09.10.07, Hennessy, Children in Byzantium

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Maria Parani

The Medieval Review 09.10.07

Hennessy, Cecily. Images of Children in Byzantium. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Limited, 2008. Pp. 263. ISBN: 978-0-7546-5631-9.

Reviewed by:
Maria Parani
University of Cyprus

In recent years, scholarly interest in issues related to Byzantine children, ranging from their legal and social status, health, education, and abuse to their portrayal and the material culture of childhood, has been on the increase, as evidenced above all by the 2006 Spring Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks with the title Becoming Byzantine: Children and Childhood in Byzantium. [1] Cecily Hennessy is the foremost exponent of this trend in the field of Byzantine art history and her monograph Images of Children in Byzantium was an eagerly awaited addition to the short, but gradually expanding bibliography on Byzantine children and childhood. This monograph is the outcome of Hennessy's long-term engagement with the topic of the representation of children and childhood in the visual media in Byzantium, an engagement which goes back to her years as a postgraduate student and which has already led to the publication of a number of specialized articles dedicated to the analysis of specific examples, such as the well-known early Byzantine mosaics of the basilica of St Demetrios in Thessaloniki and the fascinating but problematic medieval manuscript, Vat. gr. 1851. [2]

In her monograph, Hennessy revisits a number of well-known works of art in different media and dating variously from the fourth down to the fifteenth centuries, with the purpose of exploring the manner in which children are represented in specific iconographic contexts and the role of their representations, as well as of tracing the underlying Byzantine concepts regarding children and childhood that informed the creation of the images she discusses. Still, as she is careful to warn the reader from the very beginning, she is striving neither for an exhaustive inventory of Byzantine images of children nor for a diachronic overview of the development of Byzantine attitudes and ideas behind their conception and visualisation. Rather, she adopts a thematic approach, focusing in turn on specific aspects such as pictorial definitions of children and childhood, children within the family, imperial children and concepts of secular power, as well as saintly and, what the author calls, "sacred children" and perceptions of sanctity. She does not, however, limit herself to the discussion of children merely as artistic subject-matter, but takes the opportunity to raise some interesting questions regarding children as the intended viewers or recipients of Byzantine works of art and, even more provocatively, children as patrons and creators of images.

The author's goals and methodology, which is primarily art-historical in its outlook complemented by recourse to Byzantine written sources, are set down in the first chapter of the book which serves in lieu of a long introduction. Entitled "Setting," it provides exactly that: the background of earlier scholarly work in the field and the historical framework for the art-historical analysis that is to follow in the remaining chapters. Individual issues discussed include the evolution of modern conceptions of childhood in pre-modern societies, especially during antiquity and the Middle Ages, the legal status of children in Byzantium, their education, the attitude of the Church towards them, and the role of children in the imperial court. Hennessy also tackles the difficult question of the proportion of children (defined as boys and girls prior to the onset of puberty, at 14 and 12 years of age respectively) in the Empire, reaching the conclusion that they "formed a majority of the population" (27). The arguments she adduces, however, are inconclusive, while her description of Byzantium as a "paediatric culture" (35) is rather unfortunate. Still, even if one may not agree with her estimates, her call for the need to also take children into consideration when discussing the audience of Byzantine art is a justified one.

Questions of how ordinary, anonymous children are represented in both secular and religious artistic contexts are addressed in the second chapter, which bears the title "Childhood." With the help of a number of disparate examples, including the 4th-century mosaic pavements at Piazza Armerina, early Byzantine consular ivory diptychs, middle Byzantine illuminated manuscripts, and late Byzantine frescoes from Mistra, Hennessy looks at the attributes that are used in art to differentiate boys from girls and children from adults, at the activities in which the children are depicted as engaging, at the iconographic contexts into which the images of children are introduced and their function therein, and, last but not least, at what these images can tell us about Byzantine society's attitudes towards children and Byzantine constructions of childhood, real, idealised or imaginary. Though her discussion of the distinguishing external features of children in art is not as detailed as one might have wished and some of the identifications she suggests regarding the age and gender of the represented figures based on dress and hairstyle should be treated with caution, the author's concluding observation that Byzantine images of boys and girls, whether addressed to adults or children, on the whole bespeak of positive connotations associated with childhood is certainly borne out by the artistic works themselves. These same images of children, at play or at work, intimate, Hennessy argues, the full integration of children into Byzantine society.

One particular aspect of this integration, that is children within the web of familial relations, is explored in the third chapter of the book titled "Family." More specifically, the author takes a closer look at representations of family groups, mainly dating to the early Byzantine period, with the purpose of determining how familial identities and familial ties were constructed and visually expressed and what role was accorded to images of children as members of the family unit, whether biological or, in the case of monastic communities, spiritual. Under the same rubric, the relationship of children with saintly protectors also comes under scrutiny. Indeed, in certain contexts the relationship of a child with a patron saint could be given primacy over human familial bonds, revealing, according to Hennessy, the potential spiritual independence of children from their parents. [3] The discussion oscillates between images of Byzantine children and their families and those of biblical characters, such as Joseph or the Maccabees, something which to my mind is cause for methodological concern, especially since the relevance and applicability of the observations drawn from the biblical examples is neither theoretically framed nor adequately explained, beyond their being expressions of what the author elsewhere describes as the "cultural take" on family and childhood.

