15.02.12, Chatterjee, The Living Icon in Byzantium and Italy

Main Article Content

Denis Sullivan

The Medieval Review 15.02.12

Chatterjee, Paroma. The Living Icon in Byzantium and Italy: The Vita Image, Eleventh to Thirteenth Centuries. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. 283. ISBN: 9781107034969 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Denis Sullivan
University of Maryland

Paroma Chatterjee offers a new and provocative interpretation of the "vita icon" (an image of a saint surrounded by various scenes from that saint's life) that emerged in Byzantium in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries and spread to the Latin West. She argues that the form "best expresses the metaphor of the 'living icon' in all its glorious nuance" (5) and provided a vehicle for addressing such fundamental and continually troubling issues as the "relationship between representation and its subject" and "the very nature of holy presence" (1-2). She sees in the stigmatic Saint Francis, the self-styled "living icon," a particularly unprecedented challenge to pictorial representation for which the vita icon provided a solution--not just a didactic tool or pictorial accompaniment to a liturgical celebration, but a "complex commentary on the possibilities and limits of visual mediation in the very definition of a saint" (2).

The author initially examines various earlier explanations of how the Byzantines understood a living icon (Chatterjee's use of the term expands on its previous applications) and why it was adopted by the Franciscans (7-8): (1) as a reference to contemporary emotionally charged lifelike images of Christ's passion evoking emotional responses (Belting), (2) icons 'perceived' to undergo a transformation in form, hue or medium, that is as being "in-spirited," empsychos, (Pentcheva), and (3) "living statues" whose material presence was capable of enabling the viewer "to apprehend the divine presence" (Papaioannou). [1] The author suggests a fourth approach, namely to "reverse the notion of the icon as a living or animated entity, designating instead a category of human beings endowed with the capacity to become an icon with all its powers and deficiencies" (8). This view captures the saint's ability to assume a variety of "ontological states" (e.g., dream, vision, relic), a leitmotif of the volume, as well as the different degrees of "presence" each of those states was seen to represent.

Chapter 1 ("The Saint in the Text") examines verbal evidence from hagiography for the appearance of saints in a range of such ontological forms, noting that this material has been little used in exploring the icon-prototype relationship. The author argues that textual vitae provided a forum in which to "engage with the principles of representation in provocative ways" (32), noting that while the theological view of icons after iconoclasm assumed no sharing in the prototype's substance, descriptions of icons in hagiography problematized this assumption. A number of texts provide a rich basis for this contention. The lives considered include Symeon the New Theologian, Theodora of Thessalonike, Mary of Vizye, Irene of Chrysobalanton, and Kliment. Among them also the Life of Saint Nikon Metanoeite furnishes a good example of the author's methodology. As the saint left his friend, a man named Malakenos, he promised him that he would see him [Nikon] again before he [Malakenos] died, but the saint died first. Malakenos then commissioned the painting of an icon, not as a memorial, but to make the saint's prophecy come true. Using a number of other related passages in the vita Chatterjee explores whether Malakenos wanted to see Nikon himself or his representation. An icon painter was given a detailed description of Nikon by Malakenos, but could not complete the commission. Then Nikon miraculously appeared to the artist, and although the man failed to recognize Nikon from Malakenos' description, when he turned to his panel, he now recognized the saint's form "automatically (αὐτομάτως) modeled on the panel" (51). Chatterjee provides a highly nuanced and persuasive interpretation of this event, one aspect of which is to describe Malakenos, who saw only the finished panel, not Nikon's visionary appearance, as convinced that Nikon's prophecy had come true. Chatterjee suggests that the narrative posits an initial vital bond between prototype and icon that is severed upon completion of the image. The story indicates the icon's shifting ontological states, but in the end deflects holy presence from the image (61-62).

