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Subtle Bodies

Subtle Bodies: Representing Angels in Byzantium

Copyright Date: 2001
Edition: 1
Pages: 250
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  • Book Info
    Subtle Bodies
    Book Description:

    Throughout the course of Byzantine history, Christian doctrine taught that angels have a powerful place in cosmology. It also taught that angels were immaterial, bodiless, invisible beings. But if that were the case, how could they be visualized and depicted in icons and other works of art? This book describes the strategies used by Byzantine artists to represent the incorporeal forms of angels and the rationalizations in defense of their representations mustered by theologians in the face of iconoclastic opposition. Glenn Peers demonstrates that these problems of representation provide a unique window on Late Antique thought in general.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92513-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. INTRODUCTION On the Tension between Theology and Cult
    (pp. 1-12)

    Angel,literally “messenger,” can designate all manner of negotiation between heaven and earth and refer to any member of God’s spiritual host. Scripture is unequivocal in stating the existence of an angelic host and is full of diverse examples of the appearance of these transcendental creatures. But the difficulties of perceiving and identifying angels are signaled in scripture simply by the number of guises they assume and impressions they make. Angels appear in scriptural accounts as multiform, awful beings before whom such witnesses as Zacharias are overwhelmed and left speechless (Luke 1:20–22). They appear as clouds and fire (Ex....

    (pp. 13-60)

    Given the difficult nature of angels and their incorrigible cult, the question arose early in Christianity: How does one make an image of an incorporeal being, and what meaning does that image have for devotion to and comprehension of that being? This question, however, formed part of a larger search for ways of attaining knowledge of God and of things divine. As Averil Cameron’s insightful synthesis of different aspects of Byzantine culture demonstrates, it was this search and the distinct approaches to gaining knowledge that led directly to the crisis of Iconoclasm in the eighth and ninth centuries.¹

    Iconoclasm arose...

    (pp. 61-88)

    Adherents to a literal interpretation of scripture and to intellectual worship simply could not reconcile angelic nature—which is essentially incomprehensible—with material, allusive representations in art. The best-known opponent of artistic representation in the period leading up to Iconoclasm in the eighth century was Epiphanius of Salamis (ca. 315–403). Epiphanius’s theology developed from his anti-allegorical stance; and his opposition to religious imagery later made him a natural champion for the iconoclastic party.¹

    Elaborate written defenses of images of angels evidently did not arise in the period between Epiphanius and Iconoclasm. However, epigrams are extant from the sixth century...

  9. Three REPRESENTING ANGELS: Images and Theory
    (pp. 89-125)

    The practice of image worship excited opposition in certain quarters, and the theologians examined in the previous chapter were reacting to existing images that they could not reconcile with their beliefs about worship and contemplation. The preceding chapter described a process of gaining knowledge of God and things divine that had great importance for the formation of the intellectual and theological climate in the period leading up to and including Iconoclasm. This process, recounted here in terms of its relation to one kind of image, namely of angels, depended primarily on intellectual, non-material avenues to spiritual truths; it is essentially...

    (pp. 126-156)

    Proper Christian worship was a central issue in the centuries preceding Iconoclasm, and iconophiles and iconoclasts continued this debate during the eighth and ninth centuries. Images dominated discussion during Iconoclasm but the debate naturally implicated long-standing questions of Christian ethics and appropriate devotion. As this chapter will demonstrate, angels figured large in this discussion of images, their worship and function. Iconophiles defended the symbolic representations of angels as a special case, with important historical precedents, both written, as in Hebrew scripture, and unwritten, as ancient Christian practice showed. In keeping with one strand of Christian theology, iconoclasts defended “images” that...

    (pp. 157-193)

    This chapter examines the means by which hagiographical writings, that is, miracle stories, attempt to describe the presence and appearances of the Archangel Michael. Dealing with several miracle stories at some length demonstrates the ways in which each text persuades its audience of the Archangel’s benign proximity. The tales of the miracle at Chonae contribute particularly in this examination since the “pre-history” of this cult is relatively clear and the shrine’s activities during the Byzantine period were famous. Discussing other miracle stories, namely of the sanctuary at Monte Gargano in southern Italy and of the shrine in Asia Minor described...

    (pp. 194-208)

    This study has been concerned with representation in the widest sense. Examinations of material images notwithstanding, it has primarily explored conceptual problems involved in representing angels that arise from the unquantifiable nature of the bodiless host. “Subtle bodies” was a favored theological formulation for the nature of angels. The formulation was ascribed to Macarius the Great,¹ but it was the primary definition used by John of Thessalonike (d. 649?) in his defense of the worship of angels’ images ostensibly before a pagan opponent.² Moreover, the fathers of the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 included the “dialogue” between John of...

    (pp. 209-230)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 231-235)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 236-236)