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7-08-2015, 20:08

Art and visual media

The electronic medium is all the more important for introducing students to sources because Byzantium was such a self-consciously ‘visual’ culture. For the ruling elite, display and portrayal were invaluable in projecting imperial ideology. And in the religious sphere, accurate representation of Christ, the saints and sacred scenes conveyed doctrine, provided instruction and edification, but also transmitted the divine in most truthful form.16 Certain icons were, from the middle Byzantine period onwards, venerated for themselves working miracles, and ordinary icons were often supposed to possess special powers. Partly for this reason, the veneration of icons became the subject of controversy (see below, p. 282). The polemics generated reveal the many shades of Byzantine thinking on the question. Besides the works already noted, excerpts from texts concerning the iconoclast controversy are provided by CyrilMango’s The art of the Byzantine empire. This magisterial collection covers most aspects of the visual arts, including buildings and building-works, and the pithy commentary offers a guide to the Byzantines’ writings about imagery.17 The writings, like the images themselves, usually tell us more about the Byzantines’ beliefs and ideals, their notions of what religious doctrine should be, or the awe that buildings or mosaics ought to inspire, than they disclose of ordinary people’s reaction to them or of how things actually were. The writings were mostly penned by the more learned members of society. Likewise the political imagery and the court ceremonial represent the order of things as projected by the ruling elite, its agents and aficionados, rather than political realities, everyday affairs or the living conditions of the unprivileged. This is the case even if details of, for example, ordinary people’s clothing can be gleaned from study of the paintings in churches.18 With visual imagery, then, as with a great deal of surviving Byzantine literature, one often encounters an ideal scheme of things, what leading lights in the Byzantine church and empire wanted to be seen, rather than a wide range of witnesses as to what actually happened.19 But these representations are at least approachable by newcomers, whether through looking at religious and political imagery or through reading in translation the prescriptive works, idealised portrayals of saintly lives, and orations and histories emanating from the imperial-ecclesiastical circles. Various possible readings and interpretations are possible, with nuances and allusions being more apparent to the learned, or to those steeped in eastern orthodox religious traditions and practices. But first impressions of these portrayals are not necessarily far removed from those which their creators sought to evoke, while the message of the directly prescriptive texts is often plain enough.