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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Figure and Likeness: On the Limits of Representation in Byzantine Iconoclasm by Charles Barber (Princeton University Press) presents a thought-provoking new account of Byzantine iconoclasm--the fundamental crisis in Christian visual representation during the eighth and ninth centuries that defined the terms of Christianity's relationship to the painted image. Charles Barber rejects the conventional means of analyzing this crisis, which seeks its origin in political and other social factors. Instead, he argues, iconoclasm is primarily a matter of theology and aesthetic theory.

Figure and Likeness aims to recover for art history notions of form, likeness, and representation as discussed during Byzantine iconoclasm. It does so by a rigorous, succinct, and cogent account of the central views of the iconophiles across the 180 years of their dispute. Facing up to the widely held view that iconoclasm was the work of theologians that had little to do with the actual manufacture of art; Barber succeeds in persuading us to consider the evidence otherwise. His arguments are exact, his writing crisp, and his conclusions subtle and aesthetically and theologically informed. Figure and Likeness rekindles the iconoclasm debates as it pushes historians and theologians to reconsider basic assumptions about the ritual creation of art and its ideological justifications. What is especially useful is that it introduces the complex subject in a manner totally accessible to a nonspecialist audience is its brevity, for Barber manages to discuss complex matters with a welcome economy of words.

Working between the theological texts and the visual materials, Barber demonstrates that in challenging the validity of iconic representation, iconoclasts were asking: How can an image depict an incomprehensible God? In response, iconophile theologians gradually developed a notion of representation that distinguished the work of art from the subject it depicted. As such, Barber concludes, they were forced to move the language describing the icon beyond that of theology. This pivotal step allowed these theologians, of whom Patriarch Nikephoros and Theodore of Stoudios were the most important, to define and defend a specifically Christian art.

In highlighting this outcome and also in offering a full and clearly rendered account of iconoclastic notions of Christian representation, Barber reveals that the notion of art was indeed central to the unfolding of iconoclasm. The implications of this study reach well beyond the dispute it considers. Barber fundamentally revises not only our understanding of Byzantine art in the years succeeding the iconoclastic dispute, but also of Christian painting in the centuries to come.

The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian by James Allan Evans (University of Texas Press) 172 pp., 9 b&w photos, 2 maps Classics; women's studies; biography

There is no other book that gives Theodora as extensive or as penetrating treatment as this one . . . . The task is worthwhile, because Theodora is a figure of historical importance and great interest and perhaps the only Byzantine woman about whom the sources say enough to make even a short book feasible. -Warren Treadgold, author of A Concise History of Byzantium

Even by modern standards, the Empress Theodora (?-548) had a remarkable rise to power. Born into the lowest class of Byzantine society, she worked as an actress in burlesque theater. Yet she attracted the love of the future emperor Justinian, who, to the astonishment of proper society, made her not only his wife but also his partner in government. Justinian's respect for and trust in Theodora gave her power in her own right unmatched by almost any other Roman or Byzantine empress.

In this book, James Allan Evans provides a scholarly, yet highly accessible account of the life and times of the Empress Theodora. He follows her from her childhood as a Hippodrome bearkeeper's daughter to her imperial roles as Justinian's most trusted counselor and as an effective and powerful advocate for the downtrodden. In particular, he focuses on the ways in which Theodora worked to improve the lives of women. He also explores the pivotal role Theodora played in the great religious controversy of her time, involving a breach between sects in the Christian church.

