19.06.24 Franses, Donor Portraits in Byzantine Art

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Annemarie Weyl Carr

The Medieval Review 19.06.24

Franses, Rico. Donor Portraits in Byzantine Art: The Vicissitudes of Contact between Human and Divine. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press , 2018. pp. 247. ISBN: 978-1-108-41859-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Annemarie Carr
Southern Methodist University

Byzantine artifacts devoted to sacred use may display their instigator's identity in a portrait or poetic epigram. Ivan Drpic has given particular cogency to the epigram; [1] Rico Franses addresses the portrait. Though each cites the other, their books do not constitute a sequence; they are parallel undertakings, with bracingly different approaches, the lushness of the verbal confronting the stark bareness of the seen.

The dustjacket of Franses' book shows in black-and-white the familiar portrait of Theodore Metochites from St. Savior in Chora, but with the little model of the church in golden color. The image sums up his basic premise: at issue here is not just the portrait, but what's between the portrait and the accompanying figure. As the Introduction emphasizes, donor portraits are not just portraits. They theorize a relationship between two very different orders of being, one which cannot possibly reproduce an actual event, and which is governed by social and religious structures that impose upon it a complexity far beyond what has been acknowledged to date. Addressing this shifts the whole project of interpreting the donor portrait away from the identification of the individual to very different issues: not who or why, but what is meant--or more cogently, what is done--by the images. What is being accomplished by the urgent but impossible fiction that they depict? Franses' tools for this inquiry are furnished by social theory, especially that of Pierre Bourdieu, with its proposition of diametric contradictions as an integral element of the systems of culture. [2] The result is a densely woven book that barely so much as grazes the voluminous existing literature on identities, patronage programs, and formats of donor portrayals. Challenging and engrossing, it is truly a book, not a compendium of articles, each chapter meshed into the whole.

The first chapter challenges the very definition of the donor portrait. Human figure and holy recipient are required. But many such images display less acts of exchange than assertions of ownership--as the Greek term ktitorportrait says, while others include no gift, though exhibiting the posture of reverence usual for donation. It is, precisely, the posture that engages Franses, for it establishes the figures' quality of relatedness. What distinguishes Byzantine from other such portraits for Franses is the figures' urgent relationship to their holy counterparts, assuming postures of deep, even abject, deference. Whether or not they bear a donation is secondary for him to their attitude of urgent respect, and he proposes the term "contact portrait" as a more effective descriptive term.

Chapter Two addresses the meaning of this urgent deference, approaching it through the imperial portrait over the central door to the naos of Hagia Sophia. This image's complex interpretive historiography, in which the identification of the emperor only obscured the great mosaic's message, grounds Franses' argument for removing the whole question of the individual identity of the portrait from the center of the image's interpretation. "In that portraiture is the strongest bastion of intention," he concludes, "it is the ideal ground on which to demonstrate that meaning lies elsewhere, in structures of belief, habit, and practice, those larger backdrops that exceed the individual, and against which individual agency takes place" (86). That this argument is made through what is far more clearly a contact than a donor portrait plays on a tension between the categories that runs throughout the book.

The third and central chapter treats the backdrop against which Franses believes the Byzantine portraits assume meaning. This is anxiety over the afterlife, a pervasive theme of the portraits' invocations. Franses focuses on Byzantine ideas of divine judgment crystallized in the confrontation with the Latin Church over Purgatory. This compelled Byzantine theologians for the first time to argue out fully the critical fixed points in their Church's beliefs about divine judgment and last things. The debate, he argues, reveals a deep, internal duality within Byzantine belief that left believers especially painfully suspended between their need for God's mercy and the absolute autonomy of His will, necessarily impervious to influence by human reparation. In treating this deep fissure, he invokes not the fuzziness of Greek theology, but what Pierre Bourdieu calls "social misrecognition": the capacity of social systems to embrace diametrically contradictory beliefs, not because the contradictions abrade them but because each is of profound importance. Profound precisely because contradictory, "the Byzantine structure makes available to its adherents a deep, complex, multilayered form of spiritual life otherwise unavailable within the strictures of a system consistent within itself" (151). It yields a Hell with none of Purgatory's latitude. Whatever their identity, the portraits play out against this backdrop, and help to sustain it.

