Byzantine Visual Culture: Conditions of “Right” Belief and Some Platonic Outlooks

In: Numen
Author: Anne Karahan1
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  • 1 Stockholm University, Department of Culture and Aesthetics, Rindögatan 18, lgh 1202, SE-115 36 Stockholm,
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Monumental picture programs of Byzantine churches exist within a spatial and liturgical setting of rituals that depend on circumstances that create a distinction from profane to sacred. The core theme is the epic narrative of the holy drama of the incarnated son, i.e., the image of God (eikon tou theou), acknowledged as indivisibly as much human as divine. In a Byzantine religious sense, images of Christ prove the incarnation, yet human salvation depends on faith in the incarnation but also in the transcendent unknowable God. From the perspective of visual culture, the dilemma is that divine nature is, in a religious sense, transcendent and unknowable, beyond words and categorizations, unintelligible, as opposed to human nature, which is intelligible. This article concerns the strategy of Byzantine visual culture to weave together expressible and inexpressible in order to acknowledge “right belief,” without trespassing the theology and mode of thought of the church fathers on the triune mystery of the Christian God and the incarnation. In a Byzantine religious sense, circumscribed by time and space, the human condition is inconsistent with cognition of what God is. Nonetheless, salvation depends on faith in that God is, a “fact” acknowledged through holy images. Particular theoretical and methodological focus will be on how the three fourth-century Cappadocian fathers and Dionysius the Areopagite, but also Maximus the Confessor discuss God’s unintelligibility but also intelligibility, with some comparative Platonic outlooks.

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