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of Visual Culture

Visual Studies in Byzantium: A Pictorial Turn avant la lettre


Emmanuel Alloa
Journal of Visual Culture 2013 12: 3
DOI: 10.1177/1470412912468704
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VCU12110.1177/1470412912468704Journal of Visual CultureAlloa

journal of visual culture

Visual Studies in Byzantium: A Pictorial Turn avant la


lettre
Emmanuel Alloa

Abstract

As Hegel once said, in Byzantium, between homoousis and


homoiousis, the difference of one letter could decide the life and
death of thousands. As this article seeks to argue, Byzantine thinking
was not only attentive to conceptual differences, but also to iconic
ones. The iconoclastic controversy (726842 AD) arose from two
different interpretations of the nature of images: whereas iconoclastic
philosophy is based on the assumption of a fundamental iconic
identity, iconophile philosophy defends the idea of iconic difference.
And while the reception in the Latin West of the controversies over
the image as a mere problem of referentiality of the letter explains
why its originality has remained underestimated for centuries, reexamining Byzantine visual thinking in the light of todays pictorial
turn reveals its striking modernity.
Keywords

Byzantium Hegel icon iconic difference iconoclasm idolatry


John of Damascus pictorial turn Theodore studites

1. The Deadly Iota: Hegel and Byzantium


In his Aesthetics, Hegel famously stated that in front of a devotional image
or icon, we bow the knee no longer (Hegel 1988[1820s], Vol. I: 103): in
the era of art, images count for their aesthetic value, not for their cultic
function. But if Hegel proves to be the thinker of secularization, he has also
anticipated the so-called end of art with his no less famous statement that
the form of art has ceased to be the supreme need of spirit (p. 103). At
a time when the autonomy of the artistic realm is being questioned and
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Vol 12(1): 329 DOI 10.1177/1470412912468704

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journal of visual culture 12(1)

Figure 1 Miniature from the Chludov Psalter, fol. 83, middle


of the 9th century, Moscow, State Historical Museum.
Moscow, State Historical Museum.
new forms of image that cannot be subsumed under aesthetic categories
are coming into focus, a strange mirror effect occurs, epitomizing striking
analogies between an era of post-artistic images and what Hans Belting
(1994) has provocatively suggested naming the era of images before art. At
both ends of the historical spectrum, a kind of image emerges that cannot
be properly addressed by the notion of aesthetic judgment and not even by
their referentiality; what they demand is a reflection on their visual efficacy.
Not by accident, Hegel always keen to remind us that the German word
for reality (Wirklichkeit) does not so much refer to what is the case (real)
but to what is efficient (wirkend) is fascinated with the Byzantine quarrels
around images which, despite all the bewilderment, he reads as a quarrel

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around the efficacy (Wirksamkeit) of an appearance. Devotion toward these


images, Hegel (1969[18221823]: Vol. 2, 410, trans. 340) says, occasioned the
most violent struggles and storms. In defense of the bleeding icons, quite
literally streams of blood flowed as the result (409, trans. 339).
Hegel finds accounts of those magical icons, which allegedly possess
healing powers and engage in critical interventions in battles. Despite the
mindless sophistry, which Hegel sees as inherent in the absolute devotion
towards these baser powers of passion, the new image type, emerging
in the 5th and 6th century, conforms to the disengagement from mimetic
depiction advocated by Hegel; the new images resolutely break away
from the mimetic portraits of the Roman effigies as they are considered
to be acheiropoieta, images not manufactured by the human hand (cheir),
but literally acheiropoieta: non-hand-made images of divine origin.
The aspiration is not to produce a more or less accurate imitation; the
acheiropoieton is measured by its efficacy.
The chronicles (see Kitzinger, 1954, for an overview for the preiconoclastic
era) give accounts of icons, which, when placed on a pedestal, had the power
to crush the surrounding pagan statues, yet heal the faithful believers. In
one of the miracles of St Artemius, a diseased member is healed by applying
the melted wax of a seal displaying the Saints face. In his Spiritual Meadow,
one of the richest sources of the period which also reads like a 7th-century
pilgrims Baedeker guide, John Moschos refers to the story of a woman
who obtained water from a dried-up well by lowering a specifically ordered
portrait of the abbot Theodore into the depths of the pit. Other texts tell
about icons secreting oil, blood or dew drops which fall directly into the
mouths of praying devotees. Some women seemed to have grown impatient
while waiting for the miracle to come about and directly scraped off
pigments of colour from sacred images, diluted them in water and drank the
mixture until they were cured. But the miraculous icons were not only used
for individual purposes, they also had apotropaic qualities when protecting
entire armies, as in Heraclituss use of a portrait of the Virgin for his navy
in the Persian campaign. During the siege of Constantinople in 626 by the
Avars, the patriarch had holy countenances painted on all the gates of the
Western city and he himself carried magical icons of the Virgin around the
city walls which actively saved the city from being consumed by fire. The
more streams of tears you shed, reads the eulogy by George the Pisidian
addressing the Mother God right after the end of hostilities, the more rivers
of blood you cause [among your enemies] (Bellum Avaricum, quoted after
Belting, 1994: 497). The miraculous images used during the wars then take
their definitive seat in the basilica or at the palace, such as the famous
Sudarium from Camulia, which was transported by ship around the Golden
Horn for the purpose of displaying it in the palace of Constantinople as a
protective Palladium for the kingdom.
If Hegel does not concede to a Weltgeist of the sea, he does, however,
acknowledge that the Byzantines had a distinct form of intellectuality. In a
lecture, Hegel calls upon a source from late antiquity:

