Nomina Sacra: Byzantine Aesthetics and the Unity of Text and Image


Presented at the Mid America College Art Association Biennial Conference. October 27, 2016

Since the publication of Roland Barthes seminal “Rhetoric of the Image”[1] semiotic inquiry has enjoyed privileged status as the dominant ideological paradigm for understanding word-image relations within the context of western cultural production.   An intellectual heir to Marxist political economy, semiotics transposed into art history is predicated on the notion that at its core, art –like the infamous Panzani advertisement- is intended by way of representation to express or communicate something to its viewer.  Thus to usefully interpret a work’s probable range of meaning(s) one must encounter it equipped with a knowledge of complex sociological structures that involve identifying mutually substantiating coded and non-coded linguistic and iconic messages.[2]

I won’t argue that this is an unproductive method for considering works of art. Indeed, the Everest of PhD dissertations rooted in semiotic analysis attests to its efficacy in generating novel interpretations of familiar works.  What I will argue, however, is that its basic premise, which holds signification as constituting an indispensible attribute of art, is not a unanimous or unassailable position. And further, that understanding works of art to comprise a system of coded social referents is a covertly limiting stance, one that knowingly or not, circumscribes the cultural terrain within which we can understand both what art is and what it does

Beginning with the very origins of western civilization, we discover that there are modes of visual encounter that prioritize being and actuality over sign and signification. These alternatives, viewed in the context of contemporary art, have the potential to open up new spaces for the radical reconsideration of relationships between viewer, image, object and text. 

For instance, scholar Deborah Steiner has demonstrated that in the classical world, sculptural objects occupied complex and multivalent spaces of presence and absence that far exceeds simple signification.  She notes that “statues were first and foremost regarded not as representational or aesthetic objects, but as performative and efficacious agents able to interact in a variety of ways with those who commissioned, venerated and on occasion defaced them.”[3]  For a citizen of ancient Athens or Sparta, a statue possessed an instrumentality that superseded the intent of its creation and their agency was often intertwined with text.

The well-known inscribed archaic sema, or memorial, of Phrasikleia, provides a useful example of Steiner’s observations regarding such works.  Created by Aristion of Pharos sometime around 540 BCE,[4], the epigram that accompanies this monument translates to “I, Phrasikleia’s sema, shall always be called girl, having received this name from the gods instead of marriage”[5] Because it is the statue itself that is speaking, rather than the girl the work was designed to commemorate, we find ourselves confronted with an object that is curiously self-aware. 

This statue is not then a signifier of Phrasikleia; it is, in a way,  “its own woman”.  The complexity deepens when one considers that upon seeing the work and reading the inscription, the viewer, by becoming the first person “I”, is not simply the apprehender but also the instigator of the works existence.   How does involving the viewer as performer alter our notions of art as a strictly communicative or expressive medium?

A contemporary example of this intricate relationship between text and object, art and audience can be found in the practices of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  A tradition with roots extending back over 1500 years; Orthodoxy continues to this day to make use of eikons, painted and inscribed images of Christ, saints, angels or the Virgin Mary.  To the uninitiated these images might appear as rather crudely rendered devotional paintings. Coupled with the practice of placing ones lips on the image and the result can seem idolatrous, almost pagan.  But this explanation belies an extremely sophisticated conception of what these images actually are and how they operate.

In the Orthodox eikon tradition, the distinction between sign and signified is collapsed since for the Orthodox believer, the image of Christ or a saint is viewed not as a depiction, but rather as embodiment, a revelation of the prototype in heaven. In effect, the painting becomes what theorist Michael Paraskos has dubbed a “conduit linking two realities”[6], or as German scholar Ernst Benz has called it “a window surface” that allows the believer to peer “straight into the celestial world”.[7] Unlike the inaccessible two-way mirror of painting in the Western tradition, this is a portal that engages the space of the faithful in a manner that is not wholly dissimilar to Phrasikleia’s sema.

