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22.08.30 Betancourt, Performing the Gospels in Byzantium

22.08.30 Betancourt, Performing the Gospels in Byzantium

In this challenging book, Roland Betancourt focuses on nine illuminated Byzantine lectionaries, all dating from the eleventh century and likely produced in Constantinople. Betancourt “imagines” that all these lectionaries were used in Hagia Sophia and considers “how miniatures, illustrated initials, and marginalia in the Gospel book operate[d] alongside the text and the text’s recitation in the Divine Liturgy at the moment of the daily Gospel reading” (3).

The book is divided into two parts, each comprising three chapters. In Part I (“The Lectionary: Image and Text”) Betancourt introduces the lectionary as a liturgical book publicly performed and investigates how its images conveyed pertinent information to the reader, namely, the deacon. He is particularly concerned with how these images “retained a certain subversive potential” (120). In Part II (“The Liturgy: Sound and Architecture”), Betancourt turns his attention to Hagia Sophia itself and discusses the “embodied aspects of reading the Gospel lections” (173). He focuses on two decorative elements in the building: a relief bronze plaque set on the lintel of the Imperial Doorway that “intricately diagrams the lectionary’s liturgical performance over the course of the rite according to tenth-century practices” (27, see also 196); and the opus sectile plaque of a bejeweled cross over the same doorway on the western wall of the naos that “generatively responds to the sonic associations, narrative imagery, and liturgical movements that the lectionary motivated during the daily Gospel reading at Hagia Sophia” (235).

Betancourt is a brilliant art historian, well versed in theoretical models and with an uncanny ability to make compelling connections among images, texts, and rituals. His skills are particularly evident in the last chapter (“Polyvalent Images: Iconography Shaped by Image, Space, and Sound”). There he adroitly investigates the many iconographic associations of the opus sectile plaque and argues that, though this image can be understood as “a synecdochal depiction of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Holy Sepulcher, and so on,” it also unifies “these elements of the Divine Liturgy, a coming together of the past, present, and future” (257).

The book, however, has several weaknesses, the most important of which is the lack of concrete evidence for some of Betancourt’s arguments. A symptom of this problem is the way in which the word “imagination” and its cognates crop up consistently in the text. For example, Chapter 1 (“Beginnings and Initials: Text, Image, and Sound”) begins with patriarch Photios’s Homily 17, delivered in Hagia Sophia on March 29, 867. “If someone endeavored to be silent through all his life,” Photios says, “now he would strive above all else to be loquacious and exercise his tongue in the arts of rhetoric.” [1] Betancourt claims the following about the first word of the homily, σιγᾶν (“to be silent”): “One must imagine how Photios might have allowed the ‘Silence’ of Σιγᾶν to resonate under the structure’s reverberating domes before moving on to the next word” (32). But why must we imagine that? The marked position of σιγᾶν at the opening of the homily was a typical rhetorical arrangement designed to foreground the contrast Photios is about to draw. What is more, the syntax of the clause would have required him to move quite rapidly to the remaining words in order for the infinitive to assume its place in the syntax. Therefore, we can be sure that Photios read the whole first sentence without any pauses.

Much of what Betancourt discusses in Part I will be familiar to scholars. Artists who decorated manuscripts engaged with the texts in various ways: often they followed the text literally, but sometimes they related to it creatively, and in some cases, they made mistakes. However, such straightforward observations are packaged in language that ranges from pretentious to incomprehensible, such as “Initials also struggle with this theophanic imagery” and “In the Hamilton Lectionary, the Θ-initial glimmers with apophatic abstraction” (both in 135). Then we have the fanciful neologisms such as “engodded” (181, a “literal rendition” of ἔνθεος), that are necessary, it seems, in every cutting-edge study of Byzantine art nowadays.

