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Moving Eyes: Surface and Shadow in the Byzantine Mixed-Media Relief Icon
Author(s): Bissera V. Pentcheva
Source: RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 55/56, Absconding (Spring - Autumn,
2009), pp. 222-234
Published by: The President and Fellows of Harvard College acting through the Peabody
Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
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222 RES 55/56 SPRING/AUTUMN 2009

Figure 1. The Icon of the Virgin and Child, ninth-fourteenth

centuries. Wood carving and metal revetment before the restoration,
approx. 139 x 48 cm. Monastery of the Visitation, Treviso. Photo:

Soprintendenza Beni Culturali, Veneto.

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Moving eyes
Surface and shadow in the Byzantine mixed-media relief icon

a Claudio Rorato e alle suore del Monastero della

Visitazione a Treviso

space, setting it up like a sculpture in an extended field.

In focusing on one such relief icon, the Virgin and Child
atTreviso (ninth to fourteenth centuries), my essay will

Just as the divine Logos became humanly perceptible

when it acquired the cover of flesh, so too the divine
pneuma (spirit), according to the Byzantines, could be
sensed in veils of materiality whether coruscating gold,
or the smoke of incense, or the layering of lacy shadows
of polykandela (candelabra) on the translucent reflective
marble surfaces of walls and floors, or the covers of
unfurling opalescent silks. Epiphany in Greek derives
from epiphaneia, meaning "appearance" and "surface/'
To perceive the divine mystery means to experience
its reflection in matter. The Byzantine mixed-media

relief icon is the best example of this phenomenon of

swaddling the ineffable.1 Its material sheaths of gold
and gems interact with the shifting ambient light and
human presence in space. I will argue that these myriad

explore the Byzantine display of pneuma and animation

paradoxically achieved through the spectacle of myriad
appearances emerging from darkness, moving shadows,
flickering lights, and metallic glitter.

A slender standing Mother of God holds the Christ

Child in her arms (fig. 1). Both figures are carved in
bas-relief on a thick board. Originally, their plastic
shapes were painted; yet, only their faces are now
exposed, free of metal sheaths, showing a flesh-like
tawny-olive color (fig. 2).3 The rest of the reliefs and the

entire background are covered in glittering gilded silver

revetments. This rich assembly of metal pieces bears the
marks of centuries of production: the revetment of the
sides and the vault of the arch are of the twelfth century;

appearances?epiphaneiai?give rise to a powerful

the cabochons, haloes, the decorative border of the

tunics, and the acanthus rinceaux are of the fourteenth

experience of animation in the image. Like a reflective

century, while the rest of the drapery suggest a later,

mirror, the meaning of the Byzantine eikon rises from the

interaction of subject and object; the faithful projects his/

post-Byzantine date.4
This is a hybrid icon-relic (figs. 1-5). It consists of
two boards, bound together on one side with hinges.
The upper displays the carved bas-reliefs of the Mother
and Child. Its backside is gently hollowed out, forming
a cavity (fig. 3). This repository is closed by a second
board,5 whose interior is lined with ninth- or tenth

her own image and breath on the surfaces of the icon.

This essay is an exploration of animation arising in the
eye of the beholder but triggered by artistic creation

anticipating and responding to the diversity and change

of the ambience.

We tend to view Byzantine icons in the controlled

environment of the museum display. Here the steady
electric light flattens their surfaces, making them fully

visible. Such artificial, steady light stabilizes one aspect

of an appearance and reduces the experience of the
mixed-media relief icon to that of a panel painting.2 By
contrast, the medieval display embedded the icon in
1. This article presents a case study of a larger exploration of
phenomenology and aesthetics in Byzantine art developed in my
forthcoming book, The Sensual Icon: Space, Ritual, and the Senses in
Byzantium (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009).
2. For further critique of the modern museum display of medieval
art, see S. Gerstel, "The Aesthetics of Orthodox Faith," Art Bulletin

87/2 (2004):331-341, esp. p. 332; and D. Kinney, "The Apse Mosaic

of Santa Maria in Trastevere," in Reading Medieval Images: The Art
Historian and the Object (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press,

2002), pp. 19-25.

3. E. Fedeli and C. Stangherlin, "Le analisi stratigrafiche,"

in L'icona della "Madre di Dio" e il Crocifissio del Monastero

della Visitazione di Treviso, eds. C. Delfini Filippini and L. Majoli

(Venice: Soprintendenza per il Ratrimonio Artistico, Storico e
Demoetnoantropologico del Veneto, 2002, andVillorba: Grafische
Marini Villorba, 2002), pp. 55-59. For the dating of the reliefs to the
ninth century, see M. Mason, "Un'icona lignea mediobizantina. La
'Beata Vergine della cintura detta 'di Costantinopoli' nel Monastero

della Visitazione di Treviso," Miscellanea Marciana 17 (2002):7-46.

