show), and there is no evidence that they were less effective at encouraging minds to turn upwards to the divine than similar figures on a pectoral cross. Frames here seem to obfuscate rather than reveal.

Chapter 2 defines the frame in a very different way. Here, it is no longer a boundary, but a "zone that mediates between object and viewer, where interpretation and integration could take place" (37). The chapter's epiphanic detail is one marginal illustration from the famous Khludov psalter, written and illuminated in the immediate aftermath of the end of Iconoclasm in 843: folio 23v, with its image of the Iconoclast council of 815 awash with blood: indeed, blood, we are told "vesuviates" from the page (36). The detail provides an excuse for a wonderful excursus on the source of the blood, and on the relationship between Christ, the word, parchment, and blood. It also looks at bleeding icons, and the relationship between image and prototype, that prerequisite in any discussion of art after iconoclasm. There is much of interest here, but again, the peg on which it hangs is a rather awkward one: frames inhibit rather than open out Peers' argument.

Chapter 3 changes tack once more. It focuses on the author portrait that opens a copy of the homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus that was given to the monastery of Pantanassa by Joseph Hagioglykerites, abbot of the Pantokrator monastery in Constantinople, who died in 1154/5. Here the frame looks more traditional: a rectangular assortment of columns, fountains and marbles, surmounted by a "jumble" of domes and rooftops that surrounds St Gregory. The interpretation is more traditional too. The image is presented as a monastic response to the growing criticism levelled at monks in Constantinople in the twelfth century. The association of the church father with modern monks through his dress and the apparent similarity between the architectural background and that of the Pantokrator Monastery in Constantinople was to allow them to claim his spiritual and moral authority for themselves. It is a socio-political interpretation, with art responding to events.

Chapter 4 is almost wholly based on formal analysis. The twelfth- century icon of St George in Athens, which combines a relief image of the saint in the centre, with painted scenes from his life on the frame, is analysed in terms of corporality. Much depends on the epiphanic detail of the carved shield behind the saint, which pushes him into the space of the viewer. The descriptions are sensitively given and the play between images in two and three dimensions is well handled. Certainly it makes you look again at the icon. But how much weight can George's body bear? Peers' formalist analysis is tempting and seductive, but ultimately it is deeply rooted in intentionalism. In place of an ideal viewer the reader seems to be offered an ideal artist whose intention it is consciously to play with the three dimensions to create this wondrous object that lifts the mind from the material to the immaterial in so many and so complex ways. (Incidentally, it is disappointing that, for a book on frames and a chapter on vita icons, the publishers have decided to crop the images here so harshly in their desire to present a tidy page: figs. 52, 55, 59, 60, 67 have all lost vital parts of their painted frames.)

The final chapter turns to the revetments attached to icons. It examines two cases: the coverings of a pair of twelfth-century icons showing the annunciation in Ohrid museum [FYROM]; and the Palaiologan revetment on the icon of the Mandylion now in Genoa. With the frames now taking up the majority of the images in these two cases, there is much to be looked at. Peers centres his discussion on the materials involved, and the ways that the reflective quality of the metal covers contrasts with the matt paint that they surround and the implications of this for the ways in which the images were viewed, perceived and understood. With the epigrams of Manuel Philes to elucidate the Ohrid icons, and the story of Christ's dazzling countenance to contrast with the brightness of the Mandylion cover, Peers has a rich mine to explore in this chapter and does it well. It is a useful chapter to add to the growing literature on the contrast between foreground and background, and between metal and pigment in Byzantine art.

Whilst I have concentrated on areas of disagreement, I think that there is much to commend in this book: interesting juxtapositions of texts and images, and a refreshing move away from traditional ways of looking and thinking. But that is very different from commending this as a book. Frames are simply deconstructed to such an extent that they lack any rigour as a framing device (the pun, finally, is impossible to avoid). The brevity of the epilogue shows how difficult it was to tie all the elements of the book together. This is always the danger of episodic books such as this. I am not sure whether the sum of all the individual revelations in this book adds up to one major epiphany.