Also problematic are the ways that Betancourt imagines the public readers of these lections interacted with the illuminations. For example, on p. 146, he emphasizes the allegedly intentional ambiguity surrounding John in manuscripts such as the Dionysiou Lectionary. Folio 3v shows John the Evangelist pointing to an initial Θ depicted as the Ancient of Days with Christ Emmanuel on his lap, though the lection (John 1:18-28, read on Bright Monday) refers to John the Baptist. Betancourt claims that, “The hermeneutic ambiguity that the Dionysiou Lectionary cultivates [...] determines how the linear progression of a reader-listener through the text unfolds slowly as they learn and relearn the narrative over time, testing their assumptions and revising earlier givens.” But this presupposes that the reader--I eschew the listeners who had no access to these images--was unfamiliar with the lection and the content of the Fourth Gospel. Is it possible that a professional reader in Hagia Sophia, of the kind that Betancourt elicits, was ignorant of John 1? Furthermore, why is it so extraordinary to have John the Evangelist associated with John 1:18? This is the last verse of the prologue, the Johannine Christological statement par excellence; the part about John the Baptist begins only in John 1:19. [2]

Another difficulty is the lack of evidence offered for the performance of the Gospel lections. For example, in Chapter 5 (“The Sound of Lectionary: Chant, Architecture, and Salvation”), Betancourt makes a valiant effort to reconstruct the sound of the various “notations,” such as the ones found in the Jaharis Lectionary. However, as these notations differ from the systematic form we use today, attempts to reconstruct the sound are guesswork, and should not be used as the basis of interpretation. Signs that simply indicate the lowering or elevating of a pitch do not tell us much about the music as it was performed: was the pitch lowered by a second, a third? By a leap or in descending steps? How high was the voice in the first place? Even music notated in the modern manner, such as the parts sung in recitative in Bach’s Saint John’s Passion, can (and will) be interpreted in various ways. Perhaps cognizant of such limitations, Betancourt also employs earlier in the book Michael Psellos’s enkomion for a certain Ioannis Kroustoulas as “one of the more insightful sources on religious recitation” (173). Although Betancourt acknowledges that “we cannot simply transfer the actions of Kroustoulas to the practices of the Gospel lectionary” (173), he treats this text essentially as a source of factual information. In doing so, he disregards the particularities of the genre, the peculiarities of this enkomion, and that it is written by Psellos, who was often eager to exalt himself and his friends as arbitrators of good taste. The context of Kourtoulas’s performance was the competitive reading of saints’ lives, not the recitation of a Gospel lection. Psellos’s excessive praise of Kroustoulas makes it abundantly clear that he was the exception: “Not one could be found who is superior to Ioannes.” [3] He even mentions a competitor, none less than a bishop, who “had an inarticulate voice and was similar to an all-devouring crow.” [4]

In conclusion, non-specialists will benefit from the book’s clear descriptions of eleventh-century lectionaries and their images, and of how both interact with the performance of the Divine Liturgy. Byzantinists will appreciate instances of nuanced exposition of images, texts, and spaces. Every reader, however, must approach Betancourt’s methodology with caution. Though imagination is an asset to the work of every scholar, it should not upstage nor replace interpretations more clearly based on sound evidence.



1. Σιγᾶν εἴ τις διὰ παντὸς μελετήσειε τοῦ βίου, νῦν λάλος τις εἶναι καὶ πρὸς ῥητόρων τέχνας παρεσκευάσθαι τὴν γλῶσσαν εἴπερ ἄλλο τι διὰ σπουδῆς ἂν ὅτι μάλιστα ποιήσαιτο. Vasileios Laourdas, ed., Φωτίου ὁμιλίαι (Thessalonike: Hetaireia Makedonikon Spoudon, 1959), 164.

2. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”

3. Stratis Papaioannou, “Encomium for the Monk Ioannes Kroustoulas Who Read Aloud at the Holy Soros,” in Michael Psellos on Literature and Art: A Byzantine Perspective on Aesthetics, ed. Charles Barber and Stratis Papaioannou (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2017), 241. See also, Stratis Papaioannou, “Readers and their Pleasures,” in The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 540, 541: “[W]hat Psellos seems to be describing is not what we might expect from a description of a recital in a church. Psellos contends that Kroustoulas’s reading provided, not simply moral edification, but, even more so, entertainment...Kroustoulas, Psellos’s idealized reader, is not just a reader, but an actor, a performer.”

4. Papaioannou, “Encomium,” 242.