03.11.03, Parani, Reconstructing the Reality of images

Main Article Content

Linda Safran

The Medieval Review baj9928.0311.003


Parani, Maria G. Reconstructing the Reality of images: Byzantine Material Culture and Religious Iconography, 11th-15th Centuries. Series: The Medieval Mediterranean, vol. 41. Leiden: Brill, 2003. Pp. xxxviii, 417. ISBN: 900412462-4.

Reviewed by:
Linda Safran
University of Toronto

Byzantine art has been disparaged for being so bound by tradition that it was practically unchanged over time, and even Byzantinists will admit that innovation, particularly in religious artwork, had its limits. Icons (images) of holy persons and events from sacred history had to be recognizable in order to ensure the efficacy of prayers directed through them to God. Artistic fidelity to a more or less standard iconography for figures and scenes thus ensured the potency of Orthodox devotions. Yet this did not mean that all Byzantine depictions of a sacred person or scene were the same; indeed, no two representations are alike.

One of the ways that Byzantine artists "personalized" religious artwork was by the inclusion of realistic elements. Maria G. Parani provides the "first comprehensive study of contemporary secular artefacts (realia) represented in Byzantine art that considers such representations from both an archaeological and an art-historical point of view" (xi). This novel and important book is a revised version of her 1999 Oxford dissertation. While it has not entirely transcended its origins (some parts are repetitive), it is a major achievement, a thesaurus that offers something for every student and scholar of Byzantine art and history and in which colleagues in cognate fields will also find much of interest. Parani demonstrates that religious artwork, particularly monumental painting and mosaics of the Middle and Late Byzantine periods, opens a window into such categories of material culture as costumes, furnishings, and implements. Yet how can a modern viewer know whether she is looking at conventional iconographic details in a painted scene, or at faithful representations of objects contemporary with the painting? Were Byzantine viewers sensitive to this distinction? What "semiotic functions" did the inclusion of contemporary realia serve, since they were not mandated by historical, textual, or iconographic necessity? What creative processes and cultural conditions stimulated the inclusion of some archaeologically attested objects, but not others, in some mural decorations? What lay behind the urge to innovate, and whose urge was it, anyway? The issues raised here -- innovation, identity, models, meanings -- are relevant to art historians of other periods and cultures.

Choices had to be made to limit the scope of an extremely ambitious project that few American students (or their advisors) would be willing to take on. Hence the realia discussed comprehensively by Parani include imperial, official, aristocratic, and military costume, but not that of commoners, ecclesiastics, or monks; furniture and furnishings; writing and medical and agricultural implements, but not domestic utensils or musical instruments. The rationale for omitting certain classes of objects is that they do not communicate much about the symbolic function of realia in religious paintings. This is arguable, and in fact some of these objects (notably plebeian clothing and tablewares) are included in the Commentary at the end. Parani also admits that her focus on monumental painting is somewhat arbitrary, as realia appear in all media, but justifies it by mural art's public character and relatively greater potential for narrative imagery in which realia are likely to appear. Her chronological scope, eleventh to fifteenth century with glances back to Early Byzantine art, is warranted insofar as the Late period depends on the Middle, and the eleventh-twelfth centuries were notable for the development of greater "realism" (the notion is always relative in Byzantine art), especially in the depictions of emotion and pictorial space. Parani's geographical parameters stop at the political frontiers of the medieval Byzantine empire, explicitly in order to underscore the imperial and social contexts of the artwork (5). As one of Parani's main conclusions is that imperial ceremony and official art were the most important stimuli for the representation of realia, a comparative study of realia outside the official borders of Byzantium is a real desideratum.

The first five chapters are case studies of different categories of artifacts. In chapter 1, Parani analyzes the components of Byzantine imperial costume (the chlamys and loros costumes, the crown, shoes, scepter, labarum, akakia, and orb) as documented in textual sources and imperial portraits in all media. She then considers how these components were used in paintings that depict biblical and non-biblical rulers, emperors and empresses, personifications, and angels. This is a very clear overview of an enormously complicated (one is tempted to say "byzantine") topic previously accessible only to devoted specialists. The crown and the red shoes emerge as the most distinctive regalia, appropriated by imperial wannabes everywhere. Afterthe Crusader conquest in 1204, the traditional chlamys (a long mantle) was replaced by the caftan, a sartorial fact that Parani associates with a relaxation of official protocol and new external influences. We learn that the loros costume (a long, jeweled scarf draped around the body) was depicted disproportionately compared with the number of occasions on which it was actually worn. The reasons for this disparity are symbolic and mystical: the loros was associated with imperial triumph and perpetual victory; it resembled Christ's winding sheet and recalled his resurrection; it reified the emperor as Christ's representative on earth. The meanings of all of the elements of imperial costume are convincingly shown to be polyvalent, and also mutable.

