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Hellenistic Phantasia and Its Iconophile Offsprings

Aglae Pizzone, University of Milan, Summer Fellow 2009

Starting from one of Theodore Studites' epistles to his pupil Naukratios (380 Fatouros), I studied the Byzantine views on the soul, image apprehension, and cognitive processing of visual stimuli during the iconoclastic struggle. Basing my research on Theodore's statements about the imaginative faculty of the soul (phantasia), I focused on the subtle but strong ties that link gaze and representation, as well as on the theoretical foundations legitimating the perception, comprehension, and reworking of religious images by their beholders. I envisaged the cultural role played by phantasia in this area as a legacy of Greek and Roman aesthetics. Resting upon the dissemination of the Hellenic cultural heritage during Late Antiquity, Byzantine culture shaped a body of symbolic landmarks through which the collectivity defined its behavior toward visual stimuli and imagination. In this process, the passage from sight to faith, from paganism to Christianity, left its unmistakable traces. Thus, the naïve and emotional approach to arts, banned as unsophisticated by imperial elites, became in Byzantine times an essential precondition to devotion. Although according to Theodore Studites and John of Damascus phantasia had a relevant role in promoting intellectual contemplation, emotional involvement was also seen as necessary to catch a glimpse of the divine mystery. Finally, I tried to outline how iconophile authors selected and highlighted different theoretical constructs from late antique Christian psychology and anthropology (Cappadocian Fathers and Nemesius of Emesa, above all), with a new emphasis on human ability to process both physical and mental images.