Chapter 2 ("The Saint in the Image") begins with examples of concerns in twelfth-century Byzantium that charlatans fraudulently imitated a saint in order to appear saintly and hence raised questions about the relationship between the prototype (an actual saint) and a real-life representation (a fraudulent 'disciple' imitating the saint). Chatterjee then examines the issue of presence in narrative hagiographical iconography in this skeptical context, initially in the Metaphrastean and Imperial Menologia and the Eustratios Templon beam at Sinai. [2] She sees the latter as an early example of depiction of a saint in various "altered states" (81). Eustratios appears on the beam as an imposing figure in what are his posthumous miracles, but whether as the saint himself, as a vision of the saint, or as his icon is unclear. The saint's relics also appear in direct contact both with his human image and in the explanatory inscriptions, further complicating the issue of presence. Much of the chapter focuses on close readings of three vita icons, those of Saints Nicholas, George and John the Baptist, with corresponding color plates, using as a starting point N. Ševčenko's concept of "aesthetic of interruption", including such features as juxtaposition, interaction and "devotional images with small boxed narratives." The reading of the icon of George provides a good example of the approach. Chatterjee notes the central icon's full-length figure, elaborate armaments, various items of luxurious clothing and the emphasis on ornamentation. She suggests that this allows the "systematic dismantling of the layers" (103) of this prototypical image through the very different depictions in the small scenes which surround it. These include (among many examined in detail) a simply dressed George giving away his possessions and scenes of torture in which George is almost naked as well as bruised and bleeding. Applying the concept of "dismantling layers," the author argues that "the Sinai panel proves that the prototypical icon is capable of being unpacked and defaced" (112). In her conclusions to the chapter Chatterjee briefly considers the vexed question of the origin and purpose of the vita icons, and, while not rejecting the possibility of the multi-ethnic, multilingual Sinai as the site where vita icons originated and with the purpose of conveying basic biographical information, she suggests that the self-reflexive nature of the vita icons, which at times problematizes the saint's physical identity, may also have served as a tool for monastic reflection. She notes the perennial concern in monastic treatises to be able to discern the nature of images in dreams, visions and fantasies, particularly those coming from evil spirits, and to replace them with true images. She suggests that the vita icon, by offering "a series of potential forms that a saint could assume" (124), offers the right kind of images for the monastic intellect and imagination. Regarding the relatively short life of the vita icon in Byzantium she suggests that the form's manipulation, even destruction, of the formal characteristics sustaining the relationship between icon and prototype may be the cause.

In chapter 3 ("Wrought by the Finger of God") the author turns to the textual hagiography of St. Francis of Assisi and what she sees as the approach employed in these texts for simultaneously describing and preserving the secret of his stigma and stigmatization. She offers close readings on the various works of Thomas of Celano, focusing on rhetorical descriptions of the wounds and their origin, particularly the metaphors used for them. She concludes that despite the generally accepted Franciscan emphasis on vividness, immediacy and narrative force there remain ambiguities and obfuscations regarding vital aspects of Francis's experience. She argues that the authors "betray their distance from the event and the wounds" in ways that "transform Francis's body into a cipher," "a site of deep uncertainty" (161), which she sees paralleled by the images of the duecento examined in the following chapter. In Thomas of Celano's Vita prima (1228-1229) she finds in the graphic description of the stigmatization vacillation between the stigmata as "marks" (signa) and as "nails" (clavi); she also notes Thomas's statement that Francis "hid those marks carefully from strangers and concealed them cautiously from people close to him" (135-136) which, in Chatterjee's reading, calls into question Thomas's own and others' direct knowledge of the stigmata; in Thomas's Legend for Use in the Choir the stigmata are described as "not the products of Francis's own flesh but...impressed upon him by the seraph" (134). Thomas's Vita secunda makes no mention of the appearance of the stigmata. Julian of Speyer's account of Francis's funeral describes Francis's hands as "adorned with the most precious gems" and later refers to the "the prints of nails" (fixurae clavorum) in which Chatterjee finds indication of "the problems inherent in attributing a stable status to the stigmata by those who took it upon themselves to write about it" (145).