Artists who inserted elements of imperial costume into religious scenes were usually unconcerned about the contemporaneity of the depicted realia; they showed rulers in the chlamys costume long after the actual garment was obsolete. Few evinced an awareness of which regalia were actually used on specific occasions. Anachronistic borrowing from official portraiture and from earlier models seems to have been standard practice in Byzantine religious art. While Parani's assertion that Byzantine imperial portraits were substitutes for the emperor himself is inarguable -- the same was true of Roman portraits -- her corollary (28, 32), that it would be redundant for a ruler to sport his own image on a crown or scepter, remains hypothetical.

Chapter 2 looks at official and aristocratic costume, both male and female, and its use in narrative scenes and depictions of martyrs and angels. It is here that we find considerable foreign inspiration on Byzantine fashions, with short tunics worn over long ones, very long sleeves and decorated armbands, caftans, tunics with lapels or collars; imperial fashions, by contrast, were much more conservative. Belts became signifiers of office, as did more and less elaborate headdresses and colored footwear. Female costume showed greater variety and changed more quickly than male. It would have been useful to survey the dress of commoners (as is done in the Commentary); the humble patrons whose portraits accompany votive paintings throughout the empire are dressed in their Sunday best, presumably in imitation of aristocratic models.

While contemporary official and aristocratic costumes were not used in religious paintings as frequently as imperial realia, they do reflect the diversity of medieval Byzantine clothing. Amid this diversity, specific costumes may convey a message: when Pilate is dressed as a Middle Byzantine prefect of Constantinople this underscores his judicial role. Representations of martyrs eschew diversity; with rare exceptions males are shown, as they had been for centuries, in the chlamys. Female virgin martyrs wear the tunic and mantle of early eleventh-century aristocrats for the duration of Byzantine art. Artists or patrons seemed able to include or exclude contemporary fashions in religious scenes at will. Parani suggests that when costume realia are included they are meant to emphasize the contemporary relevance of a "historical" scene.

Chapter 3 reviews military costume, including three types of body armor, neck, leg, and head protection, garments worn over and under the armor, and the arms themselves: shields, swords, axes, maces, lances, javelins, and bows (not, however, spurs or horse trappings). These elements of military costume are seen in narrative scenes containing soldiers and bodyguards, and are sometimes worn by rulers in narrative scenes, as well as by military saints and certain archangels. Parani guides the reader clearly through this arcane world, including such fascinating details as the fact that silk worn under armor facilitated the removal of arrows (117 n. 70). Unfortunately, almost no martial artifacts survive from within the Byzantine world, which means that many questions cannot be answered. Is depicted armor the sort that was actually in use on the battlefield, or the kind worn only on ceremonial occasions? When we see Western-style helmets in Late Byzantine painting, is this due to artists copying Western artistic models or to the diffusion of such helmets in Byzantium?

In the Middle Byzantine period, most military saints began to be represented not in the traditional chlamys costume, but armed, implying their ability to protect against physical and spiritual enemies. Nevertheless, the depiction of military costume is marked by great conservatism and dependence on late Roman elements. Parani suggests that this was meant to stress the historicity of depicted events, which presumably does not conflict with the implications of actuality and contemporaneity suggested by the depiction of other realia. Only occasionally were fanciful or realistic armor represented, the former due to misunderstood models or artistic license, the latter drawn mainly from ceremonial armor. The addition of numerous realia to the armor of thirteenth-century military saints is linked to a predilection for secondary details in Late Byzantine art; such paraphernalia as bows, helmets, and a garment worn over the cuirass had long been in use, but were only belatedly represented.