Further confirmation for the earlier date is given by the position of the
hands of Mary, which wrap the body of the Child, unlike the later post
Iconoclast iconography of one hand lifted in prayer. See Pentcheva,

Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium (University Park:

Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), pp. 110-120.

4. C. Mattiello, "II restauro della fodera d'argento," in L'icona

della "Madre di Dio" (ibid.), pp. 51-54.

5. A. Bigolin, "II restauro dell'icona," in L'icona della "Madre di

Dio" (note 3), pp. 43-50.

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224 RES 55/56 SPRING/AUTUMN 2009

Figure 2. The Icon of the Virgin and Child, ninth-fourteenth centuries. View of the painted
surfaces after the removal of the metal revetments. Monastery of the Visitation, Treviso.

Photo: Mara Mason.

century Byzantine silk (figs. 4 and 5).6 The C-14 analysis

of the front panel, identified as poplar, has given a dating
in the late seventh to the late eighth or ninth centuries.

This icon-relic container is kept in a luminous

chapel in the Monastery of the Visitation in Treviso.8
Its historical, artistic, and cultural significance has

The back cover, recognized as wood of a plane tree, has

not been subjected to the C-14 study.7

only recently been uncovered in a series of scholarly

studies.9 Starting in 1998, Claudio Rorato gave the

6. G. Passarella, "La pulitura del tessuto applicato sul supporto

ligneo," F. Piovan, "II tessuto: Dati tecnici e descrittivi," C. Cagnoni, "La
ricostruzione grafica del frammento di tessuto," and M. Marchesini, S.
Marvelli, P. Torri, "Le indagini palinologiche," in L'icona della "Madre
di Dio" (note 3), pp. 73-105. The silk is of three files, red, yellow, and
green. The design, identified as a Tree of Life, shows alternating pairs of
griffins, eagles/peacocks, and parrots.
7. N. Martinelli, "La datazione radiometrica del supporto ligneo
col C-14" and A. Zanaboni, "Analisi qualitativa per il riconoscimento

8. C. Rorato, "L'esposizione dell'icona," in L'icona della "Madre

di Dio" (note 3), pp. 13-15.

dell a essenza legnosa," in l'icona della "Madre di Dio" (note 3), pp.


9. On the history of the icon and the monastery of San Giuseppe,

seeV. Carini Venturini, "La Madonna 'di Costantinopoli' e San
Giuseppe di Castello," in L'icona della "Madre di Dio" (note 3), pp.
1 7-39. The Augustine nunnery moved from Verona to Venice, settling
in to the monastery of San Giuseppe, in the second decade of the
sixteenth century. Although an image of a Madonna in this monastery
of San Giuseppe is mentioned in a document from 1567, the first
identification of an object with the miraculous icon of the Virgin of
Constantinople only appeared in 1618. In the seventeenth century,

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Pentcheva: Moving eyes 225

impetus for the icon's restoration and research. Mara

Mason and Gianfranco Fiaccadori have suggested

two hypotheses about the possible Constantinopolitan
provenance. Mason has identified it with the icon of the
famous Chalkoprateia church, an imperial foundation,
where the relics of Mary's belt?zone?were kept.10
Fiaccadori, by contrast, has seen it as the palatial icon
of the Mother of God, Oikokyra, "The Mistress of the
House."11 The Oikokyra was kept in the imperial chapel
of the Virgin of the Pharos.12 It formed the focus of the

baptismal ceremony of the newborn offspring. During

this ceremony, a long piece of cloth was extended from
the Oikokyra to the arms of the new mother, holding the
baby in these folds of silk. This symbolic gesture of hands
covered with cloth, linking the empress on earth with the
empress of Heaven, signified the joint terrestrial/celestial
protection of the new imperial progeny.13
Despite the attraction of these two studies, Mason's
Chalkoprateia and Fiaccadori's Oikokyra remain
hypothetical identifications. There is no independent
textual or material evidence to secure a conclusion.

Only in the seventeenth century do the sources about

the Treviso icon begin to suggest a link with the
Byzantine capital by naming the object "la Madonna
di Costantinopoli."14 As tempting as it is to reconstruct

a hypothetical medieval ritual with this icon-relic, this

essay will refrain from such an approach. Instead of
exploring the ritual use of the image and its lost relic, my
analysis will focus on the corporeal perception of this

object?aesthesis in Greek.

the foundation profited from the patronage of the rich mercantile

(goldsmiths) family of Bontempelli (called "Dal Calese"), who traded

in the East, especially Syria; the Bontempelli might have been the
ones who brought the miraculous icon to Venice. See Venturini,
"La Madonna 'di Costantinopoli" (ibid.), pp. 24-25. In 1801, the
Augustinian nuns accepted the suore from the French royal order of
St. Francis de Sales, who had fled Lyon in 1 793 after the Revolution.
It is this order of the Visitandine that today preserves the icon of the

Madonna di Costantinopoli. In 1913, the nuns transferred from Venice

to a new monastery of Santa Maria del Rovere alle Corti in Treviso.
For further discussion, see also A.D. 2000. Nativita e Giubileo, ed. A.
Alexandre (Treviso: GMV Libri, 2000).