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Gregory Nazianzus says somewhere: This city (Constantinople) is full


of handicraftsmen and slaves, who are all profound theologians, and
preach in their workshops and in the streets. If you want a man to
change a piece of silver, he instructs you in what consists the distinction
between the Father and the Son: if you ask the price of a loaf of bread,
you receive for answer that the Son is inferior to the Father; and if you
ask whether the bread is ready, the rejoinder is that the genesis of the
Son was from nothing.
In contrast to his usual citation practice, Hegel does not quote directly
from memory here but verbatim from Gibbons Decline and Fall (1776
1788, chap. XXVII, Vol. III: 88). The passage cited by the English historian,
however, could hardly have been found in Gregory of Nazianzus since it
originated with a different Cappadocian church father, Gregory of Nyssa.
Leaving aside the question of the original sources at this point,1 it is worth
delving into Hegels significant ambivalence towards the Byzantine world.
Apart from this anecdote in terms of the history of ideas, Hegels significant
ambivalence towards the Byzantine world is revealing. On the one hand,
the account from late antiquity ends with the sentence: The idea of spirit ...
was thus treated in an utterly unspiritual manner (Hegel, 1969[18221823]:
Vol. 2: 409, trans. 339). On the other hand, Hegel seems quite enthusiastic
about the theological work on the term that emerged from the controversies
over the image dispute. The term is real in the Hegelian sense of the word
wirklich (as opposed to the German word real): it is efficient. Even the
shift of one iota means a shift in reality: In the contest on the question
whether Christ were homoousis or homoiousios that is of the same or of
similar nature with God the one letter cost many thousands their lives
(409, trans. 339) (Figure 2).
*
Hereafter, the question will be explored to what extent, in Byzantium of the
8th and 9th century and perhaps for the first time in Western thinking a
consistent and comprehensive image concept has been developed, which
at the same time unfurls a tremendous historical efficacy. From a historical
perspective, the origins of the Byzantine image dispute have been traced back
to multiple causes (Brown, 1973; Gero, 1977; Ladner, 1940; Yannopoulos,
1997; for an overview of the historic-political background, see Auzpy,
1990; Brubaker, 1999; Schreiner, 1988; Stein, 1980; Thmmel, 1991, and
now the decisive synthesis in Brubaker and Haldon, 2011). The following
reflections seek to reactualize an hypothesis that Georgiye Ostrogorsky
postulated in his seminal essay from 1929. According to this hypothesis,
the manifold theological, ideological and socio-political differences can be
explained by a fundamentally different perception of what images are and
what they should be (Ostrogorsky, 1929: 40 ff). It becomes apparent that
the iconoclastic as well as the iconophilic theories (both positions establish
elaborate systems of thought about images) in the end differentiate
themselves by the degree of sovereignty they attribute to the iconic.

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Figure 2 Miniature from the Chludov Psalter, fol. 34,


middle of the 9th century, Moscow, State Historical
Museum. Moscow, State Historical Museum.
The iconoclasts would then be on the side of Hegels absolute spirit; for him
it is the purpose of the spirit to annul the outwardness and inauthenticity
of the image (The image is killed off, and the word substitutes for the
image, Hegel, 1969[1808], part C, 159, Vol. 4: 51) while the iconophiles,
at the same time, are on the side of a Hegelian concept of finitude and
sensibilization in the sense of Feuerbach; in such a concept the image is
not only a necessary moment of passage but also a means of incarnation
that is not completely transferable to the Logos. While thought as Hegel
always stressed sets in only belatedly: in the late antiquity of Byzantium
the images had already found their way into ethical life (Sittlichkeit), even
before a reflection upon their morality (Moralitt) set in and the image
itself became an object of inquiry.

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2. The True Image


The growing significance of images in the intellectual cosmos of late antiquity
is a testimony to the alteration that took place in the reporting of the siege of
the Persian fleet in 544 on the Syrian coastal city of Edessa. According to the
chronicler Procopios, who shortly thereafter goes on to describe the course
of the siege, a letter from Jesus saved the city. But already half a century
later the account changes and, according to the chronicler Evagrius, Edessa
was not saved by a letter but by a thaumaturgic Christ-image (Evagrius
Scholasticus, 2000[c. 600]: 225228). The miraculous icon was brought into
contact with water; the water changed into a flammable liquid and scorched
the war machinery of the Persians (p. 226).
The story bears witness to the fact that, at the latest from the 7th century
onwards, images had become proper historical protagonists, and yet, at the
same time, the interpretation of these images grew exceedingly precarious.
Evagriuss description of a painting as not made by human hands (theoteuktos)
undergoes a further medial transition in the traditional legend: according to
a version that established itself in later centuries, the story no longer speaks
of a painting but a linen cloth (mandil), in which, according to the legend,
the body of Christ left an imprint. The icon conserved at the Monastery of St.
Catherine illustrates this last version magnificently (see Figure 3). Arguably,
on this point the painter has consulted John of Damascus, who is among
the first authors to use this example as an argument in the iconoclastic
dispute of the 8th century (John of Damascus, 1973[c. 730]: 5156). In the
media transfer from painting to the imprint on the cloth, we may witness
a subtle transformation from the symbolic iconology of the Early Church
to what could be called, borrowing a term from Georges Didi-Huberman
(2008: 320325), an ichnology, composed from ichnos, the Greek word
for trace: referential, symbolic representation is being replaced by an image
concept of a pure, non-arbitrary imprint. In competition with the Byzantine
Mandylion, the tradition of the Veil of Veronica develops in the West. As
its anagram, the Veronica easily turned into the vera icon or true image,
such as depicted by Francisco Zurbarn (see Figure 4) (on the Veronica,
the Mandylion and other Holy Faces, see Wolf and Kessler, 1998, as well as
Wolf et al., 2004).
Images as tactile relics: shortly before the eruption of the image dispute,
sources seem to compete with each other in the description of magical
images. Whatever left an imprint on the material undoubtedly existed, and
the visible trace became a witness to a materialized theophany. At the same
time, paintings attributed to Luke emerged, which were unconventional
types of portraits. The theory of these pictures was apparently only brought
forth subsequently in the 8th century (Belting, 1994: 5759; Cormack, 1985:
261): according to this newly developed legend, it was St Luke who painted
a portrait of the Virgin Mary herself with child, a spatiotemporal simultaneity
serving the expressed purpose to once again verify the pictorial authenticity
(see Figure 5). Although, according to Paul, worldly existence only offers a
vision in speculo et aenigmate, these true images, even though conveyed

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Figure 3 King Abgar with the Mandylion, Tempera on Wood,


