20.04.03 Garipzanov, Graphic Signs of Authority in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

Main Article Content

Benjamin Anderson

The Medieval Review 20.04.03

Garipzanov, Ildar. Graphic Signs of Authority in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, 300-900. Oxford Studies in Medieval European History. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press (OUP), 2018. pp. xxvi, 377. ISBN: 978-0-19-881501-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Ben Anderson
Cornell University

This is a useful and stimulating book. Its primary utility lies in its collection and analysis of various late antique and early medieval visual constructions that fall somewhere between text and image: monograms above all, but also Christograms, hermetic symbols, composite initials, carmina figurata, even "the sign of the cross." Its greatest provocation is to comprehend these various types of construction, for all their evident differences, within a single history of "graphicacy"; and to assert the relevance of the resulting account to long-term political change.

The volume divides neatly into three main parts of around a hundred pages each. The organization is clear and the prose effortless, so that the book can be read comfortably in three sittings. Those who consult only a single sub-section (say, for a refresher on Carolingian monograms) will be well served, but will miss the reward of comparing and juxtaposing a variety of phenomena usually held apart.

The introduction is dedicated to the definition of terms, and to brief accounts of methodologies of potential use (from Gestalt psychology to visual studies). The terms recur in the following investigation, but with little reference to the methodologies. While, for example, the distinction between "sensory and arbitrary codes of graphic composition" (6) is helpful in sorting through the material presented in the following chapters, the work of distinguishing one from the other is left to the reader.

The first part addresses sacred signs in late antiquity: the various Christograms, of which the chi-rho and tau-rho become most common, and the hermetic signs of esoteric literature. Church fathers praised the former and damned the latter, even while "the borders between acceptable and deviant" characters were fuzzy (47). The Christograms gained further prominence as imperial insignia, each with their own trajectory: "the chi-rho assuming a more prominent position than the tau-rho, and the sign of the cross becoming increasingly important at the turn of the fifth century" (75). The "sign of the cross" is (unlike the Christograms and hermetic signs) certainly a picture of something (the connection to its referent is sensory, not arbitrary). However, through its ubiquity it too becomes a graphic sign: as when, "in the early sixth century, the cruciform design influenced the structure of late antique monograms" (96).

Late antique monograms form the topic of part two. The monogram has a long history in Greco-Roman antiquity, but becomes increasingly common from the third through the fifth centuries, appearing in codices, on gems, funerary epitaphs, and fancy plate. In the mid-fifth, the emperor's monogram debuts on coinage, while sundry officials stamp out their own domains: the consuls on ivory diptychs, "various comites" on weights and measures (139), and the "unknown individuals" whose names are encoded in brickstamps (141). From here it is a short step to personal monograms on the rings and seals, dress accessories, and spoon-sets of the well-heeled. Smaller, domestic monograms coexist with monumental, public signs in stone. Garipzanov's discussion of the sixth-century churches of Constantinople leans heavily on the old tale of rivalry between Anicia Juliana and Justinian. His analysis of the spatial distribution of stone-carved monograms in SS. Sergios and Bakchos and Hagia Sophia, by contrast, results in intriguing hypotheses about the building phases and functional organizations of both (167-186).

Part three moves into early medieval Europe. A survey of pre-Carolingian monograms notes a rise in corporate referents, both monasteries and cities, on lamps, vessels, and coins (212-216). But mostly this is a story about manuscripts. Thus, composite initials in Insular codices (LIBer generationis, etc.) are treated as "artistic forms of monogrammatic lettering" (237). Together with the cruciform impresa of Charles, they lead a "monogrammatic revival in the Carolingian world" (242). As in late antiquity there is a trickle-down. Popes and bishops follow royal suit, then scribes writing both about themselves and about other things, such as plants: "The Frankish Dioscorides lacks late antique illustrations, but provides some chapters with peculiar monogrammatic devices visualizing the name of an entry's medical material" (273). The monogram becomes a topic of learned discourse in a treatise De inventione litterarum, which dates perhaps to the 790s (282). Cruciform monograms contribute to "the ubiquitous presence of [the cross's] sign across different media, accompanied by a drastic decrease in the symbolic use of late antique christograms" (292-293). A final sojourn through the carmina figurata leads to "the conclusion that the sign of the cross had become the ultimate organizing principle of Carolingian graphicacy" (311).

The foregoing is less a summary than a sondage, meant to convey the diversity and interest of the topics covered. Readers seeking a precis will be well served by Garipzanov's conclusion (313-319). Upon this follows a strong claim: "The urban settings of political life, the wide-ranging reach of imperial institutions, and cosmopolitan aristocratic networks of symbolic interaction facilitated the public display of graphic signs of authority on various material media across the late antique world. In contrast, royal courts and palaces as well as episcopal headquarters and royal monasteries defined the new socio-political settings established in Western Europe by the Carolingian period.... It was the book that became the symbolic arena for...signs of authority" (319).

The twin trajectories of city to court, building to book work well to describe the Frankish developments. Garipzanov also keeps an eye on Constantinople, primarily as a source of specific forms (e.g., at 282), but does not attempt a comparable summary of the evidence for east Rome. I suspect the picture would be different. Monumental, public monograms appear regularly in the churches and fortifications of Constantinople and western Asia Minor ca. 600-900, for example: capitals bearing monograms of Phokas (r. 602-611, mentioned by Garipzanov at 185); the monogram of the first reign of Justinian II (685-695) on the land walls of Constantinople; the monogram of the abbot Hyakinthos in his Nicaean monastery (186); the monogram of Constantine V (741-775) in Hagia Eirene (180); the monograms of Theophilos (829-842) and Michael III (842-867) on the "beautiful doors" of Hagia Sophia (290); and the monogrammatic inscription on the mosaic portrait of the unfortunate Alexander (912-913) in the same church. Why did the public monogram persist in Byzantium, why not in Francia?

The concepts of public and private engage different scales and differing access, but also distinctions in decipherability. This latter forms a fascinating thread throughout the book. It is an accepted principle of historical research that "even a limited combination of letters cans be interpreted in many ways and connected with both common and rare names" (16). This is a fundamental difference between the Christograms on the one hand, whose meaning was then and is now transparent, and the many personal monograms on the other, whose referents are as obscure now as they were to most viewers then. How to interpret that obscurity? Garipzanov supplies a variety of potential answers in relation to specific cases. For example: monograms might render names legible to God while hiding them from enemies (125); they could elicit contemplation of the visual forms of letters (128); and they "increased social cohesion by establishing visual borders to outsiders" (133).

The range of these answers is as stimulating as the specific arguments for each. It bridges the gap between the antiquarian game of decipherment (there will always be sport in the monogram that "remains an enigma," 262) and the study of political semiotics: how the production of meaning supports or subverts the reproduction of institutions. That is a consequential achievement that deserves both to be praised and to provoke new investigations.

Article Details