10. Mason, "Un'icona lignea mediobizantina" (see note 3), pp.


11. G. Fiaccadori, "Parergon tarvisinum," Miscellanea Marciana 1 7


12. M. Bacci, "La Vergine OIKOKYRA, Signora del Grande Palazzo.

Lettura di un passo di Leone Tusco sulle cattive usanze dei greci,"
Annali della Scuola Normale Supehore di Pisa, series IV, vol. 111/1 (Pisa,


13. Pentcheva, Icons and Power (see note 3), pp. 30-31, 35.
14. Venturini, "La Madonna 'di Costantinopoli'" (see note 9), pp.


Figure 3. The Icon of the Virgin and Child, ninth-fourteenth

centuries. The back side of the figural panel, revealing the relic
cavity. Monastery of the Visitation, Treviso. Photo by the author.

Poikilia: Simulation versus mimesis

The moving diurnal light and flickering of candles
across material surfaces create highlights and shadows,
giving rise to myriad appearances. The Byzantines
designated such a polymorphous surface poikilos (an
adjective, meaning "diverse") or having poikilia (a noun
meaning "diversity"). These words describe phenomenal
effects sensually experienced.15 Poikilia was understood
as animation: the presence of the spirit in matter. The
design of the mixed-media relief icons anticipated the
spectacle of poikilia. Not surprisingly, such icons of
repousse gold, pearls, gems, and enamel emerged as the
preferred form in Constantinople in the course of the
tenth and eleventh centuries. This development started
already during Iconoclasm (726-843); it was signaled
by the shift away from painting towards a new definition

of e/7con as the imprint?typos?of visual characteristics

on matter, which established the relief icon in precious
metals as the privileged form.16
As a mere imprint of exterior features, the typos

lacked sacred energy. By contrast, true presence resided

15. On poikilia as an aesthetic category in Byzantine culture, see

Pentcheva, "The Performative Icon," Art Bulletin 88 (2006):631-655

and The Sensual Icon (see note 1), chaps. 4-5.

16. Pentcheva, The Sensual Icon (see note 1), chaps. 3-7.

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226 RES 55/56 SPRING/AUTUMN 2009

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Figure 5. The Icon of the Virgin and Child, ninth-fourteenth

centuries. A plaster cast showing the mounting of the two
boards and the relic cavity. Monastery of the Visitation, Treviso.
Photo by the author.

in the relic, yet access to it was restricted by material

covers.17 The Treviso icon is a carefully constructed
object; it combines the icon with the relic. Its relief
surfaces respond to the light; their poikilia generates a
sense of animation. Yet, sacred energy is nonreflective,

nonglittering: It is the hidden relic in the core of the wood.

The Byzantine mixed-media eikon presents a meaning

in flux, consolidating and unraveling in the phenomenal
world of breathing space, flickering and moving
Figure 4. The Icon of the Virgin and Child, ninth-fourteenth
centuries. The inside of the cover of the relic cavity with ninth
or tenth-century Byzantine silk. Monastery of the Visitation,

Treviso. Photo: Soprintendenza di Beni Culturali, Veneto.

1 7. On the Byzantine concealment of the relic, see Pentcheva,

"The Performance of Relics," in Performing Byzantium, ed. M. Mullet
(Aldershot, Hampshire, U.K.: Ashgate, forthcoming).

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Pentcheva: Moving eyes 227

causes the flame of candles to flicker, bringing about

the shimmering splendor of the gold and the dance of
shadows across the complex surfaces of the image. It is

the even and steady electric lights, the face is bland and
inanimate (fig. 1). By contrast, seen under the unsteady
flicker of a candle or oil lamps, this face acquires life.
Something miraculous happens with her gaze changing
directions and giving expressions of emotion. As one
moves a candle towards her face, the shadow in her

this dynamic poikilia that endows the object with life.18

upper lids decreases, lending the impression that she is

light, and drafts of air. It is the human voice, breath,

movement that bring about animation in the icon. With

each gesture, or word, or simple breathing, the faithful

The Byzantine icon acquires life through the changes in

the ambiance, and especially through human presence.
Byzantine culture employed a series of terms to
designate the icon's animation: empsychos, empnous

("in-spirited," from en?"in,".psyche or pneuma?

