Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 6, 2000
Kurt Weitzmann and Massimo Bernabo The Byzantine Octateuchs Princeton University Press, 1999. 880 pp.; 23 color ills.; 1,552 b/w ills. Cloth $295.00 (0691007225)

Not too many books being published these days were begun in 1932 or are dedicated to someone who died in 1955 (Charles Rufus Morey). But this is hardly an average book by any standard: size and number of pages, quantity of illustrations, or length of preparation. Its subject is the six illustrated manuscripts of the Octateuchs, the first eight books of the Septuagint, the Hebrew Bible in Greek. As Kurt Weitzmann, long the eminent Byzantinist at Princeton, writes in the first of the book’s two prefaces (XI), he was led to the topic by a conversation in 1932 with his professor, Adolf Goldschmidt. The later had had a successful career in Germany in spite of being a Jew. In 1932 or 1933 (as implied in Weitzmann’s autobiography, Sailing with Byzantium from Europe to America Munich: Editio Mars, 1994, 76), Goldschmidt mentioned that the theologian Hans Lietzmann planned to give a seminar on the newly discovered frescoes of the synagogue of Dura Europos. Goldschmidt helped his protégé gain entry to the seminar held during the academic year 1933/4. As Margaret Olin explains in an article forthcoming in the Marburger Jahrbuch für Kunstwissenschaft, Lietzmann’s course can be read as a quiet act of resistance to the Nazification of Germany on the part of a scholar, who belonged to the “Wednesday Society,” some members of which later tried to assassinate Hitler and were executed. She attributes Weitzmann’s life-long interest in the Jewish sources of Christian iconography in part to his own commitment to his Jewish professor and to religious and cultural diversity.

None of this historical background is to be found, however, in the book at hand, and Weitzmann goes on to explain that when he applied for photographs from the Octateuch manuscripts in the Vatican Library, he learned of Professor Morey’s interest in the subject and Princeton’s intent to establish the series, “The Illustrations in the Manuscripts of the Septuagint.” The present book forms volume II of that series, because Morey decided to delegate the Octateuchs to Weitzmann and brought him to Princeton to do the work. Having published dozens of books, Weitzmann hardly was unproductive, but one thing led to another with the result that by the time Weitzmann retired from Princeton, the Octateuch project was still not complete. A draft existed, written from the 1930s to the 1950s, but it needed to be updated. Fortunately, in 1990, Weitzmann agreed to collaborate with an Italian scholar Massimo Bernabò, who had been interested in the Octateuchs since the 1970s. Bernabò then saw the project to completion after Weitzmann’s death in 1993.

The six illuminated Greek manuscripts of the Octateuchs are here fully illustrated and described in great detail by the two authors with the aid of Dr. Tarasconi (ch. I). Weitzmann authors a discussion of “The Origin of the Illustrations of the Octateuchs” (ch. III), and Bernabò writes his version of much the same subject, “Formation and Development of the Cycle” (ch. IV), and appends a comparatively brief discussion of “Codicology, History, and Style” (ch. V). The book ends without a formal conclusion. These volumes are a curious hybrid of Weitzmann’s work from the middle decades of the last century, Bernabò’s updating of the description and bibliography from the early 1990s, and his gracefully written restatement of Weitzmann’s opinions that had long been known through other publications. According to Weitzmann, the origin of the archetype of the Octateuchs can be traced to the time of the Dura Europos synagogue or mid third century. To the archetype were later added classical, Christian, and imperial sources. An important component of the illustrations are the references to non-Biblical Jewish sources. Bernabò is in basic agreement, although he downplays the importance of Jewish elements. His stemma, or family tree, is bipartite. The “Syriac Source” and the “Main Source,” both from the fourth century, were merged in an “Imperial Edition” during the sixth century. The latter is the progenitor for the eleventh-century Vatican gr. 747, the famed Joshua Roll of the tenth century, also in the Vatican, and the model of the three twelfth-century manuscripts: Vat. gr. 746 and the Smyrna and Seraglio Octateuchs. The latest version, the thirteenth-century manuscript at Vatopedi, depends upon ms. 746 and the Joshua Roll.

