Saturday, June 21, 2014

Historiography of Byzantine iconoclasm


With regard to art-historical topics, the rhythm of research is oftentimes not continuous, but more episodic, responding to various external stimuli. So it is with the study of iconoclasm in Byzantium.  
The modern phase of this study was inaugurated by a young Russian scholar, Georg Ostrogorski (1902-1975), who had settled in Germany to pursue graduate work.  In 1929 he published his dissertation on the theological and political aspects of the iconoclastic controversy.  This choice of topic undoubtedly reflected Ostrogorski’s experiences in the early years of the Bolshevik regime, which were marked by widespread destruction of icons and churches. The topic was also prophetic, as it anticipated the Nazi book burnings of 1933 and the raids on “degenerate art” of 1937. Wisely, Ostrogorski moved to Serbia, where he had a distinguished career as a Byzantinist.
At all events the world Depression and the rise of Nazism put a damper on all sorts of research, including inquiries in this realm.  An exception was a somewhat generic, but insightful book, Holy Images, published by the English historian Edwyn Bevan in 1940.
So much for prologue.  In my judgment the fundamental issues were not addressed until the 1950s at the height of the Cold War by two art historians working on both sides of the Atlantic.  In 1954 Ernst Kitzinger of Harvard University charted the rise of a new sense of charisma and thaumaturgy in the icons that developed in popular circles during the difficult years after 565 CE.  Three years later, André Grabar, working in Paris, offered a more complex picture using numismatic and other evidence.  Even though they worked independently, these two scholars were in contact.  They were both in flight from authoritarianism, Kitzinger from Nazism, Grabar from Sovietism.  In some sense, I think, they were both motivated by puzzlement at the rise of abstractionism in contemporary art; abstract expressionism on this side of the water, art informel in Europe.
And so the matter rested for a time.  In 1985 David Freedberg, now of Columbia University, forcefully raised the issue of 16th-century iconoclasm in Western Europe.  This study was placed in a larger context by his 1989 book The Power of Images, which posited that images may derive their power from two opposite sources: their uncanny naturalism on the one hand, and their extreme stylization on the other.
About the same time Michael Camille and Carlos Eire discussed the uncertain status of images in the Gothic and early modern eras, respectively.
In effect Hans Belting denied that the icons were art at all, since they stem from an era “before art.”  
A little later Alain Besançon addressed the elusive, but clearly important issue of the heritage of distrust of images in the rise of pure abstraction in the years 1908-13 in the work of avant-garde artists, almost all of them Slavic or Dutch. 
The current leader in this cluster of fields seems to be Professor Leslie Brubaker, author of three game-changing books, and head of a Centre at the University of Birmingham that coordinates these studies on an international basis.  These scholars are influenced, among other things, by the destruction of images by the Taliban.

The approach employed in this piece reflects the sociology of knowledge, which studies  the link between human thought and the social context within which it arises.  In some periods there is a climate of innovation that fosters the clustering of inquiries, as seen with the rise of modern physics in Europe after 1900.  Complementary to the sociology of knowledge is the sociology of ignorance, including the study of nescience, ignorance, unwarranted conspiracy theories, and knowledge gaps.
The rise of the sociology of knowledge has been traced to the work of the sociologists Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. They dealt directly with how conceptual thought, language, and logic could be influenced by the sociological milieu out of which they arise. In Primitive Classification, Durkheim and Mauss employ a study of “primitive” group mythology to argue that systems of classification are collectively based, with the the divisions with these systems deriving from social categories. 
The specific term “sociology of knowledge” gained currency in Central Europe in  the 1920s, when a number of German-speaking scholars, notably Max Scheler and Karl Mannheim, published important work on the sociological aspects of knowledge,


Barber, Charles. Figure and Likeness: On the Limits of Representation in Byzantine Iconoclasm. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Belting, Hans. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Besançon, Alain. The Hidden Image. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Bevan, Edwyn.  Holy Images: An Inquiry into Idolatry and Image-Worship in Ancient Paganism and in Christianity.  London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1940.

Brubaker, Leslie.  Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm.  Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 2003. [with many useful bibliographical references]

Bryer, Anthony, and Judith Herrin, eds. Iconoclasm. Birmingham: Centre for Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham, 1977.

Camille, Michael. The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image-Making in Medieval Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Eire, Carlos. War against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Fine, Stephen. Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Freedberg, David. Iconoclasts and Their Motives. Maarsen: Gary Schwartz, 1985.

----. The Power of Image: Studies in the History and Theory of Response. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Gamboni, Dario. The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution. London: Reaktion Books, 2007.

Goodenough, Erwin R. Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period. 13 vols. New York: Pantheon, 1953-68.

Grabar, André. L’iconoclasme byzantin: le dossier archéologique. New ed. Paris: Flammarion, 1984. [first ed., 1957]

Kitzinger, Ernst. “The Cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 8 (1954), 85-150.

Kolrud, Kristine, and Marina Prasac.  Iconoclasm from Antiquity to Modernity.  Farnham: Ashgate, 2014.

Noble, Thomas F. X.  Images, Iconoclasm and the Carolingians.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.

Noyes, James.  The Politics of Iconoclasm:  Religion, Violence and the Culture of Iconoclasm in Byzantium, Christianity, and Islam.  London: I. B. Tauris, 2013.

Ostrogorsky [Ostrogorski], Georg.  Studien zur Geschichte des byzantinischen Bilderstreit.   Dissertation.  Breslau, 1929

Simpson, James.  Under the Hammer:  Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Warnke, Martin, ed. Bildersturm: Die Zerstörung des Kunstwerks. Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1973.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am still learning from you. In addition to being a compendium, interesting nuggets sprinkled throughout, increase its value. 2 minor edits: In the section on Classici Masaccio is listed twice. Maybe you meant Masolino? Murillo needs to be moved to the 17th century list. I tried posting this on Sunday to no avail. Cathy

10:13 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home