34.5 x 25 cm, around 940, Sinai (Egypt), St Catherine
Monastery (after Il volto di Cristo, ed. Giovanni Morello and
Gerhard Wolf, Milan: Electa, 2000: 92).
through a medium, allow a seeing from face-to-face and, thereby, become
prolepses of the time after the end of time.
The voluntary posing of Christ for a portrait testifies to a real desire to be
seen, which becomes a central argument in the iconoclastic controversy
of the 8th and 9th centuries. There is, however, an explicit expression in
this event, something that popular image practices had internalized long
ago, i.e. the concept of a divine figure, progressively gaining visibility. It
is not the perceived similarity that legitimizes the images but their alleged
indexical character: these images have a form (typos) that reproduces
itself and leaves an imprint on any material that comes into contact with
it (Vikan, 1989); the images repeat and substantiate the fact that a deity

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Figure 4 Francisco de Zurbarn, The Holy Face, ca. 1631, Oil on


Canvas, 70 x 51.5 cm, Stockholm, National Museum, NM 5382.
Photo: Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.
took on a sentient form. The Keramion or brick image becomes the object
of the peoples veneration; it receives its justification in a later source:
the celebratory speech for the successful translatio of the Mandylion of
Edessa to Constantinople in 944 speaks of an event, in which the face in
the linen cloth was temporarily buried under bricks and left an imprint
upon them (Ps. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, 2007[c. 900]: 272). The Christdepiction paradox finds an expression in the semantical game with the
term graphein when the text says that the miracle shows how, for humans,
an indescribable figure (agraphou morphes) may nonetheless update and
transfer itself (metagraphein) without any outward interference.
In this self-replication without loss of form, an economy of visibility expresses
itself, which seems to veer away from the image proscription of the Old

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Figure 5 St Luke Portraying the Mother of God, early


15th century, Tempera on Wood, 26.4 18.3 cm (Inv. Nr.
424), Recklinghausen, Ikonenmuseum. Ikonen-Museum
Recklinghausen.
Testament since it lies beyond human endeavours of illustration. Each copy
is mutatis mutandis also an original. Along with the acheiropoieta, the
age of mechanical reproduction of the image commences: yet, the ability to
reproduce is in this respect not a loss but, in fact, guarantees the aura. On
the outer frame of what is considered the icon kept at San Bartolomeo degli
Armeni in Genova (Genes) and which is considered to be either the original
Mandylion or one of its copies, the scene is depicted: a priest walks down
the ladder leading to the Mandylion placed on top of a pillar, cautiously
carrying one of the many self-replicas the acheiropoieton has supposedly
produced (Figure 6). But how can these magical images be reconciled with
the Scriptures? What kind of relationship exists between the miraculous

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Figure 6 Detail of The Mandylion Legend: The Miraculous SelfReplication, around 1320. Gilded silver on wood, Genes, San
Bartolomeo degli Armeni. Genes, San Bartolomeo degli Armeni.
images and the painted icons? Is there something beyond the iridescent
variety of their form that is common to all images?
As sources suggest, the image contemplation, in a Hegelian fashion, sets
in late, almost as if theology and philosophy were trying to catch up with
an already widely-spread image practice (the attempt to clearly distinguish
philosophy from theology at this point would, of course, be in vain,
considering the fact that, for example, John of Damascus, 1982[c. 730]: 89
ff, translated the antique term philosophia as the love of wisdom from
God). Yet, in spite of being a reaction to a specific historic situation, the
Byzantine theorization of images exhibits an extraordinary argumentative
richness which, in terms of its complexity and range, greatly exceeds the
contemplation of classic Attic philosophy. In a time that asks about the lives
and loves of images (Mitchell, 2005) and studies how images act upon
us (Bredekamp, 2010), it would be more than useful to revisit a culture
which ultimately turns out to be closer to ours than we had ever thought.
A reflection upon the performativity of the image and its perlocutionary
effects (Alloa, 2011) cannot avoid confronting the Byzantine formulations

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of the question. In what follows, an attempt is made to reconstruct some of


the positions of the Byzantine image dispute (726843) in order to establish
whether it can be affirmed that the pictorial turn which has been diagnosed
for the late 20th century (Mitchell, 1992) actually found an earlier stage
more than a millennium earlier, during the Byzantine Empire.

2. Basic Elements of the Iconoclastic Image Theory


The fact is well known: history is always written from the viewpoint of
the victorious. While the iconoclasts destroyed the images of the imagefriendly iconodulists (literally the servants of images), the iconodulists in
turn destroyed the written manuscripts of the iconoclasts. On account of
this damnatio memoriae, none of the image-hostile texts have survived
in full; at best, the arguments can be extrapolated from what is quoted by
their antagonists (as a survey has been compiled by Hennephof, 1969; cf.
also Brubaker and Haldon, 2001). From these fragments, a contemplation in
regard to the nature of imagery ensues, which belies the prejudice that the
iconoclasts only approached the images with brute force (Anastos, 1954).
In addition to this, newer research proves that the elaborate, image-hostile
position was not only, as assumed for a long time, a reaction to the iconophilic
writings of John of Damascus, but that, on the contrary, a reflected antiimage position existed before the emergence of the first iconoclastic crisis
around 730, to which the image-hostile emperor Constantine V and his
court theologians could appeal (Baranov, 2002).
Lifeless idols
At first glance, the Byzantine iconoclasts of the 8th century seem to merely
repeat the arguments of the first church fathers who denounced every
form of idol worship. Nevertheless, the focus had changed: while Origen
and Tertullian at best dealt with the image question as a corollary of the
worship problem, this approach takes a back seat to the question of what
a picture is in the first place. In order to use the tradition of early patristics
against the image defenders, the iconoclasts felt compelled to annul the
canonical differentiation between eikon (image) and eidolon (idol), which
the early Church, professing creation in the image of God, attempted to use
in order to distance itself from idol-worshipping heathens. The answer to the
question: What is an image? is then quite simply: an idol. The term eidola,
the root of which can be derived from the Indo-Germanic *id (to see), is
used throughout the Septuagint to translate different terms, which in Hebrew
belong to the semantical field of sculptures carved, hewn by hand (pessel,
semel, sabbim) (Habakkuk 2: 1820; Jeremias 10: 816; Psalm 115: 48). In
this sense, the second commandment is less concerned with the visibility of
God, but above all opposes the manufacturing of a second, physical God
(Exodus 20: 4; cf. also Deuteronomy 4: 8, 27: 15). The massive idol is always
using the Portuguese word, derived from factum (made) a fetish (fetio),
which instead of enabling it, blocks access to the divine (Alloa, 2010).

