Penn State Press
The Sensual Icon
Space, Ritual, and the Senses in Byzantium
Bissera Pentcheva

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                                                                            © 2009 Pentcheva

Per gentile concessione della Procuratoria di San Marco - Venezia

The Byzantine mixed-media icons stood in sensually rich spaces of mosaics, silk, and incense. Sunrays moving across the rich surfaces of these objects infused them with movement of highlights and shadows, while the shimmer of flickering candlelights stirred by drafts of air endowed the images with life. The Byzantines called the spectacle of polymorphous appearances – poikilia – phenomenal effects sensually experienced. Unfortunately, the electric spotlighting and clinical setting of the modern museum have destroyed the medieval poikilia. Similarly, photography has tried to capture an "objective" replica of the icon. My research has sought to break the modern spell of petrification by turning to film as a technology suitable for the recording of kinetic poikilia.

In this experiment a lit wax candle is moved left and right, up and down in front of the face of a repoussé gilded-silver icon made in the late tenth century. The golden eyes of the Archangel Michael immediately respond to the shifting light and become animated through a series of phenomenal changes. With their movement from radiance to shadow, they rotate, explore the space, and arrest the viewer. Their captivating power, created through natural moving shadows and reflections on a gold surface, carries a tradition of human fascination with the sparkling gaze. An ancient and medieval theory of visuality known as extramission understood the act of seeing as rays of fire emanating from the eye. In Greek the verb marmarysso and the noun amarygma express this brilliancy, sparkle, and glitter of the eyes. This perception stems from statues and images made of metal and gems and features prominently in Archaic, Hellenistic, and Byzantine poetry. Marmarysso connects coruscating light with fire and emotion: a sparkling gaze is flashing and overpowering.

When voicing a prayer, the faithful infused the icon with human breath and experienced the ensuing movement of golden shimmer and shadows as the image becoming alive: empnous and empsychos, filled with divine pneuma. This spectacle of phenomenal changes, the Byzantine poikilia, is thus offering us a bridge linking the medieval concept of liveliness to contemporary installation art.