The fourth chapter considers furniture and furnishings: thrones, other types of seats, footstools, tables, beds and bedding; textile furnishings, including wall hangings, curtains, carpets, and towels; chests and cupboards; and lighting devices. These are often incorporated into narrative scenes to indicate setting, and thrones also appear in non-narrative compositions as attributes of distinction and authority. Some events required realia -- the paralytic carrying his bed is an example -- but furnishings could also have non-textual origins and less-literal connections with religious scenes. For example, Parani suggests that an imperial ceremony in which newborn princes were displayed in their cradles may have stimulated artists to include cradles in the birth scenes of saints. This seems likely, but did artists really need recourse to ancient scenes of the birth of Dionysus (193) when actual cradles were available? In many cases furniture in religious paintings is conventional and repetitive, with innovations limited to decorative elements, but in other instances depicted furnishings offer evidence of contemporary realia.

Chapter 5 examines implements used for agriculture, handicrafts, surgical procedures, and writing. Such implements are found in many narrative scenes and in portrayals of various saints. Here Parani introduces modern ethnographic material into the discussion, on the grounds that "continued use of traditional cultivation methods in the Balkans, Asia Minor, and Cyprus ensured the survival of certain types of implements . . . and permits the 'judicious use' of ethnographic material as a complementary source of information on Byzantine agricultural implements" (199). The ethnographic approach has enormously potential, in my opinion, though it has been little used by medievalists (and by art historians in general).[[1]] The chapter details which tools were used for which tasks, and the reader is able to compare actual tools with painted ones. Parani singles out an exceptionally detailed depiction of a shepherd at Kurbinovo, with numerous tools suspended from his belt and unidentified objects on his staff (213-14). By analogy with some medieval South Italian wall paintings with Greek inscriptions and Byzantine iconography, the object at the tip of the staff is a ball of wool.[[2]] The immediacy and vitality of such a figure, seemingly drawn from life, is not lessened by the fact that the slow development of medieval technology rendered most tools "contemporary" over many centuries.

The writing table next to many a seated evangelist often holds tools needed to prepare and write the Gospel book (ruler, knife, stylus, reed pen, inkwell, sponge). Yet, as Parani points out, the evangelists could not possibly have done their writing in the already-bound codices with which they are invariably shown (206). Parani posits that the unrealistic bound codex serves to stress the evangelists' roles as authors rather than scribes, though this seems to be undermined by the extensive display of scribal tools. While a few categories of saints (soldiers, evangelists, healers with medicine boxes or lancets) are characterized by holding or wearing appropriate implements, few saints are individualized by the kinds of attributes so common in Western medieval art. Parani identifies only Marina, shown with a mallet and sometimes a demon, as a rare exception to this no-individual-attributes "rule," but to this we should add the not-infrequent depictions of Peter holding or wearing the keys Christ gives him in Mt 16:19.[[3]]

The five case-study chapters demonstrated that secular artifacts were included in Byzantine religious iconography in significant numbers, and that the depicted objects are often consistent with Byzantine material-culture finds. These are followed by a lengthy diachronic Commentary divided into three sections, the first of which is "Motives and Sources of 'Realism' in the Depiction of Artefacts in Byzantine Religious Art." For Parani, the principal sources of inspiration for the anachronistic inclusion of realia in religious scenes were the ceremonial and official arts of the imperial court. Oddly, and unfortunately, Parani does not engage at all with Thomas Mathews' polemical critique of the significance of imperial representation in earlier Byzantine art.[[4]] Parani firmly believes that daily life outside the court was only rarely and erratically an inspiration for realia (219, 225, 230), but she may be underestimating the impact of popular magical/religious practices on art.[[5]] Parani also finds that the influence of Islam and the West on Byzantine realia was very limited, particularly in wall painting (other media were more open to outside influences); while Islamic fashions affected Byzantine material culture, including court costume, they had scant impact on religious art. Byzantine artists evince little interest in exotic elements for their own sake, with the sole exception of the fourteenth-century St. Nicholas Orphanos in Thessalonike, and this is notably different from the "orientalizing" tastes that prevailed in Western Europe by that time. For reasons that include suspicion of the West and reliance on tradition, most Byzantine art avoided the detailed rendering of the sensible world that characterizes Western medieval art.