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The idolatrous image presumes to be a depiction of the living God; in


reality it consistently remains soulless and without a voice (apsychos kai
anaudos), as the Council of Hieria set down in the 16th conviction (Mansi
XIII: 345C). It is a common practice in the image-hostile fragments to
reduce the image to its bare materiality. A physical strategy corresponds
to this rhetorical one: image worshippers, such as St Anthousa of the
Mantineon Monastery, were martyred using the smouldering ashes of
previously torched iconic tablets, as if to prove to the female martyrs
that paintings can also be used to produce an altogether different effect
(Talbot, 1998: 18).
Against describing the indescribable
In contrast to the word, which, according to the gospel of John, on
account of its potential infinitude, marks the beginning of creation (i.e.
the Logos becomes finite), the image is, for the defenders of the word,
a desperate attempt to catch up with the infinite in a temporal as
well as spatial sense. While apophatic (negating) theology may express
something about the limitless nature of God via the word ex negativo,
images operate exclusively in an affirmative fashion. However, the
second commandment on the tablets brought down from Mount Sinai by
Moses is not so much a prohibition of the depiction of God, but rather
marks the impossibility of a divine portrayal, since no one has ever
seen God (John 1:18; cf. also 6: 46). Nonetheless, from the viewpoint
of the iconoclasts, the painter by use of lines and brush strokes tries to
capture the impalpable on the surface of a canvas. Yet, since the divine
nature by definition cannot be encased (aperigraptos), every attempt of
a preconceived painting (perigraphein) must be either in vain or depict
something that is simply erroneous (PG 100, 216, 225, 228, 236). The
only true image, as set down by the Council of Hieria, is the Eucharist
(Mansi XIII: 264).
Unity vs duality
In regard to the scandalous presence of the two opposing natures within
Jesus Christ, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 laid down conclusively
thereby putting an end to centuries of inner turmoil within churches
that Christ had two natures, which were neither separate nor joined.
In 754 at Hieria, the iconoclasts accuse the iconodulists of falling back
into pre-Chalcedonian heresies, i.e. into the Arian-Monophysitic as well
as the Nestorian heresies. Arianism and Monophysitism share the idea of
a doctrinal unity: for the devotees of Arius, Christ is solely human; for
the Monophysites, he possesses a unified nature, in which the divine and
human nature are unseparated. Nestorianism on the other hand, advocates
a doctrine of radical dual-naturedness: the divine and human nature
consistently remain unjoined so that the Son of God and the Messiah must
be two different persons. In Hieria, this Trinitarian controversy is applied
to the issue of depiction:

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Figure 7 Three-headed deity (Vultus trifrons), around 1500, Painted


Wood, 15 x 21 x 4 cm, Lucerne, Historisches Museum.
Lucerne, Historisches Museum. Reproduced with permission.
1(a) If the painters assert that they only depict the human side of Christ,
how does it differ from paintings of pagan prophets?
1(b) Y
 et, whosoever clings to a divine nature that goes beyond the depiction
of a human nature, denies the Trinity and creates a monster consisting
of 4 persons (Mansi XIII: 260).
(2) 
If the painters claim the divine nature is already contained within the
physical body, they are suspected to be Monophysites who do not recognize
the unmixability of the natures. One may think here of the curious late
mediaeval attempts of representing the trinity in the West, which were
ultimately abandoned with the Counter-Reformation (Figure 7).
Victor V Bykov (1980: 61) has encapsulated this double-reasoning:
The logic of this paradoxical accusation is in itself antinomical since
at the base of it lies the aspiration to convict the original dogma of an
antinomy that denies the thesis as well as the antithesis. Consequentially,
a form of reversed antinomy develops, which confirms precisely that,
which was supposed to be refuted.
The intention was to prove that the image worshippers at the same time
separate and join the two natures: From a philosophicreligious viewpoint,
the iconoclasts unwillingly proved, even more convincingly than their
adversaries, the veracity of their opponents position (p. 61).
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Iconic identity
In summary, the image destroyers, therefore, demand much more from
images than their adversaries. The image is not permitted to be deficient or be
assigned some secondary subordination, but it must retain, to use the words
of the image-hostile Emperor Constantine V, the totality of the archetypical
image (PG 100, 225 ff). Constantine V avails himself of the formula here that
his predecessor Constantine the Great had used to put an end to the Trinitarian
debate of the first Nicaean Council (325) the doctrine of homoousis and
applies it to images: in the same way Christ is consubstantial with the Father,
so the image is consubstantial (homoousios) with the depicted object.
In a remarkable fragment by the ideologue of the second iconoclasm, John
Grammaticus, the doctrine of homoousis is explained through Aristotelian
logic. The iconodulists favoured the reference to the formula of Basilios of
Christ as a living image (PG 29, 552B). But even if Christ became human,
it is not conversely true that a depiction of Christ as man is necessarily
Christ himself. If man is defined (according to Aristotle) as a mortal being,
endowed with reason (Topics, 128b35f, Aristotle) how can one demand
that spiritless and immovable beings possess vital movement, through
which all things, endowed with reason, are as they are due to the creator?
If we adhere to reason, how can the worshippers of the word describe this
colourful monster as mortal and claim that it be capable of retaining a mind
or knowledge? (Gouillard, 1966: 174).
In order to truly be alive the image would have to have all the properties
of the depicted object. As the Council of Hiereia states: the only true image
is the Eucharist (Mansi, 1960[17661767], XIII: 264), that is, with lively, real
presence. But by this maximum definition of image, the icons, regarded as
sacred by the iconophilists, are disqualified as true images. Solely on the basis
of materiality (icons are material, yet the archetypical image is immaterial) a
difference in nature exists. This positive assigning of the identicality of a
depiction and the archetypical image may abruptly turn into the negative
opposite: the icon is only that, which can be seen, even though it presumes
to be part of the invisible. In the same way as the idol, the icon presumes
to be something other than wood and paint and yet it is not the Vita of St
Andrew, the Holy Fool, also suggests the same (PG 111: 781). As opposed to
what Gottfried Boehm (1994) has conceptualized as the iconic difference, we
are confronted with what could be termed iconic identity: only by defining
the image as autarchic and self-contained, can it be labelled as idolatrous. The
proclamation of anathema over the iconophilic Patriarch Germanos by the
Council of Hieria is revealing: on the one hand, the patriarch is accused of
stupidity for being a worshipper of wood; on the other hand, he is accused
of ambiguity (dignomia) because he strives to find more in an image than can
be found there (Mansi, 1960[17661767], XIII: 356A).

