Theories of art

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


At the outset of this brief chapter, it is important that the topic be given some definition, as it is arguable that the subject of this contribution does not exist. For while Byzantium has certainly bequeathed a rich body of artifacts that we have chosen to define as works of art, it is arguable that Byzantine culture did not share our concept of “art.” Given this potential challenge to our assumptions, there is a need to ask whether “art” is an appropriate term and so whether the modern philosophical discipline that is indicated by the term “aesthetics” can inform our attempts to grapple with the conceptualizations of “art” that developed and circulated within Byzantine culture. While attempts have been made to bring such aesthetics to bear upon Byzantium, it is debatable whether they have brought clarity to our perception of Byzantine art or aesthetics. Similarly, it is unclear whether conceptualizations of the image that have been drawn from twentieth-century theology or dialogues with modernity have allowed a sufficiently historical understanding of Byzantine art to emerge. There have been relatively few studies of Byzantine theories of art or aesthetics as they pertain to the visual arts. André Grabar’s essays from the 1940s and 1950s framed Byzantine art in terms of a Neoplatonic legacy that reached back to Plotinos. Gervase Mathew’s Byzantine Aesthetics subsequently provided a fuller historical account that focused upon four themes: “a recurrent taste for classical reminiscence,” “an essentially mathematical approach to beauty,” “an absorbed interest in optics” especially light, and “a belief in the existence of an invisible world of which the material is the shadow.” Viktor Bychkov’s numerous b0oks emphasize a spiritual dimension within Byzantine aesthetics. More recently, a collection of essays, Aesthetics and Theurgy in Byzantium, has underlined the value of specific readings of the texts in play. In addition, two lengthy studies have brought Byzantine conceptions of the image into dialogue with contemporary philosophical perspectives. Marie-José Mondzain has argued for the relevance of the patriarch Nikephoros’ defense of the icon for modern discussions of the image, while Georges Arabatzis has provided a rich philosophical discussion of Byzantine aesthetics that revisits the ethical implications of the icon through an extensive engagement with both Byzantine authors and twentieth-century philosophy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Intellectual History of Byzantium
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9781107300859
ISBN (Print)9781107041813
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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