A juxtaposition of images of actual Byzantine children with images of saintly or biblical children is also undertaken in the following chapter titled "Sanctity," in which Hennessy sets out to explore the depiction of sanctity in children and the devotional and educational value of exemplary childhood. While the examples of the child St Nicholas and the youthful David are more or less straightforward, the claim that the child Maria in a four-scene mosaic sequence at the basilica of St Demetrios in Thessaloniki is depicted as "sacred" is more difficult to accept, since one could argue that personal devotion and dedication of a child to a patron saint (possibly implied by the cross on Maria's forehead, which is also used to identify her as the same person in all four scenes) does not necessarily signify sanctity in the child. [4] Given the interest of the author in the pictorial treatment not only of children, but of youth in general, the last two sections of this chapter look, perhaps rather incongruously, at depictions of youthful saints, especially military saints, and at the representation of youth and age in monumental church decoration. On the other hand, the two ultimate paradigms of saintly childhood, the Child Christ and the young Virgin Mary, are not discussed here, but in a separate chapter, the last of the book. Prior to this, however, the author turns away from the issue of sanctity in order to explore another important theme, that of children and secular authority.

Thus, in the fifth chapter of the book that has the title "Power" Hennessy focuses on imperial family portraits in which children appear to share and perpetuate their parents' power within the framework of imperial dynastic rhetoric. [5] Still, underlying the depiction of these children in their formal capacity as imperial heirs, sons and daughters, in certain instances and in specific contexts, the author argues, one may discern a more individualistic treatment, alluding to the dynamics of personal relationships within the imperial family and to the youthfulness and associated qualities of individual imperial children. Indeed, she offers some bold reinterpretations of well-known examples, such as the famous 9th-century manuscript Par. gr. 510, which will certainly provoke discussion in the field. Some of her suggestions, though, are hard to accept since they do not find support either in the established iconographic tradition of imperial portraiture (e.g. in the case of imperial portrait in Par. gr. 922, where she proposes that the theme of the double coronation is used for a mother/regent and son, rather than a husband and wife) nor by the analysis of the dress of the portrayed figures (e.g. in the case of the dynastic portrait of St. Sophia in Kiev, where she claims that there is no distinction in attire between boys and girls).

According to Hennessy, all the themes that she has been tracing throughout the book, that is childhood, family, sanctity and power, converge in the images of Jesus and Mary represented as children both in iconic and narrative pictorial contexts inspired by biblical and apocryphal accounts of their childhood. Thus, in the book's final chapter, the author examines whether these two most sacred persons of Christianity are indeed represented with child-like qualities, how their images may differ from those of other children, the nature of their relationship with their parents and the manner in which their sanctity is made manifest and their power and authority articulated in visual terms. She recognizes, rightly so, that in the case of the images of the Child Christ and the infant and youthful Mary, doctrinal and theological concerns have precedence, but also maintains that the numerous representations of Jesus and Mary as children "must, if nothing more, show a sensitivity to, and acceptance of, the centrality of children in concepts of belief and in society" (212).

To my mind, this monograph's main contribution is that it brings to the fore the importance of age--the age of the persons represented, but also of the audience and the creators of art--as a valid, albeit up to now largely neglected, parameter of art-historical analysis of Byzantine works of art. This is cleverly done by looking afresh, through the lens of childhood and youth, at an array of familiar and much-discussed monuments, an array impressive in its wide chronological coverage and variety of the media considered. Hennessy restores to the portrayed children their child-like qualities by putting to rest the widespread traditional view that Byzantine art pictured children as diminutive adults. She also highlights the popularity of images of children, ordinary as well as saintly, with lay, ecclesiastic and monastic patrons, while at the same time drawing attention to the variety in motivation behind the commissioning of such images and in their function, whether entertaining, devotional, educational, or propagandistic. Admittedly, this book is not without problems and weaknesses, being at points repetitive, with descriptions not uniformly clear and certain interpretations that do not take into account all the variables. This, however, does not detract from the validity of the issues that the book raises regarding the role and integration of children in Byzantine society and in its artistic expression. Indeed, this monograph is the first step towards a much needed coherent and comprehensive account of children and childhood in Byzantine art and will, I believe, serve as an inspiration for future work.



1. A volume with the same title containing eight articles, based on contributions presented at the symposium and edited by the symposiarchs, Arietta Papaconstantinou and Alice-Mary Talbot, is due to appear in September 2009 (Harvard University Press).

2. Hennessy, C. (2003). Children as Iconic Images in S. Demetrios, Thessaloniki. In A. Eastmont and L. James, eds. Icon and Word: The Power of Images in Byzantium: 157-72. Aldershot; Hennessy, C. (2006). A Child Bride and her Representation in the Vatican Epithalamion, cod. gr. 1851. Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 30: 115-50.

3. During recent restoration work carried out at the basilica of St Demetrios in Thessaloniki, a fragment of an inscription was discovered according to which the youthful saint portrayed with the two children on the north-western pier of the bema is St George, not St Bakchos (89, pl. 6), see Bakirtzes, Ch. (2006). Proeikonomachiko psêfidôto tou hagiou Dêmêtriou stê Thessalonikê. In Dôron: Timêtikos tomos ston kathêgêtê Niko Nikonano: 127-134. Thessaloniki. For the association of the images of children in the basilica of St Demetrios with the function of a hospital there which, it has been suggested, had a specialization in children's ailments, see Bakirtzis, Ch. (forthcoming). Ho xenôn tou Hagiou Dêmêtriou: eikonographika zêtêmata. In D. Michaelides, ed. Medicine in the Ancient Mediterranean World. Proceedings of the International Conference held in Nicosia 27-29 September 2008.

4. Hennessy mentions in passing that Maria is given a halo (112), but she does not specify in which scene this is the case. In the three last scenes of the sequence reproduced in the book no halo is discernible. If a halo is indeed present, one would have expected a more elaborate discussion of it as a potential signifier of sanctity.

5. By oversight, the son of John II, portrayed at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (160, fig. 5.7, and index), is called Alexios II, when it is the son and heir of Manuel I who was actually styled thus (174).

Article Details

Author Biography

Maria Parani

University of Cyprus