Barbara Crostini is a specialist of Byzantine manuscript culture, with particular reference to the transmission of biblical commentaries and the controversial role of image is Christian cult and pedagogy. Recent publications include: ‘Hesychius of Jerusalem: an Exegete for both East and West’, in Carol Harrison, Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony and Theodore de Bruyn
(Eds.) Patristic Studies in the Twenty-first Century: Proceedings of an International Conference to Mark the 50th Anniversary of the International Association of Patristic Studies, Brepols, 2015, p. 343-363 and ‘Paul Moore and More Psellos: Still “Wanted” in Byzantium?’, in I. Nilsson and P. Stephenson (Eds.): Byzantium Wanted: The Desire and Rejection of an Empire, Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet, 2014, p. 176-18.
Keeping everyone on board: why Pope Gregory the Great opposed Bishop Serenus’s destruction of images at Marseilles
Two letters by Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) take issue against Serenus, bishop of Marseilles, for having destroyed images in the church in order to prevent the faithful from adoring them. This correspondence is, in historical memory, reduced to the famous dictum that “images are the book of the illiterate”. As such, Gregory’s image formula encapsulates one significant aspect of the gap between East and West, where the Western understanding of sacred images as mere instruments of teaching is opposed to a mystical tradition of holy icons in the Byzantine church.
This paper revisits the epistemological grounds for this famous divide and seeks to undo this ingrained and convenient, yet fundamentally distorted, summary of the attitude to images in East and West. It argues that the pope’s pastoral concern to reach out to those unfamiliar with the Scriptures through representation of biblical episodes and characters in holy images is in line with a pedagogical use of figural narrative whose roots can be retraced to Jewish art. At the same time, it points out how the understanding of teaching through images included a comprehensive notion of growing in the faith and belonging to the Church. A holistic understanding of the task of instruction led the pope to oppose the rash violenceof image destruction perpetrated by Serenus’s intransigent dogmatism. Recognizing the power of images of involving all the faithful, Gregory modulated the Church’s outreach to the‘gentibus’ according to a charitable principle of universality that affirmed everyone’s right of access to God. Far from reducing images to word-pictures, therefore, Gregory showed full awareness of the range of epistemological usefulness of pictorial representation and preserved its potential for expression against the tyranny of imagelessness for future times.
Key words: Gregory the Great, sacred images, bishop Serenus, pictorial representation