Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Gary Vikan, Early Byzantine Pilgrimage Art. Revised Edition (first published 1982). Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications, 5. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 109. Pp. 109. ISBN 9780884023586. $29.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Thomas J. Kraus, Neumarkt i.d.OPf. (

Version at BMCR home site

Gary Vikan, Director of the Walters Art Museum, is a distinguished and internationally known scholar of medieval art who has become a respected scholar of Byzantine pilgrimage and the expert for artefacts from that time. His publications on manifold representations of Byzantine art and pilgrimage have become classic literature in this field of research. Thus, it is a real pleasure to see this revised and enlarged second edition of Vikan's excellent essay Byzantine Pilgrimage Art that accompanied a 1982 exhibition. . The length of the text is now double in comparison to the first edition and the number of illustrations – high quality and most of them in colour – has been increased as well. Moreover, Vikan succeeds in integrating secondary sources published after 1982 and in expanding his narrative by situating the mysterious world of pilgrims in the early Byzantine period within the context of late antique magic. It is marvellous to get so much first-class information and concise conclusions on only 109 pages that can also be read by non-specialists because of Vikan's clear and fluent style.

In this second edition Vikan aims "to explore the portable artefacts of eastern Mediterranean pilgrimage from the fifth to the seventh century against the backdrop of contemporary pilgrim's texts and the archaeology of the holy sites", as he states in his preface. His focus is on the objects the pilgrims brought home with them or left behind, the images preserved on the objects, their purpose and the places where they were manufactured. Both the pre- or early Byzantine period and the Arab conquest of the seventh century limit the chronological span Vikan examines, but at the same time both phases yield points of comparison for the artefacts he investigates. By doing so, he wants to answer the question: what is so special and typical in later Byzantine material culture to make it different from previous and later periods? And he does so very successfully and convincingly.

The book opens with two maps of the Mediterranean and a detailed one of Palestine so that the readers become familiar with the area and the place names Vikan writes about in what follows. In his first chapter ("Pilgrims and Pilgrimage", 3-12), meant as a short introduction into the subject and purpose of the volume, the author determines the importance of pilgrimages in the early history of Byzantium. , He differentiates between "portable pilgrimage artefacts or 'blessings' (Greek, eulogiai) that the pilgrims took home, and votives or 'thank offerings' (Greek, charisteria that they left behind at the shrines" (p.3). This difference between objects is very important as Vikan refers to these two categories throughout the book. Among various people and places he discusses in more detail later on, he refers to the Piacenza pilgrim's journey whose account has become a classic just as that of the noblewoman Egeria. Simeon Stylites the Elder and his shrine northeast of Antioch (see the photograph and reconstructions on pp. 10-11 where it is compared to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem), the baths of Elijah, Saint Menas and the remains of a tomb church, to list only a few topics, are additional subjects he briefly mentions; and he cites from Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Sophronius of Jerusalem for information about pilgrimage, pilgrims, and sites. He ponders about the motives for pilgrimage (the power of the locus sanctus, a form of asceticism, the perfection of Christian faith, etc.) and addresses the significance of the churches and shrines along the pilgrimage routes or at their end.

