Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Book Review: Guide to Byzantine Iconography

[This review originally appeared in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, volume 46 (2005) Nos. 1-2, p. 245]

Book Review: Guide to Byzantine Iconography, 2 vols., by Constantine Cavarnos, Holy Transfiguration Monastery: Boston, MA.

Reviewed by Shawn Tribe

Dr. Constantine Cavarnos of the Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies has brought together for the Christian world an important study on the history and theology of the Byzantine icon in a handsomely produced two volume set. While a third and final volume is projected, even as the set stands it can be considered a comprehensive treatment of this important subject and a "must-have" for anyone interested in Eastern Christian liturgy, spirituality, theology and history. Far from being a mere art history text, it is written from the perspective of Christian faith and theology – and particularly from a traditional Eastern Orthodox perspective.

Besides giving his readers a general overview of the history, meaning and aesthetics of the icon, Cavarnos also discusses Eastern church design and the placement of icons in traditionally decorated Byzantine churches. Those who have wondered why particular icons are placed in particular spots, or why certain icons are depicted in a certain way, will find answers to these questions, discussed both in terms of the traditional ideal, as well as variations from it. From the panel icons on the iconostasis to the wall paintings that adorn a fully decorated church, the reader is introduced to the particular details of what is encompassed in each icon and the theological intent of its placement. An example will illustrate the type of information found throughout the work. In the conch of the eastern apse the Theotokos is depicted. The theological significance of this is that this part of the church was historically thought of as the point where the roof of the church met the floor; thus, on a symbolic level, where heaven meets earth. Thus, placing an icon of the Theotokos here represents the fact that she is the heavenly ladder by which God descended (through the Incarnation) and the bridge leading those of earth to heaven – as the ancient akathist hymn to the Theotokos so beautifully puts it.

The connection given in this example to the akathist hymn points to another attractive element found throughout the set. Cavarnos ties the icon together with the liturgy and hymnography of the Eastern Church, as well as with the Creed and Sacred Scripture, in giving the explanations and context of iconographic details. In short, he shows us how the Creed, Sacred Scripture, the Divine Liturgy and the icon are complementary rather than separate and form a theological synthesis. This emphasis gives the reader not only an enhanced appreciation of the catechetical and theological nature of the icon but also a deepened awareness of the scriptural foundation of icons, and the great theological and liturgical depth of Eastern Christendom in general. Moreover, by not divorcing the icon from its architectural and liturgical context, these books become more than a simple study of the principles of iconography, and rather also a catechism on the Eastern liturgical life – wherein it is especially understood that the church and particularly the liturgy is where heaven and earth mingle.

Using this well-rounded approach, Cavarnos takes us through the different types of icons, doctrinal, liturgical and festal, telling us their hierarchical importance in relation to each other. In addition to giving descriptions of what appears in these icons and where they are typically placed, he also gives the meaning behind certain postures or elements found within them. For example, details are given as to the symbolism of archangels carrying a staff and disc, or the theological importance of choosing particular biblical miracles over others that are similar. He outlines for us how God the Father and Holy Spirit are (and are not) depicted, as well as the different icons of Christ (including some very rare variations), the Theotokos, St. John the Baptist and the different orders of angels. An additional plus is that full page images of most of the icons being described are included – though unfortunately only in black and white. Regardless, the images illustrate the necessary qualities and features of the icons being described and give some of the very best examples of traditional Byzantine iconography, both past and present. Readers will also be delighted to see a detailed summary and explanation of St. John Damascene's defense of the holy icons at the end of the first volume. A good treatment of the context of iconoclasm is given, but of particular importance is the succinct summary explaining St. John's differentiation between worship and veneration, as well as the seven functions of holy icons.

An overall consideration of these books makes it clear that foremost in the author's mind is the reality that the icon is more than mere decoration. Rather, the icon is theology in paint. Because of this, iconography is to be taken as seriously as a written theological treatise would be. To that end, Cavarnos is not afraid to comment on iconographic innovations which may obscure the theological message which a particular icon is supposed to convey, or which moves it away from the sacred scriptures. Whether or not every reader will agree with Cavarnos' conclusions in this regard, there is much insight and profit to be gained through his reasoning which is quite compelling. One can certainly not fault his desire for a firm adherence to the tradition and the principles it is based upon, particularly when one accepts the Church's understanding of the importance of the sacred image as an object of veneration and as a catechetical tool.

Constantine Cavarnos has provided us with a text packed with insight and information and written in a fluid style that makes it a pleasure to read at the same time. It will find an audience in the iconographer or parish priest seeking practical guidelines, the scholar or student studying iconographic history and theology, or the pious Christian seeking to grow more deeply in their spiritual life. It is this breadth and scope which will surely result in it taking its place alongside other classic studies on iconography.

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