"spirit"), and teleiotes (from teleo?"to accomplish,
complete, perfect, and induct into the mysteries").19

Spirit in Greek is pneuma, and pneuma designates a

series of interlinked concepts: spirit, incense, fire, and
breath. It is human breath that agitates the glitter of gold,
and this shimmer itself manifests trembling fire, which
in turn marks the entry of divine spirit into matter?an

empsychosis?making the object an empsychos/

empnous graphe. Matter becomes kecharitomene,
meaning the descending charis/grace has infused the
surface, manifesting its presence through the trembling
glitter of gold.20

The second term, teleiotes, is interlinked with

empsychos and empnous; it captures the mystery of

the Eucharist, of the Holy Ghost descending in matter
and transforming the ordinary bread and wine into the
body and blood of Christ. Teleiotes and its noun teleiosis
designate completion, perfection, realization, and
induction into the mysteries. It is a term about fulfillment

and divine dispensation to access the mysteries. Both

empsychos and teleiotes eikon speak of concealment
and revelation: of presence understood as perfection and
realization of the spirit in matter.21

Moving eyes and shimmering body

The eyes of the bas-relief face of the Treviso Mother of

God are painted on the surface of the wood (fig. 2). The
irises, colored brown, appear closer to the upper lid. In
normal, unfocused light, Mary's gaze is thus always ever
so-slightly drifting upward, towards heaven. Seen under

18. For the perception of phenomenal presence effects as

animation of the icon, see Pentcheva, The Sensual Icon (note 1), chaps.

5 and 6.

19. Ibid., introduction, chaps. 1-2, 5-7.

20. Ibid., chaps. 5-7.

21. On empsychos, empnous, teleiotes, and on charis as glitter, see

Pentcheva, The Sensual Icon (note 1).

turning her gaze straight on or down to look at you (fig.

6). At the same time, when the candle is pulled down,

the shadow spreading at the lower lid convinces the
viewer to experience Mary's gaze as peaking upward
towards heaven (fig. 7). Similarly, the movement of the
candle to the left or to the right creates new shadows
on the opposite sides, triggering the perception of
a movement of her eyes to the right and to the left

respectively (figs. 8 and 9). All these changes are subtle,

difficult to capture on a photograph, but perceptible
to the eye of the beholder. Furthermore, the trembling,

flickering light also spreads pulsating shadows, endowing

the surface of the face with liveliness and suppleness.
This play of shadows affecting the perceived gaze
of the icon captures the significance of prayer. As
the faithful lift their candles in the act of prayer, they

perceive Mary's benevolence. She opens herself to their

requests; her gaze falls on the supplicant (fig. 6). As the
prayer culminates and the human hands bring the candle

down, Mary's gaze moves in the opposite direction?

upward?escorting the human prayer to an upper,

celestial realm (fig. 7).
The Treviso icon of the Mother of God becomes
empsychos graphe (in-spirited image) through the play of
phenomenal shadows in her eyes. Because this is a wood
relief image, animation manifests itself as skiagraphia
(skia?"shadow," graphia?"image-making") of actual
light and shadow drifting across the face.22 Other Middle
Byzantine icons, such as the luxurious gold repousse
image of the Archangel Michael in the Treasury of San
Marco, Venice, present a variation of this experience of
animation manifested in the glitter of precious metal. His

22. Victor Stoichita has studied the concept of shadow in the

development of Western artistic tradition starting with Pliny and Plato,
skipping the Middle Ages and Eastern art in order to focus on the
Renaissance and later periods. He is concerned with the hermeneutics
of shadow and its role in the discourse on pictorial naturalism and
abstraction (Stoichita, A Short History of the Shadow [London:
Reaktion, 1997]). By contrast, my analysis focuses on the Greek
skiagraphia, understood as the changes phenomenal (nonpictorial)
light and shadow reflected/absorbed by the surfaces made on the
appearance and perception of medieval objects. My interest is also
directed towards sculpture and presence effects (sculpture in the

expanded field).

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228 RES 55/56 SPRING/AUTUMN 2009

Figure 6. The Icon of the Virgin and Child, ninth-fourteenth centuries. A close-up of the face of the Mother
of God; the shadows conveying the impression of her gazing straight on. Monastery of the Visitation, Treviso.
Photo by the author.

eyes, bas-relief repousse gold, capture the flicker of light

in bright, shining accents. Thus, the Archangel's gaze has
an incinerating power of the fiery divine all-seeing eye.
His burning gaze also rotates as the candlelight moves,
but differs from the gentle play of phenomenal shadows,
which create the impression of the Treviso Madonna
moving her eyes.23
For the Byzantines, the glitter of gold?denoted
as charis?manifested divine presence: the spirit
descending in matter.24 While the Treviso icon does
not express charis through the gleam of Mary's eyes
(something achieved in the repousse icon of the
Archangel), it conveys the presence of charis through
the shimmer of its vast metal revetments. We know from

Byzantine sources, such as the typikon of the monastery

of the Mother of God Kosmosoteira (kosmos?"world,"
soteira?"savior") in Pherrai/Bera (Northern Greece,
23. On the moving eyes of the Archangel Michael icon, see
Pentcheva, The Sensual Icon (note 1), chap. 5.
24. On charis as glitter, see Pentcheva (ibid.).

founded in 1152) that the trembling candlelight made

these icons appear empsychai.25 A section of this
document narrates how the series of lights, prescribed

for the annual celebrations of the feasts of the Mother of

God, transformed the images into empnontai (filled with

the breath/spirit) eikones:
I order on each feast of the Mother of God throughout
the year. . . that the four torches (lampada) are lit for the
center of the naos and two eight-pronged candleholders