In chapter 4 ("Depicting Francis's Secret") Chatterjee argues further against the prevailing view of early Franciscan imagery as transparent and vivid, suggesting that the scenes on the vita panels of Francis "are selected and arranged so as to enable access to Francis's stigmatized body at certain times and obscuring it at others" (166), an approach "informed by Francis's own shifting relationship to the experience of physical and mystical revelation" (167). She further argues that the Franciscans adopted the vita icon from the Byzantines not simply as an effective method of visual hagiography, conveying the essentials of Francis's life and linking him to a prestigious tradition, but because the form provided a way to deal with the difficulties of describing his physical being. There follow close readings of four Francis's vita icons, those of Bonaventura Berlinghieri (1235) and of the Bardi Master (1240-1260?), the icon in the Museo Civico in Pistoia (1250s), and the dossal in the Treasury of S. Francesco in Assisi, all illustrated with color plates. A few examples from a very rich and detailed analysis are illustrative. On the Berlinghieri panel she finds the depiction of the wounds on the hands and feet on the central image "disappointingly staid," "tame perforations" (169) at variance with the written accounts. In an accompanying scene of the encounter with the seraph she notes that nothing here leads the viewer to relate the wounds to the encounter. On the Bardi panel she sees as central the Franciscan habit as "signifier of Francis's body and as the signified (i.e., as clothing itself)" and thus resembling the stigmata "in their oscillation between sign and referent" (186). She notes that a scene of the encounter with the seraph here had gold rays connecting the seraph to the saint, but not to the sites of the wounds. The author concludes that these panels show a "mode of discontinuous revelation," that "the viewer apprehends Francis's body, his stigmata, as secrets" (206).

The volume concludes with an epilogue titled "Francis in Constantinople." Chatterjee examines the fresco fragments found at Kalenderhane Camii, apparently painted in the period of Latin Occupation (1204-1261) that consist of the figure of saint Francis in the center and scenes from his life on either side, and thus resembles the vita icon. She reviews previous scholarship on the question of whether the church was a Dominican or Franciscan establishment and considers parallels to the vita icon format. She suggests that while the parallels would be identifiable to a Byzantine viewer, the fresco may serve "as a space of self-affirmation in definite contrast to its supposed Byzantine prototype" (213), given the imagery developed in Italy which cancelled out many Byzantine features.

This is an intricately argued book that challenges and offers alternative interpretations for various central issues regarding the vita icon. I find much here that is stimulating and plausible, although occasionally the overuse of jargon and lack of clear structure renders some arguments less than lucid. I also wonder if the author does not project her own highly sophisticated ability to read texts and images onto less sophisticated medieval readers/viewers. Nevertheless the work makes a major contribution to the seminal issue of the relationship between prototype and representation and will no doubt foster much fruitful scholarly debate.



1. For additional perspectives on the concept see R. Cormack, "Living Painting", in E. Jeffreys (ed.), Rhetoric in Byzantium (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), 235-253 and G. Peers, "Real Living Painting: Quasi-Objects and Dividuation in the Byzantine World," Religion and the Arts 16:5, 2012, 433-460. An interesting parallel from a different genre is the so-called "Heron" of Byzantium's difficulty in understanding earlier blue print like technical drawings, saying they are comprehensible only through mystical "unknowing" (ἀγνωσία). "Heron" calls these drawings σχήματα and replaces them by means of "precise definition" (ἀκριβῶς διορισάμενοι) with three dimensional σχηματισμοί, a terminological distinction derived from Neoplatonism representing the relationship of participation between the transcendent figure, σχῆμα, and the representation of the physical object, σχηματισμός (see D. Sullivan, Siegecraft: Two Tenth-Century Instructional Manuals [Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2000], 8-14).

2. The publication schedule of the book apparently did not allow consideration of N. P. Ševčenko's "The Posthumous Miracles of St. Eustratios on a Sinai Templon Beam," in D. Sullivan, E. Fisher, S. Papaioannou (eds.), Byzantine Religious Culture: Studies in Honor of Alice-Mary Talbot (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 267-287.

Article Details

Author Biography

Denis Sullivan

University of Maryland