4. Basic Elements of the Iconophilic Image Theory


The image apologists indeed make an ambiguous argument since they
make the Janus-faced character of the image their starting point. How can
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one be so imprudent to interpret truth and its shadow, the archetype and its
depiction, the cause and the result as identical in nature? Theodore Studite
asks (PG 99, 1220A). The identificatory image definition of the iconoclasts is
not discredited by an opposing, uniform definition but by an affirmation of
its relational diversity. As Hegel had already emphasized, the christological
differentiation between homoousia (consubstantiality) and homoiousia
(likeness of nature) is transferred to the image problem. The differential
iota is injected into the determinate unity of the homoousia-doctrine,
which, thereby, seems to undermine the apparent opaque consistency of
the iconophobic doctrine: instead of homoousia (consubstantiality) the
correlation between depiction and archetypical image is a homoiosis, i.e. a
likeness of nature. Likeness is conceived of as a mode to denote affiliation
and difference in the visible realm.
It is precisely this multi-pronged strategy, which opposes the unitary image
concept that makes it possible to speak of an actual iconophilosophy in
Byzantium from the 8th to the 10th century. The image adversaries are
accused of not being rightfully able to even raise the image question since
from the beginning they had subjected it to political interests. In the meantime,
orthodox theology legitimizes their image defense by deliberately abstaining
from prescriptive dogmatics in order to leave the field to argumentative
examination. Prior to every decision on whether images were admissible
and to what extent, a propaedeutic had to take place. Accordingly, John
Damascenus (1975[c. 730]: 125), in his third Discourse Against Those
Decrying the Images arrays a catalogue of questions that iconophilic visual
studies will have to deal with.
Firstly: what is an image?
secondly: why is an image produced?
thirdly: how do images differ?
fourthly: what can and what cannot be portrayed?
fifthly: who was the first to make an image?
Not all images are the same; in the same way, not everything can be image.
If the image and the depicted object are identical, then it is but the depicted
object itself and not its depiction.
Iconic difference
Damascenuss reply to the first question (What is an image?) is decisively
relevant for the apologetic image position as a whole and certainly for
the second phase of iconoclasm or of iconomachy, as the Byzantines
themselves referred to it. The image (eikon) is an imitation, which portrays
a prototype in such a fashion that a difference [diaphora] exists (p. 83).
Patriarch Nikephoros later repeats the argument: If the image does not
differ in some way, it is not an image (PG 100, 277A). In the early 1990s,
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and mirroring WJT Mitchells diagnostics of the pictorial turn, Gottfried


Boehm has diagnosed a widespread iconic turn (for a summary, see Boehm
and Mitchell, 2009) which, in his opinion, indicates an awareness for what
he has suggested to name, in adaptation of Martin Heideggers ontological
difference, the iconic difference. Now if iconic or pictorial turns coincide
with this discovery of the iconic difference, then Byzantium of the 8th and
9th centuries is definitely the stage of such a turn. Much before the theory
of the iconic difference was conceptualized by Boehm, Horst Bredekamp
(1975: 144) had already anticipated this insight in offering the following
interpretation of Byzantine image wars:
The arguments of the image adversaries are only then valid if they
assume an identicality of image and depiction while the image
proponents operate with the concept that neither the accusation of
idol worship is valid nor the suspicion that a depiction of God deifies
matter in a blasphemous way since a principal difference between
image and depiction is given from the outset.
The articulation of the difference of the icon is twofold:
(1) The difference between visible objects and matter: for John Damascenus
the iconoclastic polemics against image veneration as idolatry is not valid
because it neglects the simultaneous affiliation and difference between
image appearance and image carrier. The idol is optionally worshipped
as something solely material (stone, wood, fetish, etc.) or else presumes
to be suspended beyond any earthly foundation (one may think of the
early Christian apologetics against unreal creatures, such as humans with
dog heads or fish bodies). Either the idol is too worldly, or else as Paul
said nothing at all in the world (1 Corinthians 8:4). Contrarily, John of
Damascus (1975[c. 730]: 90) laconically states: Do not malign the material!.
Even if every image requires a material carrier, it would, nonetheless, be
foolish to assume the image carrier is already the image itself.
In the florilegium, which in John of Damascuss Discourse takes a supporting
role as a legitimizing source collection, the following quote from Bishop
Leontius of Neapolis ( ca. 650) is found:
If we worshipped the wood of images as a deity, then we would be
willing to also worship other kinds of wood, and we would not burn
the images with fire, as it often occurs, if the figures had become
impregnated into it. (PG 93, 1297C)
The image, therefore, is consistently a momentary meeting of physical
medium and visible figure, an imprint in which that which meets during
the imprinting (sphragis) always remains separate in nature (on the imprintsphragis in a performative perspective, cf. Pentcheva, 2006). Whosoever
does not accept this difference has not recognized the reality of the image
and remains in a state of idolatrous religiosity. In a surprising volte-face,
John turns the argument of the iconoclasts against themselves: And thus,