{manoualia) [are placed] one pair for each of the

proskynesis icons, the Exceedingly Holy Christ and the
exalted Theometor [Mother of God, from Theos?"God,"
and meter?"mother"] Kosmosoteira that is so masterfully
fashioned in iconic form {eikonistai), that it seems to the
eyes [of the viewers] that the image is empnous, and almost
graceful (alive) {charitoessan) to the ones seeing [her]. Such
is the miracle (thauma) to be seen, which the bas relief

25. L. Petit, "Typikon du monastere de la Kosmosotira pres

d'Aenos/' Izvestija Russkogo Archeologiceskago Instituta v

KonstantinopoleM (1908):17-75; section 9, pp. 23-24.

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Pentcheva: Moving eyes 229

Figure 7. The Icon of the Virgin and Child, ninth-fourteenth centuries. A close-up of the face of the Mother of
God, the shadows suggesting she is gazing upward. Monastery of the Visitation, Treviso. Photo by the author.

(typous) [proskynesis icons made] according to lifelikeness

{zographian), so that [they appear] empnous and as if
moving (kinoumenen) spatially (topiko diastemati) and in
this respect one could praise the craftsman {technourgon)
who obtained from the first Creator and Lord the wisdom/
inspiration (sophias) of lifelike representation (zographian).
For who, would not call him [the craftsman] blessed
(makariseie) after wiping clean the form/surface (eidos) of
the typoi, looking like it is alive with his sight and his heart?
But before each of these icons I would like to light triform
meshed silver [candle holders], which should hang fittingly
before each [eikon]. . . . In this way, I would like this most

splendid effusion of light (photagogian lamprotaten) to be

executed (teleisthai) during the feasts of the Theometor, from
whom we have acquired our hope of intercession (mesiteias)
and salvation (soterias), which I would like to honor above

all with expensive perfumes (polytelesi myrois) and incense


26. TTdaav uev ouv EopTrjv, Asyco Tfjs 0sourj-ropos nap' oAov
Eviauxov. . . . TEoadpcov AauTTaScov uspi toO vaou to UEaafxaTov Kai
OKTa())cbTcov uavouaAfcov 5uo uspi tqs 5uo TTpoaKuvrjaeis icrrauevcov,

Already in the description of the Marian image,

the subject of the sentence shifts from the object

(eikonisma) to the Virgin herself, emphasizing the power

of shimmering presence effects?this phenomenal
TTepi uipn. <4>r|Mi toO vaou xd SKdxspa, iv ois 6 xd uTTEpdya06s uou

Xpiaxos Kai f| ?Eouiyrcop Kai KoauoacbxEipa ayav xsxvriEvxtos

EtKovioxai, coc SokeFv xofs opcbai xd EiKovfauaxa suTrvoa Kai auxf)v
XapxoEaoav uiKpou 5rj $r\[\\ dTTO0Af(3Eiv TTpos xous opcbvxas xou

axouaxos, Sauna ovxcos iSsaSai xous xuttous xfjv ?toypa<(Mav aSaUEp

xfjv euttvoov Kai Kivouuivriv xoTTiKcp Siaaxrjuaxi Kai ouxco Ka0uu.vrjaai
xov xsxvoupyov xov ek xou Trpcoxou 5r]|JioupyoO Kai Seottoxou xfjv
oo(j>fav xfjs Ccoypa(j>fas KaivoTTpETrcbs KAr|pcoadu.EVov. Tfs yap xouxov

KapSfa aTrouop^duEvos; aAAd ys xafs eikooiv auxafs avdirxEaSai

xouxcov EKdoxrj Kai xpi^usfs 0puaAAi5as xds apyupoxsuKxous
PouA6u.E0a, as evcottiov auxcov euttpettcos avripxrjaauEV . . . ouxco
SrjiTEp xrjv ())coxaycoyfav Aaupoxdxnv xEAEta0ai pouA6u.E0a xats Tfjs
0Eourjxopos Eopxafs, TTpos rjv xds tt)s Msoixsfas Kai acoxriptas r)ucbv
EATrf5as KEKxrjusSa, rjv dpa TTpos Tofs aAAois Kai uupois ttoAueAeoi
Kai 0uu.idu.aai 5E^ioOa0ai PouA6u.E0a, from Typikon of the Monastery of
theTheotokos Kosmosoteira (ca. 1152), section 9, edited by Petit (ibid.),

pp. 23-24.

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230 RES 55/56 SPRING/AUTUMN 2009

Figure 8. The Icon of the Virgin and Child, ninth-fourteenth centuries. A close-up of the face of the Mother of
God, the shadows creating an impression as if she is gazing to the right and up. Monastery of the Visitation,
Treviso. Photo by the author.

poikilia?to seduce the viewer into perceiving the object

as the Mother of God in person.

lamps that would also in turn animate the icons through

flickering light.