With its 880 pages of text and 1575 illustrations and sober black binding, these two massive volumes bear every sign of the definitive. But are they the last word? Probably not. They are written before and after the important study of John Lowden (The Octateuchs: A Study in Byzantine Manuscript Illustration [University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992]), but do not adequately address the latter’s serious challenge to Weitzmann’s notions of the Octateuchs and of manuscript recensions in general. To put both books together would necessitate a review article, but suffice it to say that Lowden understands the Octateuchs to have been first produced by Byzantine scribes and illuminators in Constantinople during the third quarter of the eleventh century. While Bernabò scrupulously cites Lowden’s remarks on specific miniatures and mentions his general thesis, he does not debate Lowden and instead writes: “Some of the beliefs of contemporary scholars who have worked on the Octateuchs have grown out of a sort of prejudice toward Weitzmann’s approaches.” To that needed discussion, Mary-Lyon Dolezal has recently contributed a detailed analysis of Weitzmann’s theories about Byzantine lectionary illustration and his relationship to New Testament textual studies (“Manuscript Studies in the Twentieth Century: Kurt Weitzmann Reconsidered,” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 22 [1998, 216-263]).

Still the historiographic background to Weitzmann’s work would repay further study. That inquiry would inevitably take the matter much earlier, for these massive volumes are a late, late relic of the nineteenth century and a world that considered philology to be the most prestigious discipline of medieval studies and the edition of texts and the reconstruction of archetypes to be the solution to most problems. Thus a comprehensive review of the Weitzmann/Bernabò volume would involve not only Lowden’s monograph, but also a foray into what Hans Aarsleff has called “Romantic Medievalism” and the nineteenth-century pursuit of origins.

An article by Aarsleff about the French medievalist, Joseph Bédier (d. 1938) shows the potential for that investigation (“Scholarship and Ideology: Joseph Bédier’s Critique of Romantic Medievalism,” in Jerome J. McGann, ed., Historical Studies and Literary Criticism [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985], 93-113). According to Aarsleff, Bédier criticized the principal tenet of nineteenth-century scholarship, its belief that it was possible to ascertain ultimate origins beyond written sources. “Armed with clouds of facts and evidence, philological expertise shrouded the speculative foundations and made them appear solid. The prestigious methods and procedures of positivism gave faith that the results had the quality of certain knowledge and established truth. In humanistic scholarship romanticism and positivism joined forces in the enterprise of system building” (93). Bédier sought to break apart this system and succeeded, at least for medieval textual criticism. For him, the problem was the nature of the evidence deduced. In opposition to the essentialist single origin of folk tales, he substituted multiple origins. He observed that the great majority of textual stemmata were bipartite, suggesting that they suit the needs of the investigators, not the history of medieval texts. As Aarsleff concluded, “only the method of philological optimism could have remained deaf to the fundamental questions, but the deafness was a sort of nearly congenital idealism.” And it was the product of “philological optimism” and an excessive confidence in the human ability to explain past phenomena.

Should Kurt Weitzmann and his vast body of learned scholarship be fitted into this picture of the nineteenth century? Yes and no. Certainly his connoisseurship of ivories and icons follows a different method of the nineteenth century and is directly linked with Goldschmidt. Weitzmann’s later discovery of the great storehouse of icons at Mt. Sinai led him in other directions, and he began to be interested in icons as objects of devotion. Yet he never truly departed from that Romantic philology of the nineteenth century and transferred its premises and idealism to art history. He was convinced, as Bernabò quotes, that “any history that confines itself to extant material is a falsification, since the preserved material is only a fraction of what once existed, and its survival is due merely to chance.” History should not be “distorted by restricted evidence. . .” (10). Throughout his life, Weitzmann held to this belief, and Bernabò shares it; hence the aforementioned use of the word “prejudice,” a concept that belongs to religious conflict, not academic debate. In sum, the Weitzmann/Bernabò collaboration is a book of 1999 and 1899, as well as 1932/3 and the decades thereafter. It is an historiographic gold mine, as well as an enormous archive of images.

Robert S. Nelson
University of Chicago