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image and idol may be distinguished from each other by rightfully calling
those who do not recognize their difference (diaphora) idol worshippers
(PG 100, 277 B).
(2) Difference between visible and invisible prototypes: just as in the case of
the idol, the carrier and the appearing image are unseparated, so the idol
also does not have a prototype that exceeds it. However, icons, when viewed
individually, are deficient since they are meaningless without the prototype
that gains visibility through them. Between the archetypical image (archetypos)
or the prototype (prototypos) and the depiction (typos), there is a correlation
of generative imprinting. Now it is crucial that John not only distinguishes the
invisible prototype from the visible type but that he transposes the difference
between the two into the realm of the visible: the image is one thing and its
depiction another; a difference can always be seen between the two [pantos
horatai diaphora] (John of Damascus, 1975[c. 730]: 125).
Accordingly, the following constellation results: the image is substantiated
in the visible realm as a point of separation. The separation must on the
one hand be comprehended as the difference, separating the visible from
the invisible; on the other hand, however, it must also be comprehended
as the link between the visible and the invisible, which, in the visible
realm, occurs through the incarnation. Both moments are not contrary but
represent two sides of the same coin: in the words of Maximus Confessor:
While the linkage annuls the separation, the difference is, however, not
diminished by it (PG 91, 1056C ). This separating-linking division by which
the invisible prototype must separate itself from itself in order to establish a
new communion with the imprinted, presupposes that in the visible realm
the division between the visible and the invisible is negotiated anew.
Visible flesh
While the iconoclasts primarily appeal to the tradition of the Old Testament,
the image-affirming line of argument is founded on the incarnation event
of the New Testament. The point of origin for both is the verse in the Book
of Genesis (1: 27), where God is said to have created humans in his own
image and likeness. The much discussed paradoxical doubling of image
and likeness seems to imply that the criterion of likeness does not already
apply to every image. More than that, it becomes plausible how humans, on
account of the Fall, have forfeited this likeness but not the relational image
of filiation and how, from a christological perspective, via the incarnation
of the Son of God, the same path is trodden again to restore humankind to
the prototype.
In as much as the iconophilists try on the one hand to save the specific
difference of the images, so they also require the dispositive of incarnation
in order to guarantee congruence with the prototype and, consequentially,
with the dogma. As set down by the Council of Chalcedony, the nature
of Christ as an inhabitant of two worlds legitimizes the double nature of
the image as being, at the same time, corporeal and incorporeal, present

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as well as absent. In the examined phase, Christology and iconology are


interwoven beyond recognition. Christ as a corporeal image or as a living
image of the invisible God (PG 99, 501D; John of Damascus, 1975[c. 730]:
108) testifies to the legitimacy of his depictions but also to the legitimacy
of all other images. Whosoever does not accept the images thus is the
recurring argument denies the event of incarnation.
In the work attributed to Theodore Studite with the title The Synax of
Divine Armies, the incarnation (ensarkosis) represents the historical caesura
between a privileged seeing of the divine, which previously was at best
reserved for angels and other mediating figures, and the extraordinary
visions of the prophets as well as a seeing, now given universally, where
the being, previously invisible even for incorporeal beings is visible for [all]
corporeal beings(PG 99: 736D). The visible appearance has made humans
multi-eyed (polyommaton), just like the heavenly beings (PG 99: 737D). If
previously the material (hyle) was a hindrance, it has been ennobled in the
reality of the incarnation by the Son of God taking on the nature (physis), the
density (pachos), the figure (schema) and the colour (chroma) of our flesh
(John of Damascus 1975[c. 730]: 72). Not only may this flesh be depicted, as
any other visible thing, but it becomes, in a sense, the evidence for the will
[of the deity] to be depicted. Something passes over from the Passion of
Christ to the observer if the person allows himself or herself to be affected
by the pathos of the image; meanwhile the anthropomorphic purpose of the
image has in turn resulted in the image itself becoming passible, as attested
to by the anti-iconic violence of the iconoclasts.
In this iconophilic miniature of the Chludov Psalter (Figure 8), the
iconographic motif of the torment of Christ on the cross is introduced into
the image dispute via the lance of Longinus. The (eyeless) iconoclasts coat
over the Christ images with tar and pierce his face so that the saviour must
endure the passion of the cross yet again in the image.
For Damascenus, who cites a passage from Pseudo-Basil of Caesarea, the
images are the means by which the battle between good and evil is fought:
As [the devil] saw man in the image of God and in His likeness, he turned,
since he could not oppose God, his malice against the image of God: in
the same way an angry man, since he cannot hit the king, strikes his image
with rocks by striking the wood that bears its likeness. (PG 31, 1456C)
Image economy
The coming into the flesh and the coming into the image have always led to
the possibility of conflict: by materializing in a concrete, spatiotemporal form,
the prototype unleashes a force that can never be thoroughly controlled. From
the tireless efforts of the image apologists to distinguish icons from idols, one
can see how closely related demonology and soteriology are at times. Plato,
who had realized the problem of the uncontrollability of images, did not
take the risk of allowing them entrance into his ideal state; for the Byzantine

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Figure 8 Miniature from the Chludov Psalter, fol. 67, middle of the 9th century,
Moscow, State Historical Museum. Moscow, State Historical Museum.
state philosophers, the descent of the divine into this world has irrevocably
anchored their presence in the political order. The law of the taking place of
the Trinity in the worldly realm can be described with one word, which Saint
Paul elevates to a synonym for the incarnation: oikonomia. In the so-called
Oikonomika, anciently attributed to Aristotle himself, oikonomia is delimited
from politics by the notion that it is not made up of an equitable negotiation of
opinions in the public sector of the polis but consists of the law of the house
(oikos), which regulates how the house father distributes goods to unequal
persons (wife, children, slaves). In the case of Paul, Tertullian, Hyppolytos and
Irenaeus, the term is on the one hand transferred to the sphere of dogmatics in
order to explain the relationship of the three non-identical yet consubstantial
persons of the Trinity (patristics again refers to a Trinitarian economy); on the
other hand, oikonomia becomes the connecting link between the sphere of
theology and politics. The problem of genealogical ancestry from one as well
as the distribution of the divine grace to many is reconciled in Christ by the
dispositive of the incarnation: the dispositive guarantees the order (dispositio)
as well as the distribution (dispensatio).
Marie-Jos Mondzain (2004), in her compelling interpretation of the
Byzantine image dispute, has been able to prove that the term oikonomia
is foundational for the political-societal legitimization of the image. The
equalization of economy and iconomy by the iconophilists, especially by
Nikephoros, makes it clear that there cannot be a pure image theory beyond
the factual, historical conditions. The economy of the icon is not merely a
depiction of the one who creates, it must as a mediator reckon with the
respective forces of that which is different or contrary in the same way as