Historical Dictionary of Byzantium by John H. Rosser (Scarecrow) The Byzantine Empire is often overlooked by Western scholars as an off-shoot of Greco-Roman tradition, an Eastern empire of little significance to Western European tradition. But Byzantium was really the only true European empire of the Middle Ages, the continuation of the Roman Empire in the East, long after the sacking of Rome by the Vandals. It began in 324 with the founding of Constantinople by the Christian emperor Constantine I. This city became the seat of the Eastern empire and the home and protector of Orthodox Christianity. It ended in 1453 with the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks. Byzantium left an enduring legacy through its art, in the Orthodox churches, and in its successor states such as Russia, Greece, and Serbia. The Byzantine Empire, its beginnings, development, and fall are summarized in a chronology and explained in the introduction. The dictionary then presents significant people (emperors, church leaders, generals, writers, etc.), events (wars, sieges, coups, councils and treaties) and important cultural aspects such as economics, art, and religion. A substantial bibliography is included for further reference on this extensive empire. This volume has proved to be an exceptionally useful tool for grasping the general particulars of Byzantine history and culture.


by John Julius Norwich


$35.00, hardcover, 431 pages, photo inserts, bibliography, index


At a moment when the splendors of Byzantine art are being rediscovered and celebrated in America, John Julius Norwich has brought together in this abridged edition the most important and fascinating events based on his trilogy of the rise and fall of the Byzantine Empire.

The three volume work is still very much in print and for those who want the grand sweep of things is preferable to this abridgement.Volume 1: Byzantium : The Early Centuries Volume 2: Byzantium : The Apogee Volume 3: Byzantium : The Decline and Fall.

With wit, intelligence and an unerring eye for arresting detail, Lord Norwich tells the dramatic history of Byzantium from its beginnings in AD 330 when Constantine the Great moved the imperial capital from Rome to the site of an old Greek port in Asia Minor called Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople, to its rise as the first and most long-lasting Christian empire, to its final heroic days and eventual defeat by the Turks in 1453.

It was a history marked by characterized by drastic changes in internal organization and drama: the adoption of Christianity by the Greco-Roman world; the fall of Rome and its empire; the defeat by the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert in 1071; the reigns of Constantine, Theodosius the Great, Justinian and Basil II. There were centuries of bloodshed in which the empire struggled for its life; centuries of controversy in which men argued about the nature of Christ and the Church; centuries of scholarship in which ancient culture was kept alive and preserved by scribes; and, most of all, centuries of creativity in which the Byzantine genius brought forth art and architecture inspired by a depth of spirituality unparalleled in any other age. After more than fourteen centuries, the brilliance of the mosaics of Ravenna and the ethereal splendor of the great church of St. Sophia in Istanbul still have the power to take one’s breath away.

As a spirited, gripping and original account of one of the greatest lost civilizations and its magnificent cultural heritage this volume is a one volume treasure.

John Julius Norwich was born in 1929. He was educated in Canada, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and at Oxford, where he took a degree in French and Russian. In 1 9 5 2 he joined the Foreign Service, serving at the embassies in Belgrade and Beirut, among other posts. In 1964, he resigned from the service in order to write. He has also published A History of Venice, A Taste for Travel and two volumes on the medieval Norman kingdom of Sicily. Lord Norwich, Chairman of the Venice in Peril Fund, is an active member of the House of Lords.


Mark Whittow
University of California Press
$17.95, paper; 502 pages; 14 maps, notes, Bibliography, index
This book is an excellent, up-to-date reassessment of the Byzantine empire during a crucial phase in the history of the Near East. Well illustrated with original maps, it covers the last decade of the Roman empire as a superpower of the ancient world, the crisis of the seventh century, and the means whereby its embattled Byzantine successor hung on in Constantinople and Asia Minor until the Abbasid Caliphate's decline opened up new perspectives for Christian power in the Near East. Chapters cover social and economic change, iconoclasm, the institutions of the Byzantine state, the military development that allowed the empire to strike back in the tenth century, the growing political tensions that led to civil war in the 970s and 980s, and the halt to further advance by that war's victor, Basil II. The author gives full attention to the empire's neighbors, allies, and enemies. The origins of Russia, relations with the nomad power of the steppe world, the competition between Bulgars, Romans and Slavs in the Balkans, and the rich but frequently ignored world of the Transcaucasus are all given extended treatment. No such wide-ranging work has appeared in English for nearly thirty years.

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