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13.10.05, Maguire, Nectar and Illusion

13.10.05, Maguire, Nectar and Illusion

From the sixteenth century, when Giorgio Vasari first condemned its distinctive modes of representation as "unnatural" and "decadent," to the twentieth, when the New York critic Clement Greenberg bemoaned its pitiful abstractions, Byzantine art has been a tough sell to modern viewers, most of whom lament what they perceive as its abstruse subject matter and relentlessly formulaic visual aspects. In recent decades, however, this critical stranglehold on modern visual imagination has begun to weaken, thanks in no small measure to the work of Henry Maguire. Over the course of his career Maguire has explored topics such as the relationship between art and rhetoric in Byzantium (Art and Eloquence in Byzantium, 1981), the role of nature-based images in the early Byzantine period (Earth and Ocean: The Terrestrial World in Early Byzantine Art, 1987), and that most central of Byzantine topics, the icon (Icons of their Bodies: Saints and their Images in Byzantium, 1996). In these projects, each distinguished by its ability to interpret the results of careful observation and visual analysis in a cultural context built from a mastery of Byzantine literary traditions, Maguire has pulled back the curtain first drawn by Vasari to identify and explain some of the keys to seeing and understanding this distinctive medieval tradition. In so doing he has moved the study of Byzantine art in new directions, revealing a vista of complexity and variation.

Nectar and Illusion is of a piece with these earlier studies. Indeed in many ways it represents a culmination of Maguire's previous work. The book, which grew out of a series of lectures presented under the auspices of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation and Oxford University Press for the series "Onassis Lectures in Hellenic Culture," picks up the strands of earlier interests--the relationship between art and rhetoric, the Byzantine approach to terrestrial nature, and the icon--to weave them together in a study of changing Byzantine attitudes towards the natural world as expressed in the twin poles of Byzantine culture, the visual arts and literature.

The context is explicitly sacred and Christian with images of the natural world understood as those representing the flora and the fauna of earth, air, and water. The definition also includes personifications of natural phenomena; for example, rivers and seasons. Human beings do not, however, constituting instead an anthropomorphic category of their own. Although style is an important issue in many instances, this is not a book about naturalism in Byzantine art. The thrust of the study is, rather, iconographic, and the purpose in examining this material is not simply to observe and describe, but to explain the place of nature representation in Byzantine sacred art of different times and contexts. To this end Maguire includes evidence from the whole span of Byzantine history: from the early Byzantine period (4th-7th centuries) through the Iconoclastic period (8th-9th centuries) and the medieval Byzantine period (10th-15th centuries). He also considers a wide range of visual imagery from the monumental and public to the small-scale and private together with examples from the Byzantine literary tradition, sacred and profane poetry and prose. Although the book could not have been written without reference to or understanding of this literature, the discussion gives pride of place to visual tradition.

Five thematically-defined chapters make up the core of the book. Each chapter considers nature representation in relationship to a particular idea, covering the full span of Byzantine history from early to late in so doing. Thus, Chapter 1, "Nature and Idolatry," which begins with the observation of the powerful presence of nature imagery in early Byzantine art and continues by noting the destruction of that tradition during the Iconoclastic period before examining the emergence of a more symbolic approach in the later Middle Ages, posits that the shift in habits surrounding nature representation in Byzantine tradition may be an outgrowth of the fear of idolatry. In Chapter 2, "Nature and Rhetoric," Maguire, true to the promise of the book's title, explores connections between attitudes towards the natural world and the rhetorical traditions that structured Byzantine use of language in general and observations of nature in particular, noting specifically the sense of ambivalence the Byzantines brought to their use and appreciation of both subjects. The purpose here is to establish the complexity and mutability of Byzantine approaches to art and nature. Building on this examination of art and rhetoric, Chapter 3, "Nature and Metaphor," discusses the repetition of nature-derived metaphors in Byzantine art, especially those relating to images of the Virgin and Paradise, comparing them to those in the verbal record. Chapter 4, "Nature and Abstraction," offers a discussion of the way in which the variety and specificity of early Byzantine nature imagery, imagery teaming with flora and fauna of all sorts, was replaced eventually by a greatly reduced and schematized repertoire focusing on plant life in the Byzantine Middle Ages. Finally, Chapter 5, "Nature and Architecture," argues that with the reduction of nature derived imagery in the post-iconoclastic period a more fully anthropomorphic system of representation that gave new prominence to architectural backgrounds emerged to create settings that were themselves filled with sacred symbolic charge.

In the same way that each of the lectures that formed the impetus to the book could have been heard as a free-standing offering, each chapter can be read independently. At the same time, a standardized, chronologically-based structure in which the author examines early Byzantine, Iconoclastic, and medieval Byzantine visual and literary materials governs each of the five separate discussions, lending a sense of unity to the larger project. More important with respect to the sense of unity is the series of themes that emerges within and is shared between each of the individual chapters. Thus, Chapter 1, which casts a wide net, introduces some of the general themes that drive the inquiry, themes that are picked up in later chapters and that in turn lead to the exploration of new ideas. Prime among them is the issue of ambivalence, specifically the Byzantine ambivalence to both nature and rhetoric that stands at the heart of Chapter 2 and remains a recurring motif. As Maguire points out, for all their appreciation of and delight in nature, the Byzantines were also deeply suspicious of it. Although seen on the one hand as bountiful and abundant, nature was recognized on the other hand as transient and corruptible. Thus at the same time that this bounty was thought to provide evidence of the magnificence of God's creation, of nothing less than the Incarnation itself, the very mutability of this bounty was an index of the perishable nature of the material world and the superiority of the spiritual. The view of rhetoric was similarly double-edged. Polished language was an index of civility. Its absence signaled barbarity. At the same time, rhetoric was viewed an agent of trickery, a manipulation of language that had the potential to manipulate and obscure the truth. A second theme is that of the fear of idolatry. From early to late this fear, rooted initially in the early Byzantine confrontation with pagan tradition and later in anxieties more fully Christian, consistently informed the Byzantine approach to image making in general and nature representation in particular. Thus, Maguire argues, anxiety about images is at the root of the abandonment of the rich, early Byzantine tradition of nature imagery (Chapter 1), the schematization of nature representation in the medieval period (Chapter 4), and the rise of architectural representation as a system of symbolic representation (Chapter 5). It is also he suggests the source of an imbalance between verbal and visual tradition (Chapter 3). Throughout the long history of Byzantium a rich, continuous tradition of sacred literature made ample use of nature imagery even as phases of austerity and abundance conditioned by approaches to the question of idolatry alternated in visual contexts.