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any instantiation of the law requires the force of the executive, which in
turn may generate antagonistic violence.
Relational logic
The concept of oikonomia presents a hypothesis on how a relationship of
inequivalence between archetypical and depicting image may be conceived
of, but it does not degrade the depiction to a purely deficient mode.
Oikonomia once again refers to a relational logic, inspired by Aristotle
(Alloa, 2013) that, for the most part, has been overlooked because of a
history of reception, which has mainly aligned itself with neo-Platonism.
The history of reception and the Neo-Platonic image concept, connected to
it, has led to the fact that the unique Aristotelian pictorial thought concepts
of the theorists of the second phase of the image dispute (even including
an image antagonist such as John Grammaticus) rarely ever became a topic
of their own. New studies have corrected the state of facts (Anton, 1994;
Barber and Jenkins, 2009; Baudinet[-Mondzain], 1978; Oehler, 1968; Parry,
1996), but Kenneth Parrys (1996: 52) verdict is still valid: The history of
Aristotelianism in Byzantium has yet to be written.
In order to characterize iconicity, Theodore Studite, for example, refers back
to the Aristotelian category of relation: The prototype and the image belong
to the category of relational things [ton pros ti estin], just like a double and
a half (PG 99, 341C). The question of John of Damascus about the nature
of the image now receives a logical emphasis with Theodore Studite and the
Patriarch Nikephoros. It can validly be said in opposition to the iconoclasts
that image and archetypical image are not consubstantial but are even,
according to Nikephoros, different in nature (katousian) (PG 100, 277A).
Although the relation of commonality between image and archetypical image
is described with the term methexis or participation, this participation must
itself be understood as a participation in the form and not as a participation
in the essence (PG 99, 344C; cf. also Barber, 2002, ch. 5). In other words, the
category of methexis serves to epitomize the fact that the image is neither of
the same essence as the thing it represents nor is it another thing altogether.
This also provides a criterion for distinguishing image and idol: the image
differs from the idol because it does not stand for itself. Whosoever claims,
the image exists outside of a relation, can no longer claim that it is an image
of something (PG 100, 277D). Idolatry can, therefore, be condemned by the
following logical path: the idol is not a true image because it is monadic (idol
[x]) while the hypostatic image as a relative variable consistently forms a twoplace predication (image [x,y]: x is an image of y).
However, does the statement that the image is something substantially relative
not contradict the fundamental assertion of the categorical theory of Aristotle
that the nature (ousia) excludes the comparative, the relative (pros ti) (Categories
8b, 20)? Here Nikephoros avails himself of the exception, acknowledged
by Aristotle, which is illustrated by an example from the sphere of the
oikonomia in the category-teachings: the nature of the slave is his relational

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dependency on the master (Categories 7a, 28). Nikephoros transfers this


asymmetrical relation to the relationship between the depicted object and
the depicter. In this respect it is important that the image concept in
contrast to, for example, the concept of likeness is asymmetrical, i.e.
that the order of x and y is not arbitrary. Thus, one could say a mans
depiction does not resemble him but that he resembles his depiction while,
alternatively, one speaks of the image of man but not of the man of an
image (PG 100, 229A).
The decisive differentiation by Nelson Goodman (1972[1970]) between
likeness and image relation finds its predecessors here. Instead of a
symmetrical likeness, both propose a reflexive relation between the depicter
and the depicted. However, there is a significant difference: for the symbol
theory of Goodman, imagery belongs to the general class of conventional,
non-essential representations; for the church fathers, the image relation is a
substantial relationality. The tension between corporealness and relationality
must then be conceived of dynamically: the depicter does not once and for
all represent the other part of the depicted but aspires to it as a stochasma,
as an objective to be reached. So the relationship does not consist in keeping
apart two substances but in a movement of the one towards the other
which, however close they may come, will always leave a gap (paraplesios).
The dynamic relationship (schesis) is independent of the real existence:
just as the son is still a son, even after the father dies, the image remains
the depiction, Nikephoros argues, even if the depicted person no longer
lives (PG 100, 280A). What remains is an image concept that initiates a
continuous game of deception between presence and absence.
*
In many regards, the disputes of the 8th and 9th century in Byzantium
may represent something like a primary scene of contemporary visual
studies. In contention with the reductionist (i.e. maximalist) image theory
of the iconoclasts, the advocates of the image develop a highly complex
iconophilosophy, which conceptualizes a concept of the image on the one
hand against the shortening of the image to material objecthood (to the
identity of idol and icon) and on the other hand against the reduction to
what it refers to (to the identity with the prototype). The specific visibility
of the icon cannot be deduced from its referentiality nor from its thingness,
although the iconophiles continuously stress that the epiphany of the icon
only repeats the epiphany of Christ who, in order to be seen by the eyes of
men, had to become flesh.

5. From Reverence to Reference: The Reception of the


Image Dispute in the West
This reconstruction of some basic conceptual moments of iconoclasm will
likely indicate how much theoretical relevance still lies in the Byzantine
texts for the contemporary discussion about image criticism. The fact

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that this potential has long been overlooked is, last but not least, due to
the unique reception of the image dispute in the Latin Middle Ages. The
translation of the image problem into a merely semiotic problem, which
can be observed in the Latin West (for a more detailed account, see Feld,
1990, and Noble, 2009), may be a reason why it was possible that the range
of the question about the visibility of the image in the Western tradition
had for so long been dealt with as a subchapter of symbolic reference:
it happened because the papal legates, present at the second Nicaeanum,
had brought a Latin transcript of the files to Rome. On the basis of these
erroneous and incomplete files (today they are lost altogether), Charlemagne
ordered the drafting of the so-called Libri Carolini (ed. Bastgen, 1924),
which is considered to be the Western response to the Byzantine image
dispute. In turn, these books by Charlemagne (though most likely the court
intellectuals Alcuin and Theodulf of Orlans and not Charlemagne himself
were the authors) form the foundation of the Synod of Frankfurt in 794,
which further confirms the rejection of any excesses in regard to images
(Werminghoff, 1906: 165171). The concluding Horos of Nicaea II clearly
delimits the idolatrous worship latreia (from which idolatry was derived)
from bowing (proskynesis) or paying homage (tim) to an image. The image
is neither a common object, whose glorification would be peculiar, nor
a symbol that no longer has any more influence on the described but a
medium through which according to the formula of Basil honor passes
over (diabainei) to the prototype (PG 32, 149C).
The conceptual difference is cancelled by the Latin translation when not
only latreia but also tim and proskynesis are translated altogether as
adoratio. Images, according to the authors of the Libri Carolini, neither
deserve destruction nor worship (nec destruimus nec adoramus) since they
are only unclear indications of something that expresses itself more clearly
in scripture. Holiness is a criterion that can be established for scripture as
well as for relics, which consistently display a physical causality, but not for
images, which are never holy but at best more or less felicitous in terms of
their resemblance. As an example, the Libri Carolini invokes the depiction
of two women. The observer cannot determine which one of them is Maria
and which one Venus. Only the titulus, the inscription, is able to clearly
distinguish between the holy and the profane (Bastgen, 1924: 204). When,
however, the image is dependent upon the word, it can in turn also serve
its purposes. The traditional argument by Pope Gregory the Great states that
images are books for people, uninformed by scripture so that they may at
least, looking toward the church walls, read what they cannot read in the
books (PL 77: 1006). The argument becomes, by readmission to the Libri,
the basic model of the Western image concept of the Middle Ages.
The translatio of the Byzantine image concept into a discursive definition
in the West is also not diminished where there is an affirmative reference to
the transitory definition: when Thomas Aquinas adopts the quote from John
of Damascus in the Summa Theologia (the honor of the depiction passes
over to the prototype, which itself has firstly been formulated by Basil