The second part of the Commentary deals with "Chronological and Regional Diversity." Here Parani recaps the case studies, but adds commoners' dress and domestic utensils (tableware, serving vessels and the like). She concludes that for the Middle Byzantine period evidence for regionalism is scant, and the wide diffusion of certain realia argues for their having originated in a center, probably Constantinople, rather than in different provinces. The expansion of realistic trends in the twelfth century coincided with a broader artistic and literary turn toward observation of the sensible world, including the world of personal experience and expression (253); this is when Byzantine artists begin to sign their work. Parani makes the tentative suggestion that that the expanded repertoire of dining utensils depicted in artwork may be related to a lively interest in foodstuffs attested by contemporary texts. In the Late Byzantine era the multiplication of tablewares continues, but furnishings are less elaborate and costumes (except those of lay females) are less up-to-date; even shepherds lose their lively detailing. Now changes in style are factored into the absence or presence of realia: the "cubist" style of the late thirteenth century favored exaggerated details. Among the monuments that have a more classicizing style and probably shared the same artistic workshop, St. Nicholas Orphanos in Thessalonike stands out for its numerous realia. In general, the Late period is marked by an interest in details of all sorts (not only realia). Perhaps they multiplied at this time because hopeful connections to sacred history, whether through recognizable objects or any other means, were important in an age of turmoil. In sum, chronological variation in the depiction of realia is more informative than regional variation, for which evidence is scarce indeed. The periods of greatest interest in realia were the twelfth century, especially the second half, and the late thirteenth-early fourteenth century, both periods in which Byzantine art witnessed a turn toward greater realism.

The final section assesses "Creators and Recipients of Religious Art as Factors Influencing the Occurrence of Realia." Here Parani treats the relative impact of artists and patrons on the introduction of realia into painting, and raises a question that vexes all of medieval art: how were ideas transmitted across time and space? The usual responses are by way of portable arts, motif or model books, itinerant workshops, and/or mobile patrons, and the study of realia does not expand these possibilities. Parani suggests that famous artists may have introduced fashionable realistic elements as a way of expressing individuality in a culture where iconographic choices were limited by the need for recognizability; in addition, clergy at a saint's principal sanctuary may have helped create or promote particular details. Yet in the end, decisions about realia rested with individual donors and their personalities and circumstances. Parani discusses a few identifiable patrons and the monuments associated with them, and posits that the Serbian king Milutin was the patron of realia -rich, Western-tinged St. Nicholas Orphanos. Perhaps Serbia was the channel by which Western influences reached Late Byzantine Thessalonike and were disseminated from there (287).

Parani's general conclusions are that realia contributed to an overall impression of actuality, vitality, and proximity of religious persons and scenes, regardless of whether they were clearly visible or even comprehensible to viewers; that Byzantine viewers were not disturbed by the commingling in a single context of conventional, fanciful, and contemporary depicted objects (to which I might add that they were similarly undisturbed by stylistic juxtapositions that upset modern scholars); that imperial and official art, not daily life, were the primary sources of represented realia; and that acceptance in a metropolitan center was a prerequisite for the wide diffusion of any particular realia.

The volume concludes with three substantial appendices. Appendix 1 provides basic information (dates, patronage, imagery) and bibliography for all monasteries and churches mentioned in the text and captions. The alphabetical arrangement makes this a convenient first place to look for information about a great many Middle and Late Byzantine monuments. Appendix 2 lists portraits of Byzantine emperors and their families in all media except coins and seals; it gives dates, location, and bibliography and briefly describes poses, costumes, and attributes. The list includes rulers of the Byzantine Empire, the Empire of Trebizond, and the Principality of Epiros. Appendix 3 follows the same geographical divisions but describes portraits of Byzantine officials, aristocrats, and commoners from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries, with particular emphasis on clothing. It is not clear why the chronology has been pushed back to the tenth century in this last appendix, nor why it includes commoners, but these are welcome additions to a preliminary roster of donor figures in Byzantine art.

The appendices are followed by a six-page glossary of terms, most defined in detail. A 23-page bibliography of primary and secondary sources follows, and to the author's credit there are at least 25 titles updating the secondary literature since her dissertation. Finally, a painstakingly detailed 42-page index closes the book.

