An Article Review by David W. Nees

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Created: 06/12/12
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An article review from my Byzantine Art History course. DWNees (1999-2012).
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  • A Review of “The Transformationto Desire: Art and Worship after Byzantine Iconoclasm”

    Charles Barber, in his article “From Transformation to Desire: Art and Worship after Byzantine Iconoclasm[1], ”offers another view of the Byzantine relationship to icons after Iconoclasm. His view, he states, counters the one held by Thomas F. Mathews who believesthe icon to be “a site of transformation.”[2] According to Barber, Mathews believes that the icon transforms the viewer inthe same way that the Eucharist transforms the one who eats into the one who iseaten. Barber believes that the Eucharist and icons are inherently different inthat the Eucharist contains the essence as the thing it represents – the HolyGhost, while icons, on the other hand, possess nothing of the Holy Ghost andonly serve to re-present the image of Christ the Man.[3]

    Barbermaintains that although it is important to remember and celebrate that Christ was God made flesh, a mimetic celebration of incarnation lacks the ability tovisually represent the other side (the most important side in this case) of Christ, which is His divine nature. Only through bread and wine, blessed by a Priest and therefore transformed by the Holy Ghost, may worshippers be trulytransformed. It is, however, confusing that one blessing – that of the bread –suggests true presence or essential essence, and another – the blessing of theicon – cannot. Bread hardly seems more substantial than the icon. Moreover,both are only symbols of Christ, neither dictated by Christ; including the bread which was not, necessarily meant to go beyond the first event of communion: the Last Supper.

    In his argument: “In the Eucharist the relationship is essential: in the icon it [is] formal,” Barber offers little evidence that one is any different from theother.[4] Even the recalling of the Second Commandment offers little solace in light of symbolic representation. Maybe the bread is not a “graven image,” yet neither is the icon painting. Both are symbols, which fall outside of the jurisdictionof the Second Commandment.

    It would have been helpful for Barber to include one consequential difference between bread and icon. Bread was Christ’s chosen symbol – He told thedisciples of the bread: “Take, eat; this is my body.”[5] As it was signified by Christ to represent his body, the act of the Eucharistis the best way to, as it says in I Corinthians, remember Christ.[6] Still, it is impossible to differentiate, absolutely, between bread and icon asto appropriateness. Confusing the issue even more, the iconoclasts during oneargument, as Barber states, had “called the Eucharist an icon of Christ.”[7] The physicality or spirituality of either bread or icon is, ultimately, not of concern, but how icons were used by worshippers in the time after iconoclasm.

    Barber, taking the side against the transforming power of the icon and believing that this too was the opinion of the Byzantine audience at the time, offers a“definition of the icon as a site of desire.”[8] He develops this idea throughout the second half of his article and concludes that the encounter between humans and icons is one of understood absence and alonging for the union between worshipper and Christ – nothing more. “The creation of this purely pictorial space allows for the construction of a relationship between the absent and the present, the Holy and the human.”[9]

    It could be argued, however, that the Eucharist creates a similar type of relationship as described by Barber and even though Christ chose bread assymbol of His eternal body, His only dictum was that through the eating of the bread that He be remembered. Therefore, Byzantine worshippers, particularly after Iconoclasm, could have and very well may have taken the Eucharist and approached an icon not with hope of transformation, nor as a site of desire, but as an act of remembrance.

    [1] Charles Barber, “From Transformation to Desire: Art and Worship after Byzantine Iconoclasm,” ArtBulletin, Vol. 79, Mar 1993, pp. 7-16.
    [2] Barber, 7.
    [3] Barber, 9-10.
    [4] Barber, 11.
    [5] Matthew 26:26.
    [6] I Corinthians 11:24.
    [7] Barber, 10.
    [8] Barber, 11.
    [9] Barber, 15.

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