And like Phrasikleia’s sema, the eikon is usually accompanied by text known as nomina sacra. These inscriptions are identifying features found near or adjacent the figures depicted.  For example, an eikon of Jesus Christ will often appear hemm Holy Icons” Theodore lays out a precise rationale for the devotional use of icons by emphasizing the likeness of the icon to the prototype in heaven and its connection with name.[8]

The linking of name and likeness is critical, as Theodore himself states: a name is a “sort of natural image” a word-picture that is related to, and an embodiment of, the prototype in the same metaphysical manner as its likeness on the surface of the icon.  Boston furthers Theodore’s argument by noting that the recorded Acts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council identify name as “a means of establishing contact with the prototype and transferring honor” to it.[9] According to Robert Nelson, for the believer, to utter a name or word is performative and to invoke

Here we have a centuries old tradition which continues into the present day that regards word-image relationships not as signification, but as evocation, as efficacious agents that share similar qualities.  Eikons and the nomina sacra are not to be understood as simple representations of Christ or textual identifiers, but rather “impressions” of Christ that are, in Paraskos’ words, a direct “conduit” to the agency of Christ himself.  To speak his name is not to signify or refer, but to call upon and act.

So what might this orthodox discourse regarding contemporary images look like?  Let’s consider the late works of painter Cy Twombly (1928-2011) in relation to the traditions of eikon and nomina sacra. Additionally, let examine Twombly’s relationship with the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, a German writer profoundly impacted by Orthodoxy.

From starkly monochromatic sculpture to frenetic painterly gestures, Cy Twombly’s wide ranging oeuvre is unique among 20th century American artists.  His dramatic works weave their way through several important post-war developments from Abstract expressionism to Minimalism and beyond without fitting neatly into established categories.  Consistent over the course of his six-decade career, however, was an infatuation with the Mediterranean, its culture, their myths and word-image relationships.  Beginning in the mid 1950’s with works such as “Free Wheeler” we see the beginnings of Twombly’s sustained interest in a kind of mark making that hovers somewhere between drawing and writing.

Over the next several decades, Twombly will execute numerous, often large scale cycles of paintings directly related to the classical world. From almost the very beginning these images, which are visually descriptive in only the most broadly applied sense, include textual elements inscribed into the surface of the still wet paint. These inscriptions range from pre-literate marks as in his ‘blackboard’ works to simple titles such as ‘the Greeks’, to extensive quotations, such as the poems that decorate the surfaces of Twombly’s “Rose” cycle of 2008.

The author of these poems is literary modernist Rainer Rilke. Born to a German father and Czech mother, Rilke’s formative years were colored by an intense fascination with what he perceived as the mystical nature of Slavic cultures.[10]  After an intensive study of eastern orthodox traditions, Rilke undertook creatively important journeys through Russia in 1899 and again in 1900.  The impact of these travels and the direct contact with the sensuousness of the Russian liturgy has been described as a turning point not only in his own works, but also in the history of German poetry.[11] 

In the years following these trips Rilke was preoccupied with a kind of language painting such as those manifest in his Studenbuch, or Book of Hours.  It is in this collection of works, narrated by a figure that might be described as part monk part artist, that language scholar Jenifer Cushman claims are intended to function like, and be read as, Orthodox icons. [12]  As evidence for the spiritual efficacy of these word-images, Cushman points to Ellen Esrock’s 1994 text “The Readers Eye” which asserts that the act of reading generates mental imagery, and that this mental imagery is capable of producing perceptual changes, resulting in behavioral changes.[13] Thus the mental image is in effect analogous to the directly perceived one.  Like the nomina sacra, to read Rilke’s poem is a performative act that has, as Nelson said “real world consequences”. 

Looking at Twombly’s 2008 “Rose” cycle through an orthodox aesthetics involves admitting that animating the experience of classical sculpture, orthodox icons and the nomina sacra is a finely articulated belief system that involves an unknowable divine realm that these objects give us access too. 

