Review: Sacred Shock: Framing Visual Experience in Byzantium

Sacred Shock: Framing Visual Experience in Byzantium
Sacred Shock: Framing Visual Experience in Byzantium by Glenn Peers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You would not believe there was so much to say about the framing of icons, but there is, and it’s all fascinating. Glenn Peers does a fabulous job of describing how icons functioned theologically and devotionally. Then she examines the visual and artistic details and how they functioned to reinforce and enhance the theological and devotional functioning.

She interprets “framing” broadly here, including not only the physical frame one normally thinks of, but any elements of the icon that serve to frame its primary content, as well as the metal cladding with which some icons are adorned.

This book has greatly enhanced both my ability to notice and appreciate details of icons that I see in churches or museums, and my understanding of how icons function in the Orthodox faith tradition.

A few of the things I learned:

– icons are what I would call a “sacramental”. If a person is properly disposed (again, a term from my tradition) when praying before an icon, then it can mediate the presence of the person(s) whom it pictures, functioning as a window to heaven.

– the non-realistic perspectives, and the uniform illumination, are intended to illustrate heaven. In particular, there is no source of light – the Light is everywhere. Icons painted with gold backgrounds particularly help to illustrate this.

– In their original contexts, these icons were venerated in churches and monasteries that did not have much natural light. They were illuminated by candles or oil lamps. The flickering flames playing over the gold paint or gold leaf probably helped to give these images an impression of animation and presence.

– The interaction of the icon image with its frame or framing elements also contributes to the mediating function of the icon. For example, an icon that includes an angel may show the angel’s wings extending over the edge of the frame — as if it really is a window or a doorway, with the angel just on the other side.

Peers is an art historian, not a theologian, but she takes the religious context of the Byzantine religious art that she studies very seriously. Her art historian’s perspective examines and illuminates subtle details of sacred art that can only enhance the devotional gaze.

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