If the portraits' meaning emerges in the figures' complex relationship, the next question--what they do--is addressed in two chapters. Central first is the gift, with its problem of reciprocity, for the expectation that a gift can either influence a recipient or elicit a return is incompatible not only with religious tenets in general, but with the Byzantine insistence on divine autonomy in particular. A solution opens once again through Bourdieu, who had used social misrecognition to postulate a duality between "undisguised economic exchange" in which values and expectations are overt, and "disguised economic exchange" or gift giving, in which they are concealed, allowing the interchange to appear disinterested. Onto the latter category, Franses grafts the power relationship, which is inherently unequal. Under conditions of inequality, honor and respect can function to weight a gift, helping to disguise the donor's intent to influence and desire for recompense. Under relations of extreme inequality with kings and gods, however, the need for disguise falls away. When power is the sole source of goods, the desire to receive them through a gift need not be concealed; respect, in turn, becomes not a commodity complementing the gift's value, but a proof of the very neediness that motivates the gift. What is given by the donor as an expression of desire and effort to influence reaches the recipient as an acknowledgment of power. The absoluteness of divine will, scrupulously safeguarded by Byzantine theology, generates the conditions for the power gift. The donor image shows it. "[I]ts very form and structure, the differing scales, the body language, the accompanying inscriptions, are the means by which the desire of the donor to influence events is rendered acceptable to divinity" (192).

But if the portrait can be explicated this way in economic terms, its task is not complete, for it displays--and must go on to function across--two radically different orders of being. This is taken up in the fifth chapter. The images, as noted, cannot possibly be understood as showing real events; they must be understood symbolically. Here Franses contrasts what he called the "realist-believer" view of the image's fiction, as having "real presence," with an understanding of the image in metaphorical terms, as both true and untrue. In metaphoric mode, it joins other sites balancing sameness with difference--painted images, bread and wine, liturgies--that were set apart in Byzantine culture as potentially charismatic. The donor portrait embraces nested metaphors. It says that building a church or commissioning a manuscript is like making a gift to God--and chapter four showed ways in which such a gift might be seen. But it goes on to say that giving to God is like making a gift to a real, tangible, physical being. This, too, appears in the images. But they are manifestly not depictions of possible events. Their two orders have yet to be credibly bonded. This can happen, Franses says, "only in the very specific sense that it requires a religious transformation to render it real." The donor portrait emerges as among the privileged sites where religious belief is generated. Unique in being a site in which "someone can seethemselves, can find themselves mirrored...at the very place where the transformation is taking place" (222), it does not show what is believed, but rather the magnitude and gravity of the task required to render the image real. What the portrait "does" is up to its viewer to accomplish.

A closing postscript returns to the terminological question of donor versus contact portraits. Used too uncritically in the past, the term "donor portrait" can remain meaningful if used for images that make clear the relatedness required for a meaningful gift. But the religious charge of the images is generated not by the gift but by who it is who comes into relationship. Their confrontation is profoundest when there is no gift. Thus the essence of the genre lies in the "contact portrait."

The level of steady, engaged thought maintained throughout the book is impressive. Lucid and persuasive in tone, it is also agile and undogmatic, as illustrated in the postscript where it questions but does not reject the term donor portrait. Nonetheless, it demands a radically altered approach to the portraits. This is perceived first, but only first, in the emphasis on relationality rather than individuality. With this, most of what had seemed exciting to us hitherto in the portraits is swept aside. What had been appreciated in personal terms as identifiable individuals become instead components in a relational paradigm studied in terms of social structures. Only very late in the game is the viewer invited into the magic space of the image, to identify with the event portrayed. Until then, the text stands back, assessing the depicted figures as "them," not "us," and probing conventions shaping their behaviors. Given the currency of response theory with its emphasis on the I/eye--my perceptions, my desires, my issues, my politics--this analytic distancing can seem cold. Its rewards, however, are emphatic. First, it is clear that the psychology Franses seeks to illumine is theirs, not ours. If so, however, he is also seriously interested in showing how issues of Byzantine life can be illuminated by applying to them the theoretical strategies of contemporary social anthropology. In this effort, his distinction between the "them" of the portraits and "our" social theory is critical to the revelatory force of their use together. Of the three social structures selected for close examination--the pressure of the afterlife, the gift, and the bridging of different orders of being--the most gripping is the first. Here, Franses plunges with fascinating effect into material that has drawn voluminous recent interest, [3] approaching it with a distinctive and compelling focus. Most art historians who have engaged the tenets formulated in response to Purgatory have measured their implications by aligning them with images of the Last Judgment; Franses measures them by their impact on believers engaged in the work of their spiritual lives. [4] His urgent portraits evoke the personal threat of Byzantium's shadowy but menacing afterlife more hauntingly than any Last Judgment. His analysis of the tensions exposed by the debate assumes particular force through the way in which he uses Bourdieu's theory to deepen and amplify our understanding of Byzantine theology. Here modern social theory and Byzantine theological speculation, aligned in full recognition of their differences, function in mutually enriching ways. It is an especially fruitful symbiosis.