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the Great), he is not necessarily concerned with the image question but
with the worship of Christ (there is a reason why the quaestio has the title De
adoratione Christi Aquinas 1956: pars III, q. 25). Thomas does not extract the
passage from the Damascene Discourse Against Those Decrying the Images
they remain unknown in the Latin West until the 16th century but from their
dogmatic treatise De fide orthodoxa. Unaware of the imagephilosophical
background, Thomas not only misunderstands the authors intention, he
even turns it into the opposite. For the Syrian theologian every image refers
back to the honour of the archetypical image: the honour of the servant
passes over to the master, in the same way the honour of the Virgin passes
over to Christ (PG 94, 1171C-1173A), for the Aquinian on the other hand
as exposed by Umberto Eco (1982[1956]: 158) referentiality is not a
property inherent to the image but to the sign.
Thomas now applies the sign concept subdivided into the description of
something material and something immaterial to the image problem and
for that purpose, he draws on Aristotles concept of intentionality outlined
in De memoria et reminiscentia. The orientation of the spirit toward the
images is twofold (motus animae in imaginem): the first mode of perception
sees the images as a concrete thing (res quaedam) in their materiality (such
as carved or painted wood); the second mode of perception, alternatively,
is directed towards images, insofar as they are depictions of other things
(imago alterius). The movement (motus) of the spirit has only a passing
moment in the material image to reach the depicted object. If then the
depicted object in the image is identical with the other, the prototype,
then the image receives the same honour (reverentia) as the depicted object
(Thomas Aquinas, 1956: pars III, q. 25, a. 3, 4). The reverence is not a
problem of image quality but of the state of being of the depicted: hence,
reverence aligns itself according to the reference. Thus, if an image is in
actuality a referential sign, then even depictions of heathen deities lose all
magical peril. The differentiation between sacred images and false images
is lapsed, the image, now understood as the finestra aperta (Alberti), may
now open itself up to virtually everything.
The unique paths of the reception of the image dispute in the West prove
that the history of visual thinking has to be written anew. Whether we like
it or not, our civilization is a Video-Christian civilization. After Hegel, it
was Feuerbach (1841: 149, trans. 77) who was adamant in stressing that
the Byzantine contention concerning homoousis and homoiousis was not
an empty one, although it turned upon a letter. This controversy about the
nature of the Second person of the Trinity is just as in the controversy about
the nature of the icon nothing peripheral, as it touches the essence of what
mediation anthropologically stands for. Christology and iconoclasm meet in
their acknowledgment that the controversy is not about the nature of the
transcendent, but about the nature of the sensible medium or mediator
(Mittler). In a way the Christian religion itself has invented a world without
a God (or, as one could formulate with Nietzsche: Christianity is the religion
of the death of God). God, affirms Feuerbach, is no object for Christianity,

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only his mediator is; it is to remove this abstract God to a distance, to


negate it, because it is no object for religion, that the Mediator interposes
(trans. 78).
When taking a new look at the modern debate about the arbitrariness or the
non-arbitrariness of the sign, it is the very modernity of this debate that turns
out to be far from certified. The Reformatory iconoclasts of the 16th century
had actualized the Byzantine arguments in their own fashion, just as the
semiology of Port-Royal and the Counter-Reformation did. John Calvin, who
had dismissed the sensible image as a legitimate medium for Christianity, had
instead defended the word and its capacity of abstracting from the sensible:
Take away the Word, and no faith will remain (Institutiones Christianae
III.2.6). Feuerbach (1841: 4) replies in the preface to the first edition of The
Essence of Christianity from 1841: Take away the image from religion, and
you take away its thing (not included in the English translation).
At any rate, and to whatever point of modernity or postmodernity one wants
to carry this discussion about media and the transcendence of referentiality,
the thesis of mindlessness, which Hegel attested for the Byzantine quarrels,
clearly does not hold water. On the contrary: it almost seems as if the pictorial
turn, which today covers all disciplines and, thus, also philosophy had
an early predecessor in Byzantium. Todays visual studies make the following
clear: the questions John of Damascus addressed to his contemporaries (What
is an image? Why is an image produced? How do images differ? What can
and what cannot be portrayed?) are also and still our own.
Note
1. Gregory of Nyssa, De deitate Filii et Spiritus Sancti (the sermon is dated to
the year 383), Patrologia graeca [= PG], Vol. 46: 558. Cf. on the source and
reception history, Bonacina (2005). Bonacina could prove that Gibbons himself
relied upon the Anglican Theologian John Jortin who wrongly attributed Nyssas
sermon to Nazianzus.

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Emmanuel Alloa is Assistant Professor for Philosophy of Culture at the


School for Humanities and Social Sciences of the University St. Gallen
(Switzerland) and Senior Research Fellow at the NCCR iconic criticism in
Basel. His research focuses on image theory and the history of perception.
Address: Universitt St. Gallen, School of Humanities and Social Sciences,
Faculty of Philosophy, Tannenstrasse 19, CH 9000 St. Gallen, Switzerland.
[email: Emmanuel.Alloa@unisg.ch]

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