In our age of absolute materialism this aspect is probably considered by many to be superstitious at best and childishly naïve at worst, surely not the basis for a conversation about art.  But proceeding along those lines, why not consider that both Twombly’s image and Rilke’s written equivalent make contact with a rose that exists in some kind of alternate realty?  In this sense the painting and the inscription function like Benz’s “celestial window” or Paraskos’ temporal conduit, giving us witness to a kind of Platonic ideal. The picture and poems do not signify ‘rose’ but rather reveal some aspect of the universal abstract rose.  I admit, on the surface this is a pretty far-out suggestion, and one seems predicated on some form of non-materialist belief.

But in fact, the wide swaths of art world already operate as a kind of faith based system.  The most extreme examples of performance and found object-art require a kind of willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer.  To encounter Duchamp’s “Fountain” as more that an upturned urinal requires a willful blindness to what reality is telling you.  And that conceptual shift is not entirely different from the faith of the orthodox tradition.  We believe a urinal is art, and so it is. We enter galleries and museums as if they are churches, where we encounter things that confuse, astonish and often uplift us. And many of the strangest things, outside the sacred space of the gallery, might be deemed trash. At the heart of both of these encounters is transformation. Transformation of perceptions transformation of materials.

When we show a viewer a painting such as Courbet’s “The Meeting” and ask the viewer what he or she sees, they will very likely describe the scene before us: three men and a dog meeting outdoors.  Of course this isn’t what’s happening here. The savvier viewers might, in homage to Rene Magritte, say we are looking at a representation of three men and a dog meeting outdoors.  But in a sense, they’re wrong too. What we’re looking at is digital reproduction of a quantity of colored earth smeared in such a way as our brain thinks we are observing something recognizable. 

The very fact that we can encounter little more than tinted mud on stretched fabric and see it as revealing actual spaces, bespeaks a kind of magical transformation that occurs without the need for us to will it, or for us to even have faith in it. It just happens.  This belief in the efficacy of transformation is reflected in the orthodox as well as catholic notion of transubstantiation.  The Eucharist does not symbolize the body of Christ, for the faithful it is the body of Christ.  In the same way a painted icon is not an image of the Virgin Mary, it is the virgin Mary.

This curious property of painted images is all the more incredible when we consider it in light of spaces that can’t possibly exist, such as cubist composition by Picasso or Twombly’s monumental rose blossoms.  Juxtaposed against Rilke’s words there is nothing remotely “real” about this work, and yet when I gaze upon it, I do not see accretions of pigmented acrylic polymer, I see a rose revealed. And when I read Rilke’s lines, images of the rose, as real as those conjured by Twombly, arise in my minds eye.  

An orthodox aesthetics enlarges our dialogue about art because through it we prioritize a work of arts “likeness”, its nearness to being and actuality, rather than its ability to point outside of itself.  Thank you.


[1] Roland Barthes, 'The Rhetoric of the Image', in Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath (Hill and Wang, 1978).

[2] Ibid

[3] Steiner, Deborah “Images in Mind: Statues in Archaic and Classical Greek Literature and Thought” (Princeton University Press, 2002) xii.

[4] Svenbro, Jesper“Phrasikleia: An anthropology of reading in ancient Greece”  (Cornell University Press, 1993) 12

[5] ibid., 17

[6] Paraskos, Michael “Reviving the Corpse of Art” All is Giving – Public Art Space, Groningen, Netherlands, November 18, 2013. Lecture

[7] Benz, Ernst “The Eastern Orthodox Church: Its Thought and Life” (Aldine Transaction, 2009) 6.

[8] Theodore of Studios “On the Holy Icons” Catharine Roth translator (St Vladimir Seminary Press, 1981)

[9] Boston, Karen “The Power of Inscriptions and the Trouble With Texts” in Icon and Word ed. Anthony Eastmond and Liz James (Burlington, Ashgate, 2003) 44.

[10] Cushman, Jenifer “Beyond Ekphrasis: Logos and Eikon in Rilke’s Poetry” College Literature Vol. 29, No. 3, Literature and the Visual Arts (Summer, 2002) 85

[11] ibid. 83

[12] ibid. 84

[13] ibid.

Alan PocaroComment