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Professor Slobodan Curcic
Princeton University

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Divine Light
Symbol and Matter in Byzantine Art and Architecture

On February, 06 2007, the Onassis Foundation Scholars’ Association organized a lecture by Professor Slobodan Curcic of the Princeton University on "Divine Light: Symbol and Matter in Byzantine Art and Architecture"

The incircumscribable nature of the invisible God in the Old Testament tradition was superseded by the New Testament concept of Incarnation that made God partially accessible to the humans through the person of Jesus Christ. Byzantine art, resting on this tradition and on its theological fine-tuning, produced the revolutionary concept of icons, holy images the reverence of which makes spiritual access to the Heavenly sphere possible. Among the means of rendering the ‘Holy' accessible to the faithful, epresentations of ‘Divine Light' were of particular significance.

The importance of Divine Light in relationship to Christ became an issue of prime importance in the work of early theologians. For the fourth-century Cappadocian Church Father, Gregory Nazianzos, the light that illuminated Jesus on Mount Tabor was one of the visible manifestations of Divinity. The sixth-century Byzantine artist, who set the famous apse mosaic of the basilica in the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, must have relied on such a theological formula in making one of the earliest known pictorial renditions of the event on Mount Tabor.

In the closing century of Byzantine artistic production, an image of the Transfiguration demonstrates that its iconographic scheme was still faithfully maintained. Yet, the spiritual followers of the influential Hesychast mystic, Gregory Palamas, also produced a new expression of “uncreated light”, or an emanation of “divine energy” as Palamas himself referred to it. The full-page illumination from the Theological Works of John VI Kantakouzenos, now in the Bibliotheque National in Paris (Ms.Gr. 1242), painted ca. 1370-75, eloquently illustrates the dramatic release of “divine energy”. Despite the vastly increased complexity in the rendition of the rays of light, they were still visually rendered and thus made visually accessible to the mortals.

The last point was one of the key challenges of Byzantine art, in general given over to the central objective of communicating things spiritual, and therefore invisible, by visual means. This paradigmatic aspect of Byzantine art is well known and hardly requires further elaboration. Yet, Byzantine scholarship is still far from having reached the level of full comprehension of the range of possibilities relative to the means by which Byzantine artists achieved this goal. In this presentation, I intend to explore how Byzantine architects and painters employed common symbolic language – expressed in media as different as mosaic, fresco painting and brick and mortar – to convey the notion of Divine Light in physical terms. Though my remarks will be mostly limited to the Middle and Late Byzantine periods (roughly 9th through the 15th cent.), we must bear in mind that the conceptual framework for examples we will be considering was fully formulated in late antiquity.

Complexities in the manner of depicting heavenly glory increase in later Byzantine art. One of the more characteristic forms of depicting the heavenly glory takes the form of zigzag lines contained within a circular band outlining the medallion with a bust of Christ the late twelfth-century example from Lagoudera in Cyprus being a good example of this scheme. Here, the zigzag pattern consists of a red and a blue band with individual elements that make up the bands given an illusion of three-dimensionality by virtue of shading and by setting the ‘folded' band elements against a black background. Thus, the symbolic reference to the Divine Light – in this case— has been given a curious, almost paradoxical, illusion of the third dimension.

One of the most explicit manifestations of the phenomenon of “three-dimensionality” of Divine Light is undoubtedly the thirteenth-century narthex fresco from Hagia Sophia at Trebizond (present Trebzon in Turkey). The unusually complex scene on the large cross-vault of the central narthex bay depicts the hand of God at the apex of the vault, surrounded by a burst of Divine Light framed by the four Evangelist symbols each holding a jewel-studded Gospel Book. From the four corners of the Light-Burst emanate four streams of light depicted in the form of, what may be called “ three-dimensional rainbows”. The three-dimensional effect is here achieved by using a folded-plate method of depiction, with one side of each of the ridges rendered in darker tones than the opposite side, thus creating the desired illusion of three-dimensionality.

The same motif, it should be noted, also appears regularly on the exteriors of Byzantine churches. Made of brick and more rarely of stone, this motif has been ascribed a banal name – dogtooth, or saw-tooth frieze – and has suffered even greater ignominy than its painted interior counterpart. I will argue that the two share not only similarities of form, but that they are bearers of the same symbolic meaning and should be associated with Divine Light. The term ‘dogtooth frieze', under these circumstances reveals at once the initial inability of scholars to recognize the possibility of meaning in ‘purely decorative' forms, but also a pressing need to find an alternative term that would adequately respond to the current investigation. Another term – chevron – used in writings on western medieval architecture, is also formally descriptive and fails to address the issue of the symbolic intent. For our purposes, therefore, I will adopt the term “radiant freeze” as a tentative solution to this dilemma.

The “radiant frieze” makes an early appearance on the facades of the tenth-century church of the Panagia at the monastery of Hosios Loukas in central Greece. Though perhaps not the earliest, this is certainly the best known of the monuments on which the feature in question was used extensively. It appears characteristically in two distinctive ways – as a corbelled frieze below the roof eves and as multiple recessed bands on the upper portion of the east and south facades of the church. The manner in which the bands wrap around the apses and windows of the eastern end of the church underscore the location of the ‘holy of the holies', the church sanctuary, highlighting it, along with the dome, as the most important parts of the church building. The so-called ‘Pseudo-Kufic' letters that also appear on the east façade of the church have been the subject of considerable scholarly attention. At the same time, the ‘radiant friezes' have been all but ignored. In my opinion, they are to be understood together as references to the holy; in the case of the ‘radiant friezes' as underscoring the notion of illumination by the Divine Light.

The same motif, on occasion, acquired a three-dimensional quality by virtue of the fact that the areas surrounding individual bricks that form the zigzag line were not filled with mortar, thus creating dark voids against which the zigzag line appears in an even more emphatic way. Combined with the conventional radiant frieze band, as in the case of the thirteenth-century Panagia tou Vrioni at Arta, and again concentrated on the east façade of the church, the motif is effective leaving little doubt as to its symbolic message. Coming even closer to the actual wall surface of the Panagia tou Vrioni one notes that the theme of the zigzag line recurs – on a much smaller scale – on individual faces of each brick. With the help of a sharp tool, each visible flat brick surface was incised before firing with a zigzag pattern of its own. This miniaturized texturing, reminiscent of woodcarving in its effect, was clearly an aesthetic as well as a symbolic choice. It should be noted that among the rare preserved fragments of painted church façades we also find the mini-zigzag motif, as for example that on the apse of the twelfth-century church of the Panagia at Asinou in Cyprus.

My remarks have sought to demonstrate that certain so-called ‘decorative' features in Byzantine architecture and painting were actually imbued with important symbolic messages. Central among these, as we have seen, was the ‘radiant frieze' used to convey the notion of Divine Light. Whether executed in paint, in brick and mortar, or in some other material, the rendition of this symbol depended on the medium in which it was executed, but its ultimate visual effect, regardless of the medium, was invariably three-dimensional. The exact implications of this observation do not have a ready answer, though its appearance in the context of the Byzantine artistic tradition that generally tended to-play down three-dimensionality is striking. Are we entitled to contemplate three-dimensionality as a divine prerogative that generally remained off-limits to the humans and – therefore, by extension – its selective use in Byzantine architecture and art as a three-dimensional symbol in reference to divine light? The question and the implications it raises are too great to be solved within the framework of a single lecture. If the question that is being posed is the right question, my goal for now will have been accomplished.

Professor Slobodan Curcic
Princeton University