The symbiosis of modern and Byzantine is not quite so evident in the ensuing analysis of the gift in chapter four, agile as its alignment of Bourdieu's disguised economic exchange is with Franses' elaboration of the power gift. The gift had been an unquiet component of the Christian economy of salvation from its beginning, and one feels there must have been Byzantine ways of rationalizing God's entangling gift-giving for Bourdieu's ideas to meet and grapple with. But perhaps this is jumping the gun, for it is only in the next chapter that Franses actually questions the kind of belief mobilized in the gift, asking "What kind of belief is this which is fully aware that buildings and books are real, practical things, and yet considers that they can literally be given to holy figures?" (208). It is here that the issues and sites of actual interrelation between human and holy beings become acute; it is here, too, that the full significance of Franses' first, consequential option for viewing the portrait in terms of relationality rather than individuality emerges. For if the portraits really are about the relationship of two incommensurables, how is that relationship actually achieved? The answer--that it occurs only through a religious transformation--has significant implications for the image: it must take its place as a site of charismatic possibility, and act as a holy image. It must be an icon. Thus it is here that the viewer is invited to enter the picture, and participate in it by consummating the depicted event.

Have we ever really seen donor portraits as icons? Hasn't our attention to the identity of the portrayed individual framed them simply as documents of patronage? Giftless devotees can be understood to have inserted themselves into the space of a holy icon. But are the donors truly "contact portraits," too? Franses' book lays out many tasks for us: how, for instance, does the urgency of his figures relate to the pothos that Ivan Drpic singled out so compellingly in the epigrams; how does their relationality relate to Stratis Papaioannou's self-representational view of portrayed donors, as both subjecting themselves to, and making themselves a fit subject by being seen in relation to a greater figure? [5] But the most pressing is to come to grips with how the portraits actually look to us now. This means returning to look at them, hard. Franses' attention has been largely engaged in articulating the book's theoretical arguments. Grasping how profoundly these arguments have remade the portraits, and the way we talk about them, is our job to pursue.



1. Ivan Drpic, Epigram, Art, and Devotion in Later Byzantium(Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

2. Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology 16 (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

3. The Damned in Hell in Cretan Frescoes,ed. Angeliki Lymberopoulou (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming); Annemarie Weyl Carr, "Narrating Time after Death in Byzantine Art," in Aspects of the Byzantine Time. Proceedings of an International Conference, Athens, May 29-30, 2017, ed. Helen Saradi and Katerina Dellaporta (Athens: Museum of Christian and Byzantine Art and University of the Peloponnesos, 2018), 127-50; The Departure of the Soul According to the Teaching of the Orthodox Church: A Patristic Anthology (Florence, Arizona: St. Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery, 2017); Vasileios Marinis, "The Vision of Last Judgment in the Vita of Saint Niphon (BHG 1371z)," Dumbarton Oaks Papers71 (2017): 193-227; Idem. Death and the Afterlife in Byzantium. The Fate of the Soul in Theology, Literature, and Art (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Roland Betancourt, "Prolepsis and Anticipation: The Apocalyptic Futurity of the Now, East and West," in A Companion to the PremodernApocalypse, ed. Michael A. Ryan, Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition 64 (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 177-205; Demetrios Bathrellos, "Love, Purification, and Forgiveness versus Justice, Punishment, and Satisfaction: The Debates on Purgatory and the Forgiveness of Sins at the Council of Ferrara--Florence," The Journal of Theological Studies 65 (2014): 78-121; Nancy Patterson Sevcenko, "Images of the Second Coming and the Fate of the Soul in Middle Byzantine Art," in Apocalyptic Thought in Early Christianity, ed. Robert J. Daly, S.J. (Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, 2009), 250-72.

4. Most comparable is Ravinder S. Binning, "Christ's All-Seeing Eye in the Dome," in Aural Architecture in Byzantium: Music, Acoustics and Ritual,ed. Bissera V. Pentcheva (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), 101-26; see also his newly completed "The Medieval Art of Fear" (Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, 2018).

5. Stratis Papaioannou, "Byzantium and the Modernist Subject: The Case of Autobiographical Literature," in Byzantium/Modernism. The Byzantine as Method in Modernity, ed. Roland Betancourt, Maria Taroutina (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 195-211, at fig. 7.1.

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