As stated earlier, in the Byzantine understanding, charis

often expressed itself in metallic glitter and reflection.
Therefore, in calling the icon of the Mother of God
charitottousa, the writer was simultaneously describing
both a welcoming and, more importantly, a shining face
of metallic glitter. This leads me to suggest that the term

In the process of composing his typikon, Isaakios

Komnenos was seeing in his mind's eye the agitated

zographia should not be immediately identified with

spectacle of flickering light catching metallic reliefs,

reflecting vividly from the rich surfaces of the mixed

media icons. Divine presence is initiated and performed

through the brightest splendor: photagogia lamprotate:
And this photismos is simultaneously immersed in the

the normative "painting," but as designating lifelikeness

fragrance of burning thymiama and perfume. The mixture

achieved phenomenally.27This interest in poikilia is also

of vivid reflections (in Greek zotikai emphaseis) with

incense achieved the type of sensual saturation sought
by the patron.28
The animation issuing from metallic glitter has a

expressed in the request for multiple candelabra and oil

27. Later on, the typikon specified that the proskynesis icon of
the Virgin is full-length and memouseiomene (sect. 89, vv. 26-28),
meaning it was either made of mosaic or enamel. Similarly, the second
Marian icon at the tomb of the founder is said to be a bas-relief in silver

strange touch of sacrifice in it. The technique of fire

gilding in the Middle Ages was achieved with mercury.

Red-hot gold grains or thin plates were thrown in heated

{egkolaphtenai dia tou argyrou ergou, eyKoAa^Sfjvai tt\v Seotokov

to euov eykoAttiov ev UTncp Tcp axrjuaTi PouAouai 5id tou dpyupou
Epyou). See Typikon of the Monastery of the Theotokos Kosmosoteria

(ca. 1152); section 89 vv. 22-23, p. 63, in Petit (see note 25).

28. On the glitter of gold and the perfume of incense as indicators

of the descent of the Spirit in matter, see Pentcheva, The Sensual Icon

(note 1), chaps. 1, 2, and 5.

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Pentcheva: Moving eyes 231

^^^^^H^^^^^^^^^^^^Blll ^^^^
Figure 9. The Icon of the Virgin and Child, ninth-fourteenth centuries. A close-up of the face of the Mother
of God, the shadows creating an impression as if she is gazing to the left and up. Monastery of the Visitation,
Treviso. Photo by the author.

mercury (in proportion 1/6 to 8 gold to mercury). When

the amalgam had cooled down, it was squeezed through
leather to remove the excess mercury. The resulting
mixture had the consistency of butter and a yellowish
silvery color. The surface of the metal object was
prepared with a layer of mercury (freshly quicked), and
then the amalgam was applied to it. Then the object was
gently heated in order to evaporate the excess mercury.29
Mercury by itself is very poisonous.30 While creating an
intricate maze of gold rinceaux and molding the material
into a beautiful shining surface, the craftsman poisoned
himself by breathing the noxious fumes of mercury. Thus

the very production of the glittering splendor demanded

sacrifice of human life.31

The reality of empsychos graphe

In uncovering the vanished performance of the
moving eyes of the Treviso icon of the Mother of God
and the life-consuming splendor of its epiphaneiai
(surfaces), this essay would like to recuperate a mode
of human perception/interaction with objects that has
been lost today. This disappearance of the phenomenal
poikilia has made philologists and art historians (when
reading Byzantine texts about animated images) to
interpret "animated"(empsyc/7os) and its synonyms as
literary topoi, lacking reality, or to view these words as

markers of Platonic or Aristotelian philosophical leaning,

disengaged from any disocurse on the making of and
presentation of the eikon.32

29. On fire-gilding and the related bibliography, see Grove

Dictionary of Art (Oxford University Press) at
30. The technique of fire-gilding has been banned in modern

immured a living human being in the fabric of the building. See I.

Kadare, The Three-Arched Bridge, trans. J. Hodgson (New York: Arcade


Publishing, 1997).

31. This human sacrifice for the sake of artistic beauty dominates
a series of myths from the Balkans, narrating how the stonemason

32. Two recent interpretations of empsychos graphe have appeared:

1) as literary topos, an argument put forward by E. Papaioannou in

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232 RES 55/56 SPRING/AUTUMN 2009

Michael Psellos, a writer, intellectual, philosopher

turned-monk of the eleventh century, often used the

"metaphor" of the moving gaze and the animated image

or statue: empsychos graphe/andrias. In his address to
the emperor, he likened the imperial presence to one
such empsychos andrias:
[You, emperor Constantine IX Monomachos 1042-1054]
stand before me on your highest mountain (oros), an
animated statue {empsychos andrias), made in repousse
{sphyrelatos), you have established a ring (kyklose) by
casting {periago) your eye around and with your pupil
illuminating {perilampon) everything.33

This passage starts with the animated gaze of the statue

and escalates into the crescendo of the incandescent all
seeing eye, rotating and scanning all around itself.
In a recent study, Stratis Rapaioannou has masterfully

exposed how the Psellan metaphor of animated statues

is indebted to the Late Antique literature of Gregory of

Nazianzos, Plotinos, and Proklos. These early literary

sources equated external beauty with internal virtue,
yet giving priority to internal beauty. In embracing his

Late Antique predecessors, Psellos pushed the metaphor

even further, towards the prioritization of exteriority.

