Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 5, 2000
Sharon E.J. Gerstel Beholding the Sacred Mysteries: Programs of the Byzantine Sanctuary University of Washington Press in association with College Art Association, 1999. 214 pp.; 5 color ills.; 90 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (0295978007)

This brief but handsome study offers the reader a detailed account of the close correlation of art and liturgy in medieval Byzantium. In pursuing this end, the book privileges evidence from the sanctuary programs of twenty-seven churches in Byzantine Macedonia, whose decorations date from the early eleventh century to the early fourteenth century (the final section of the book, 80-111, offers a useful catalogue of these programs). In addition to this core material evidence, a number of other churches from Cyprus and the Peloponnesos are discussed in some detail. Discussion of these works is framed by wide-ranging reference to liturgical texts and commentaries, all helpfully translated by the author.

Beholding the Sacred Mysteries sets out to demonstrate that the twelfth century marks a turning point in the decoration of the Byzantine church interior. This is a period in which it is possible to identify evidence of the clergy’s retreat behind the increasingly permanent sanctuary screen. An important part of this evidence is the decoration found on the walls of the sanctuary, which appears to address and implicate this specific and local clerical audience. Sharon Gerstel’s book analyzes this change in the decoration of the sanctuary. She argues, “In their entirety, the sanctuary images formed a painted program that simultaneously reflected and illuminated the performance of the eucharistic sacrifice” (72). Elaborating on this second point, she also argues that: “The images elucidate changes in the liturgy, represent in paint debates over theology and liturgical practice, and refute criticism over performing the eucharistic rite” (47). A double function is therefore proposed for this art. First, the imagery is understood to mirror the liturgical rite. Second, this mirror is not simply a passive reflection, but also a parallel for the textual commentary that discloses meaning in the liturgical performance itself.

These two points are well supported by a series of precisely observed iconographic readings that link the visual text presented in these spaces with the verbal text of the liturgy. First, building on the work of Babic and Walter, Gerstel demonstrates the careful construction of a visual episcopal concelebration that frames the living priest within the sanctuary. Marked by the painted bishop’s turn from an iconic frontal pose to a three-quarter profile view and by the inclusion of liturgical prayers, this array of bishops introduces the notion of a liturgically inspired and clerically focused program. Similarly, Gerstel handles the second aspect of her program, the theological implications of the representation of the Christ child as the eucharistic sacrifice (melismos), with care. The importance of this image of the living sacrifice provides an introduction to the third feature of the decoration that is highlighted, the Communion of the Apostles. In this discussion Gerstel is able to underline the importance that the representation of the eucharistic bread and Apostle’s embrace can play in defining the relationships between the Latin and Greek churches at this time. The melismos image returns when Gerstel argues in her fourth example for the construction of an eucharistic understanding of the mandylion, especially when the representation of this relic substitutes for the image of the Christ child in the sanctuary.

As a whole the author’s account of the sanctuary program provides an admirable and attentive study of the decoration of a specific space. By drawing these precise comparisons between the imagery found within the sanctuary and the liturgical ritual, Gerstel is able to describe with great clarity the specific nature of the representations found in the sanctuary and to show their possible significance.

There remain a number of threads that perhaps deserve development. First, Gerstel considers the visual material in terms that define it as both timeless (79) and bound to contemporary concerns (44, 52, 63). The implications of these seemingly conflicting descriptions should be discussed at greater length. While Byzantinists are used to seeing such terms, a critical assessment of their continued value is in order.

Second, and related to the first point, the use of texts perhaps needs a fuller introduction. For example, the liturgical commentaries of Germanos (8th century), the Andidans (11th century), Nicholas Cabasilas (14th century) and Symeon of Thessalonike (15th century) are key reference points throughout this manuscript. While all of these writings comment upon the liturgy, that liturgy and the interpretations of it offered by these authors present a truly varied text. A stronger characterization of the different commentaries and of the transformations in the liturgy itself might help the reader locate these sources. By drawing upon their distinctions as well as their points of similarity one can avoid the danger of any assumption that there is a simple liturgical continuum or a unified text in which to anchor our analyses of this visual evidence. Furthermore, a stronger discussion of the dissemination of these texts might provide some basis for the claim that painters read such commentaries (78).

Third, an issue that is present in the choice of materials in discussion is that of regionalism. Byzantine Macedonia is privileged because of the lack of materials from the capital (3). The use of evidence from other regions both supplements this emphasis and raises concerns about the conditions that shape this decision to privilege these churches. While it is reasonable to suggest that a body of material from a given region over a given period of time can show changes and developments, it is essential to give a lengthier justification for privileging these temporal and geographical conditions. While the book contains numerous hints of possible significance for this choice, for instance in the discussion of anti-Latin iconography (63), the precise role of the region itself remains undeveloped.

Fourth, the question of mimesis needs much greater attention. Gerstel identifies numerous ways in which imagery and liturgy are tied together. She characterizes this relationship in terms that treat art as a medium for the dissemination of ideas already formulated in verbal terms, but also hints at ways in which the art itself has a value that reaches beyond this function when she turns to the play of illusion and reality in these works (37, 77). I would have welcomed a discussion that developed the implications of these terms.

Gerstel’s book remains a valuable work. It provides the reader with a clear and precise account of the correlation of art and liturgy in medieval Byzantium. As with any good book, it gives rise to fresh thoughts, opening the way to further research and different questions.

Charles Barber
University of Notre Dame.