The only significant drawback to Parani's careful work is not entirely her fault. She has visited monuments in Istanbul, northern Greece, and Cyprus, but knows the others in her corpus only from publications and the Dumbarton Oaks Photographic Archive (10). Unfortunately, Byzantine wall paintings are not very well published, in part because in some countries it is extremely difficult to obtain permission to reproduce images. Without extensive travel and intimate knowledge of unpublished (or underpublished) local monuments, one relies too heavily on the relatively few well-illustrated monographs. Thus of the 137 Middle and Late Byzantine wall paintings and mosaics (not manuscripts or objects) illustrated in Parani's book, nearly half come from well-known monuments in northern Greece and Greek Macedonia (primarily Kastoria and Kurbinovo); only ten come from southern Greece, and those exclusively from Mistra and Platsa. Drandakes's 1995 volume on Byzantine wall paintings in the Mani is absent from the bibliography [[6]]; does this mean that there are no realia depicted in the Mani except at Platsa? If so, one wants to know what was different about the cultural context of the other Maniate churches; is it merely that Doula Mouriki published a monograph on Platsa in 1975, and nothing comparable has appeared since? Similarly, only a handful of illustrations come from the Greek islands, and the reader looks in vain for the excellent recent volume on wall paintings from Kythera.[[7]] Given the proximity of southern Greece and some of the islands to Italy and the West, with its realia - and attribute-laden religious paintings, more thorough examination of these areas would have been welcome. Such an expanded corpus might affect the author's conclusions about the primacy of the imperial center over the periphery in the transmission of realia.

Physically, the book is made less user-friendly by having its 244 glossy black-and-white plates divided into two large sections that interrupt the text, and the separate insertion of the eight color plates. Because the latter are numbered as part of the monochrome series, a text reference to Pl. 74, for example, makes the reader thumb through the first section of black-and-white plates only to find a gap between Pls. 73 and 75, necessitating further flipping to the color section. Still, Brill has done a great service in permitting the author so many illustrations and such extensive scholarly apparatus. The corollary to so many plates and pages, alas, is a high price tag that will make this extremely valuable research tool accessible mainly to libraries rather than individuals.

A review of Parani's book must end on a high note. She has done an enormous service in collecting and analyzing both painted and extant Byzantine realia. Art historians looking at a particular scene, saint, or detail can now slot their own realia into her developmental schema and save themselves a great deal of pictorial and textual research. That realia can offer additional evidence for dating contested monuments is now apparent.[[8]] The appendices are a very convenient place for scholars and students to begin research on a particular image or monument, and the index is overly generous in the quantity and specificity of its references. This is a big book, chock-full of solid research and cautious analysis. It deals with postmodern questions of viewer response and polyvalent signifiers, yet it is entirely free of jargon. It may not be sexy, but Parani's book is extremely functional -- much like Byzantine religious art and material culture.


[[1]] See the recent College Art Association session (CAA annual conference, New York, February 2003) on "Ethno-Art History? Understanding the Art of Pre-modern Cultures Through Ethnography and Ethnohistory," co-organized by Sharon Gerstel and Linda Safran.

[[2]] E.g., St. James leading the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt in the church of San Biagio at San Vito dei Normanni. His staff is topped by a ball of wool, and also supports a wreath and a rectangular flask akin to the Kurbinovo shepherd's "bucket." See Marialuisa Semeraro-Herrmann, Il santuario rupestre di San Biagio a San Vito dei Normanni (Fasano, 1982), pls. 61-62.

[[3]] Among other examples, at Lagoudera (Cyprus), the Chora monastery (Constantinople), and many sites in southern Italy.

[[4][ Thomas Mathews, The Clash of Gods, A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art (Princeton, 1993; rev. ed. 1999).

[[5][ I am currently investigating the depiction of such realia as amulets and red ribbons in medieval southern Italy, and Sharon Gerstel is engaged in similar work on lay piety in Greece. See also the forthcoming article by Vassiliki Foskolou, "The Virgin, the Christ Child and the Evil Eye," which focuses on the inclusion of dogs and "evil eyes" in some Late Byzantine Nativity scenes; forthcoming in Maria Vassilaki, ed., Images of the Mother of God. Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium (Athens and Aldershot, 2004).

[[6][ Nicholas Drandakes, Vyzantines Toichographies tes Mesa Manes (Athens, 1995).

[[7][ Manoles Chatzedakes and Ioanna Bitha, Heureterio Vyzantinon Toichographion Hellados, Corpus de la peinture monumentale byzantine de la Grece: l'ile de Cythere (Athens, 1997).

[[8][ See Maria G. Parani, "The Romanos Ivory and the New Tokali Kilise: ImperialCostume as a Tool for Dating Byzantine Art," Cahiers archeologiques 49 (2001), 15-28.

Article Details

Author Biography

Linda Safran

University of Toronto