He was fascinated with the animation of surface and

with the exterior to an extreme, identifying his writing

and his spirituality to the animated statue, chiastically

morphing the spiritual body into the material soul.34
For Papaioannou, Psellos surpassed his predecessors,
prefiguring in his discursive metaphor the prevalence
and independence of exteriority.

"Animated statues: aesthetics and movement/' in Reading Michael

Psellos, ed. Ch. Barber and D. Jenkins, The Medieval Mediterranean:

Peoples, Economies and Cultures, 400-1500, vol. 61 (Leiden/Boston:

Brill, 2006), pp. 95-116; and 2) as a marker of Aristotelian and Platonic
thinking with no formal bearing on the artistic form, Ch. Barber,
Contesting the Logic of Painting: Art and Understanding in Eleventh
Century Byzantium (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007) and his article "Living
painting, or the limits of pointing? Glancing at icons with Michael

Psellos," in Reading Michael Psellos (ibid.), pp. 235-253. For an

extended critique of these two interpretations, see Pentcheva, The

Sensual Icon (note 1), chap. 7.

33. lTf|0i uoi iv TfjToOooO opous aKpoTnri 6uv|ajxos dvSpias
Kai o<()uprjXaTos, kukAcooe TTEpiccycov tov 6<|)0aAudv kou ttocvtcxs

Both eloquent and convincing, Papaioannou's

philological argument emphasized the discursive nature
of the metaphor of the moving eyes. Yet, is Psellos's
fascination, with exteriority just a marker of his literary

genius and proleptic insight? I will argue that Psellos

was not the agent of change. Rather, he was affected
by the poikilia of the Byzantine mix-media icon. This
object performed animation as a series of shifting
presence effects. Both the moving shadows in the eyes
of the Theotokos in Treviso or the fiery rotating gaze of

the Archangel Michael icon from San Marco offer such

examples. They show the Byzantine atechnes kinesis,
a movement without art, a sense of animation and
lifelikeness achieved through changing phenomenal
effects. The Byzantine category of lifelikeness, of

something zen (from zao?"to live") and empsychos,

was often connected to phenomenal effects, not pictorial
naturalism. Animation arose from the interaction of
the object with the changing environment and human
presence in space. The viewer perceiving the icon's
poikilia then recognized the image as full of life. The
empsychos eikon needed shifting light and human
breath in order for its surfaces to become kecharitomene:
infused with the glitter of reflected light and playful

slithering shadows. Its intricate complex surfaces

anticipated the phenomenal poikilia.
The mixed-media relief icon required partial visibility,
the visual but not the visible. Georges Didi-Hubermann
has introduced the opposition of visible versus visual
in medieval art in his discussion of figura. He has
argued that this term cannot be narrowed down to an
anthropomorphic shape and simply studied through
iconography. Instead, the medieval figura is a visual
marker. Didi-Hubermann identifies it in Fra Angelico's
blotches of color and fictive marbles that function

allegorically and apophatically, establishing a link

between terrestrial and celestial by contrasting them. The
Didi-Hubermannian figura emerges as the rupture in the
world of recognizable and classifiable shapes, allowing
for the supernatural, the divine, to manifest itself.35

While inspired by Didi-Hubermann's discussion, my

analysis differs from his. My concern is not with the

opposition of anthropomorphic (iconic) versus non

iconic figurae, but with the role of phenomenal effects

TrepiAcxuTTcov xcp pAeuucm, Psellos, Enkomion to Emperor Constantine

IX Monomachos, in Orationes panegyricae, ed. G. Dennis (Stuttgart:

Teubner, 1994), oration VI, vv. 247-250. Passage quoted and discussed

by Rapaioannou (ibid.), pp. 95-116.

34. Rapaioannou (note 33). S. Efthymiades, who reviewed the
article, insisted that Psellan aesthetics of exteriority is a prefiguration of

modern sensitivity, a claim absent from Papaioannou, Speculum 83/2


35. On visual versus visible, see G. Didi-Hubermann, "Puissance

de la figure: Exegese et visualite dans l'art chretien," Encyclopedia
Universalis: Symposium (Paris, 1990), pp. 608-621; and The Power of
the Figure. Exegesis andVisuality in Christian Art, trans. K. Burman and
R. Spolander (Umea, Sweden: Department of the History and Theory of
Art, Umea University, 2003).

