The Iconoclasts and the Crucifixion, from The Chludov Psalter by Unknown Byzantine artist

Unknown Byzantine artist

The Iconoclasts and the Crucifixion, from The Chludov Psalter , c.850, Tempera on vellum, 195 x 150 mm, State Historical Museum, Moscow, MS. D. 129, fol. 67r, © State Historical Museum, Moscow

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Vandalizing the Byzantine Iconoclasts

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The Chludov Psalter boasts curious marginalia that are distinct from the larger miniatures more typical of Byzantine manuscripts. These small illuminations, which abound with likenesses of that which is ‘in heaven above’ and ‘in the earth below’ combine biblical themes with a visual history of Byzantine iconoclasm. Occupying a liminal space between text and page, they blur the boundary between biblical and contemporary times.

This folio features a verse from Psalm 69: ‘they gave me poison for food and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink’ (v.21). It is a psalm that Christian tradition links with Christ’s Passion (John 19:28–30). No surprise, then, that the page is dense with Crucifixion imagery.

Who is the figure at the bottom of the page who imposes himself upon the scene? His face has been rubbed away in an act of damnatio memoriae (‘condemnation of memory’). His hair splays out around his head—its wild and untamed appearance perhaps signalling (and condemning) an inner and spiritual disorder. He lifts a long pole surmounted by a circular shape which is decorated with an image of Christ. The wild-haired figure suspends this icon above a vessel of white liquid.

The man supporting the image of Christ is John the Grammarian, a dishonoured iconoclast about to whitewash an icon of Christ by plunging it into a tub of plaster. John threatens the image of Christ, whose likeness and incarnation makes God visible; the illumination vilifies John, whose assault on images becomes a new example of the sorts of ‘iniquity’ that—in a Christian dispensation—could be committed by ‘those who hate [God]’ (Exodus 20:5).

Subsequent readers eventually destroyed John’s image, rubbing out his face so that it is now barely visible. For his attempts to efface an image of Christ, it is John the Grammarian himself who has been all but erased.

 

References

Brubaker, Leslie. 2012. Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press)


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