University of Thessaly - Department of History, Archaeology and Social Anthropology

The 7th Ephorate of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Antiquities, Larissa

Relief Icons

Volos, 13-14 June 2009

The term "relief icons" refers to objects of Byzantine sculpture and micro-sculpture which challenge the two-dimensional effect of the painted surface. It is used to describe small or large-scale icons executed with chisel, rasp or file and not on a plastered cloth surface. Although different both in terms of material and technique, they seem to have the same function with Byzantine portable icons in church and at home, in the liturgy and in personal devotion.

The fundamental study by Reinhold Lange (Die byzantinische Reliefikone, Recklinghausen 1964) initiated research in a more or less unknown field of Byzantine religious art: icons made of stone (mainly marble, schist or porous stone), metal, wood or even clay. It also raised issues related to the iconography and dating of similar icons; the tracing and study of specific workshops; the traffic of artefacts and of technicians; the frame within and the ways through which these icons functioned in the private sphere or in public.

On the other hand, precious materials were also used for small-scale icons destined for veneration: steatite, ivory, or precious stones were some of the materials used for icons, diptychs, triptychs or elaborate medallions, which reproduced famous prototypes and helped in concentration during prayer or were used as talismans and objects of personal devotion. The fundamental studies by Friedrich Volbach (Elfenbeinarbeiten der Spatantike und des fruhen Mittelalters, Mainz 1976) and Adolf Goldschmidt and Kurt Weitzmann (Die byzantinischen Elfenbeinskulpturen des X.-XIII. Jahrhunderts, 2. Band, Reliefs, Berlin 1934, repr. 1979) on Early Christian and middle Byzantine ivories respectively, as well as the study on steatites by Ioli Kalavrezou (Byzantine Icons in Steatite I-II, Vienna 1985), led to conclusions on the iconography, style and use of similar icons. More recent studies such as those by Katia Loverdou-Tsigarida on the Benaki Museum bone plaques (Athens, 2000) and Yota Oikonomaki-Papadopoulou, Brigitte Pitarakis and Katia Tsigarida on the medallions now kept at the Vatopedi Monastery (Mount Athos, 2000), brought new material to light, deepened our knowledge and opened new fields for future research by posing new questions on already published material.

This conference generates from the presence of five relief icons in Thessaly, four of which derive from the Pelion region. Taking as a starting point the study of these icons, research could be opened up to new fields re-evaluating the criteria, posing questions of chronology and provenance anew, discussing the time span of specific workshops as well as their production. The relevant discussion could encourage new approaches for research in the field.

In addition, the study of new unpublished material could help us revisit diverse parameters in the art of relief icons triggering queries in broader research areas. Finally, some of the issues for discussion could be the following:

  • Do certain relief icons relate to the templon or the flanking proskynetaria? How far the size and the iconography of relief icons could lead to safe conclusions concerning their place inside the Byzantine church?
  • Is it likely that the current disregard towards relief icons or sculptures of holy figures might not be reflective of the Byzantine aesthetics but rather that it derives from a much later opposition to practices of the Roman-Catholic Church?
  • How does the repertoire of the medallions and of the small-scale icons used in personal devotion relates to the cult of local and/or ecumenical saints? How do they relate to relics, reliquaries and their art?

These issues form the main objectives of the communications in the International Conference we organize at Volos on the 13th and the 14th of June, 2009.