Chapters two to five are dedicated to the forms and importance of blessings for pilgrims and pilgrimages ("The Pilgrim's Blessing", 13-17; "Image-Bearing Blessings", 18-22; "The Pilgrim's Belief", 23-30; "Four Major Types of Image-Bearing Blessings", 31-40). Vikan defines the concept of blessing. The pilgrim receives a blessing by contact with a saint, a holy place, or even a holy object. Such encounters often include the reading of a Biblical or para-Biblical passage, prayers, and offerings. Consequently, oil in small flasks, for instance, have a special role in that ceremony. But there are also blessing boxes with locus sanctus scenes, pilgrim tokens (e.g., seafarers' tokens). For Vikan the pilgrims identified the sacred power (ἡ δύναμις) as not only being represented by special objects but also as being physically present in an object (or holy person). This belief is backed by numerous papyri that served as protective amulets, something that could have made Vikan's definition even stronger if mentioned in a footnote or an aside.1 For the amulet bearers, evil power was not abstract or theoretic dangers but these were imagined as real and almost omnipresent hazards. Sometimes pilgrims imitated saints and events in order to receive a blessing. Part of that mimesis is the use of amulets with which they tried to exercise "persuasive analogy" (28) to get protective power or healing (e.g., a late Roman gem amulet with a reaper at work was meant as a protection against back or hip pain or as a remedy). Vikan categorizes image-bearing blessings as follows: (i) Simeon Tokens (Simeon Stylites the Elder pilgrim tokens), manufactured at or in the surroundings of Simeon's shrine (a group of about 250 items); (ii) Menas flasks (produced at the site of the saint's shrine in the Maryut desert; among them a group of 150 found in Alexandria); (iii) Asia Minor flasks with a more varied iconography, slightly smaller in size (most from the west coast); (iv) the Bobbio Ampullae of Monza (four dozen pewter or lead flasks associated with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). Above all, these last have become well known among scholars because of their rich and impressive decoration but also because of a misinterpretation that links the images with now-lost mosaics. Fine colour images accompany the descriptions so that even the uninformed readers can visualize the objects.

The next two chapters ("The Question of Authenticity", 41-44; "Iconography and Ritual", 45-58) can be regarded as explanation of the conceptions behind the objects described earlier, while in the next ("Iconography, Sacred Power, and Magic", 59-70) Vikan successfully demonstrates how sacred power was employed against evil magic on pilgrimages. Especially, images of the Magi (or at least of one Magus) and of the Adoration of the Magi itself were meant to protect the pilgrims on their way. These images were strengthened by short invocations or prayers. Other objects carry simplified references to Jesus calming the tempest on the Sea of Galilee, still others to the raising of Lazarus and to doubting Thomas. All these signify a certain type of pilgrim. There are even specific locus sanctus cycles of images (e.g., on the medals of armbands or on censers) and formulae (e.g., the famous Εἷς θεός incantation) indicating that objects could also protect against various evils at the same time.

After addressing the blessing, something the pilgrims took with them, Vikan writes about the votive, which the pilgrims left behind ("The Pilgrim's Votive", 71-78). He differentiates among (i) inscriptional votives (above all, inscriptions the pilgrims left at the shrines), (ii) image-bearing votives dedicated to a special saint, and (iii) pre-Christian votives; and he points out the connection between votives and healing at the sites. In "Pilgrims, Relics, and Icons" (79-82) Vikan once more stresses that image identity alone could gain access to sacred powers, though it took some time before that concept was accepted in Byzantium. In this context acheiropoieta, "objects not made by human hands", played an important role. Of course, the Abgar legend is a prominent textual witness to the power of such objects.2 The new epilogue ("The Arab Conquest and Beyond", pp. 83-88) at least briefly provides information about the time after the Persian raid in 614 and the Arab conquest. These two events marked the end for many pilgrimages and sites, though some of them had some sort of a revival thereafter ( especially Jerusalem and Thessalonike).

The book comes with a bibliography (95-102), a list of illustration credits (103-104), and a general index (105-109). The endnote format (89-94) ensures that the reading of the text is not disturbed by references and space is saved for images on the pages .

Vikan's book is lavishly produced, especially the beautiful illustrations. The update and expansion of his 1982 essay is very welcome and will serve as a first orientation for all those studying the Byzantine pilgrimage as represented by various types of artefacts. The book is a good read for everybody interested in the Byzantine period; it will certainly attract more attention to the fascinating world of belief, ritual, and life in Byzantine times. Technical terms and Greek words (always given in Latin script) are explained or translated into English. Scholars will find most helpful the depth and accuracy of the information provided so that they can rely on this overall depiction of "Early Byzantine Pilgrimage Art" and use it as a starting point for their own special studies. It must not be forgotten that Vikan himself has published a large number of such specialized treatments of topics and objects a selection of which can be found in his bibliography, to which the specialist is referred for more in-depth information.


1.   On p. 29 Vikan briefly touches on the field of magic papyri by referring to "magical words on papyri".
2.   Christ's towel with his image was sent to King Abgar of Edessa to guarantee the continuity of his kingdom.

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