In pursuing the topic of nature representation in the Christian art and literature of the Byzantine tradition, Maguire engages a larger topic, the study of change in Byzantine art. Pace, Vasari! As Nectar and Illusion demonstrates the Byzantine approach to nature in the sixth century was not that of the fourteenth. Representation itself changed in terms of both subject matter and style, and with these changes came a transformation in the function of nature imagery. Nor was the difference simply a product of a teleological chronological trajectory. As Maguire observes there were waves of acceptance and rejection, waves conditioned by context and genre. Thus after Iconoclasm nature representation in monumental public contexts appears greatly diminished from the early Byzantine period at the same time that it continued uninterrupted in small-scale private contexts such as manuscripts. What Maguire observes is a flexible sense of the role of nature in representational tradition, one that changed according to place and circumstance and that was as such distinctly Byzantine.

One of Henry Maguire's great strengths as a scholar has been his consistent and enduring ability to see Byzantine art. He is a careful, meticulous, and thoughtful observer, leaving no visual stone unturned in his examination of objects and images. As a result his work has been able to look at the overlooked, the motifs and ideas long ignored or dismissed, to discover the means to approach and understand Byzantine tradition on its own terms. Maguire's ongoing interest in nature imagery is an example of just such inquiry. So too is his interest in exploring the relationship between verbal and visual tradition. In Nectar and Illusion these two subjects come together in ways that do not disappoint.

In particular the focus on nature representation invites the consideration of Byzantine sacred imagery in a new light. The icon and related anthropomorphic images have constituted the overwhelming interest of Byzantine art historical scholarship over the course of the last century with studies of images, image theory, and visuality taking pride of place. In contemplating representations of nature, Maguire has stepped back from this discussion to examine what are in effect the framing, adjectival images of Byzantine art. In so doing he requires not only an acknowledgement of their presence, but also a consideration of their purpose. This consideration has enriched the understanding not only of the images themselves, but also of the familiar issues associated with them. Thus, the fears of idolatry associated with nature imagery may be seen as one aspect of the larger discussion of the role of images in Byzantine society, a discussion that is usually restricted to human figures. The focus on nature imagery also allows new observations and connections. Perhaps the most interesting discussions in this regard are those surrounding the development and use of abstraction in Chapter 4 and the investigation of architectural features in Chapter 5.

Perhaps most impressively Nectar and Illusion allows for shades of grey. Maguire understands and accepts the reality that Byzantine art cannot be tied up in a neat little package. As he repeatedly points out, the move away from nature representation was neither straightforward nor consistent. Further there were very different trajectories in the literary and visual traditions, with the former maintaining a consistently rich repertoire of nature-based metaphor while the latter alternately embraced and rejected nature conventions. In a lesser scholar these disparities might have been ignored. For Maguire they have become part of the large, complex picture that is Byzantine art.

These shades of grey point not only to the complexity of Byzantine art, but also to the shape of future inquiry. No book can answer every question, and one of the pleasures of this one is its ability to suggest possible paths of inquiry. For example, the discussion of abstraction in Chapter 4 raises the larger issue of style and its role in shaping the understanding of Byzantine images. Maguire observes a move to the simplified representation of nature forms in the medieval period, a shift that stands in opposition to the more specific habits of representation applied to the depiction of sacred human figures. His suggestion that the avoidance of definition be associated with the representation of the mundane and specificity with the spiritual offers a bold reversal of the normative paradigm for understanding Byzantine art, a reversal that cries out for continued investigation. In a like vein, the comparison of imagery and rhetoric that is central to this project invites further investigation. Although Maguire makes it clear that a similar sense of ambivalence characterized the Byzantine approach to and understanding of both nature and rhetoric, it is not necessarily clear why this similarity matters. This would be a question worth pursuing.

A final point to make regards the selection of images. Although Maguire includes some of Byzantium's most well-known monuments in his discussion, he also introduces less familiar objects and places, thus opening out the repertoire of Byzantine art to show its range and richness with respect to time and place. Happily this repertoire is well-served by an abundance of black and white illustrations and no less than twenty color prints, a visual largesse almost unknown in these troubled times.

It is difficult to do justice to Nectar and Illusion in the short space of a review. For one thing, it is nearly impossible to suggest the multiple and satisfying ways in which the complex ideas that are so lucidly presented play off of and build upon one another over the course of the text. The skill with which Maguire accomplishes this task gives evidence of his command of what the 11th-century princess, Anna Comnena, referred to as the "nectar of rhetoric." But unlike the Byzantines, readers of this book, who should be anyone interested in Byzantine art, from layman to specialist, should have no qualms about the text. Maguire offers the nectar of fresh ideas without the falsehood of illusion.