Nature and Abstraction

Henry Maguire

in Nectar and Illusion

Published in print August 2012 | ISBN: 9780199766604
Published online September 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780199950386 | DOI:

Series: Onassis Series in Hellenic Culture

Nature and Abstraction

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  • Ancient and Classical Art (to 500 CE)


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This chapter considers the question of the extent to which the unfigured intarsia floors of the medieval Byzantine churches and palaces were read by the Byzantines as abstract depictions of the earth and its rivers, that is, as symbols. These were frequently described by Byzantine writers as the earth, or as colorful flowering meadows, and their marbles were compared to rivers or to seas. Were such descriptions merely conventional metaphors, or did they convey a more fundamental association of the floor with terrestrial creation, and, if so can the abstraction of the images be interpreted as disengagement—that is, as a visual defense against their use in idolatry? There was an apparent ideological opposition between the trope frequently expressed by Byzantine writers that sacred figures were distinguished by a spotless pallor, and the other trope that described the variety of colors provided by nature, as might be seen in plants or in the polychromatic stones of a pavement. The chapter also explores some of the possible motivations that lay behind the abstraction of portrayals of plants and animals in other media in medieval Byzantine art.

Keywords: intarsia floors; churches; palaces; earth; rivers; symbols; seas; idolatry; pallor; disengagement; metaphors

Chapter.  12864 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Ancient and Classical Art (to 500 CE)

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