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Pentcheva: Moving eyes 233

in the perception of medieval objects. While employing

the same terms?visible and visual?my analysis

identifies the visual as the changing appearances of

surfaces, shifting the perception of the Byzantine icon
from painting towards sculpture in an extended field.
My use of "visual" refers to the totality of everything

seen: light, reflection, faint gleam, shadow, darkness;

to the experience of volume, three dimensionality, and
sculptural presence of the object. I am even tempted
to supplant "visual" with the term "sentient," enriching
the optical apprehension with the auditory, olfactory,
gustatory, and tactile experience of the object.
By contrast, the "visible" stands for the draining
of the visual, sculptural, and spatial from the icon.
It depends on the perfectly and statically lit object,
enabling the eye to grasp the shape and categorize
it as flat and two-dimensional. The visible conforms

to our standard understanding of the Byzantine icon

as flat painting. Moving away from the "visible" and
recuperating the "visual" and "sentient" in Byzantine art
would enable us to recognize a connection between the
performative mixed-media icon of Constantinople and
the late twentieth-century discourse on sculpture in the
expanded field.36
The perceptual experience of the "moving eyes"
of the Marian icon at Treviso, or its coruscating metal

sheaths, conveys divine presence and hence life/

animation in the image. It was the Byzantine relief
icon, with its poikilia of ever-changing appearances
that gave rise to an aesthetic of exteriority and to the

media icon became the focus of and the inspiration

behind the renewed Middle Byzantine interest in
empsychos andrias. But as a teleiotes eikon, the mixed
media relief icon allowed for a full, unreserved, and
unrestricted acceptance of exteriority; it fostered the

appreciation of aesthetic appearance and the perception

of phenomenal poikilia as movement/animation. So
rather than Papaioannou's conclusion that "the valuation
of what is aesthetic is Psellos's contribution within the
history of theories about the function, value, or non

value of exterior appearance/'37 it is the eleventh-century

Constantinopolitan performative mixed-media icons that
formed the valuation of exteriority. It is their poikilos

materiality that securely established the dominance

of the epiphanic. Psellos was not its generator, but the
product of these performative icons, reared and seduced
by their phenomenal power. At the same time, he clearly
recognized how the empnous quality of these objects
emerged from the interaction of the human hand with
the human eye: the artistic creation of the mixed-media
relief icon interacting with its environment and human

presence in space.

The Byzantine icon no longer presents itself to our

eyes as it did for Psellos. The static and controlled

conditions of the museum display usually work against

its poikilia. Only when placed once again in the diurnal
cycle of light and the trembling flicker of candles does
this object come to life: an empnous and empsychos
eikon of moving shadows and shimmering reflections
activated by human breath but experienced as divine
pneuma. In the case of the Treviso icon, this outward

perception of lifelikeness as phenomenal presence

effects. Thus, empsychos graphe/andrias is not a
simple discursive figure in Psellos's writings, but the
reality of the icon production and display in eleventh
century Constantinople. Both Psellan discourse and the
Middle Byzantine plastic icon with "moving eyes" and
shimmering body prioritized the poikilos surface, which
affected the soul through its chameleonic changes.
Only in recognizing the material reality of the Psellan
discursive metaphor of the empsychos graphe and
andrias in eleventh-century Constantinople can we

of the bas-relief, created by the flicker of candles, that

understand for the first time the development of a mature

enables us to experience the eikon of the Mother of God

Byzantine Christian equivalent to the Late Antique

modes of viewing and perception. The luxurious mixed

36. This embeddedness of the Byzantine icon in its environment

resonates with R. Krauss, "Sculpture in the expanded field," October
8 (1979):30-44. The interaction of earthwork with its specific site is
also present in M. Heidegger, "The origin of the work of art," in Poetry
Language, Thought, ed. and trans. A. Hofstadter (New York: Harper and

Row, 1971).

display of poikilia is a marker of the relic, kept in the

interior container and removed from sensual access.

Its mysterious presence colors the exterior display of

animation. The icon thus harmoniously veils divine

presence in the transient poikilia of shimmering surfaces.
It rises as the kecharitomene object, overshadowed by
the spirit.

It is this succession of presence effects on the surface

as being before us: an empsychos graphe. Life?psyche

and pneuma?emanates from her moving eyes. Presence
in a medieval object is in the visual and sentient, not
the visible; it is lurking in the shadow, being animated
by human gesture and breath.38 It is this cftar/s/glitter

37. Rapaioannou (see note 33), p. 97.

38. Pentcheva, The Sensual Icon (see note 1).

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234 RES 55/56 SPRING/AUTUMN 2009

of gold and moving shadows that veil, and by covering

paradoxically uncover the presence of something
ineffable and evanescent, present as long as our being in
space remains. Seeing the animation, the empsychosis of
the eikon, means adjusting to the darkness, to the cover
of the shadow, learning to read the discreet, delicate
perceptible movements that cumulatively bring about an
indescribable sense of otherworldly presence. Turning
away from the museum-type display of the uniformly
lit surface, leaving the regime of the fully visible, the

Byzantine visual experience unveils the spirit in the

shadow of the moving, flickering flame; of seeing as faith

and as sensually saturated experience.

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