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Imagination and angelic epiphany1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2016

Glenn Peers*
Kitchener, Ontario


Angelic epiphany was understood from the earliest period to be a dissimulating manifestation; it was tailored to the person receiving and in no way corresponded to the real nature or form of the angelic being. The difficulty of apprehension and identification of such epiphanies is attested in scripture and re-asserted with each appearance thereafter. In the face of these difficulties, questions arose early over the appropriate means to understand and commemorate angelic epiphany. Both sides during the Iconoclastic controversy (720s-787, 815–843) manifested a suspicion of artistic imagination in describing angelic revelation. The insuperable difficulties of perceiving angels only increased the blind distance in which artistic imagination must work; therefore, both sides repudiated artistic imagination in the process of describing angels.

Copyright © The Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, University of Birmingham 1997

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2. MPG 26:896AB.

3. See Cameron, Averil, ‘The Language of Images: The Rise of Icons and Christian Representation’, in The Church and the Arts, Studies in Church History, vol. 25, ed. Wood, D. (London 1992) 15ff.Google Scholar

4. MPG 28:609D-613A.

5. MPG 28:613BC. Similarly, Anastasius Sinai’tes (d. after 700) himself wrote, ‘It ought to be perceived that all visions which occur in churches or sanctuaries of the saints take place through the agency of the holy angels by God’s ordinance. For how would it be possible, before the resurrection of the dead while the bones and the flesh of the saints are still dispersed, that they be seen in the form of complete human beings, often seen on horseback, fully armed? And if you think to disagree, you tell me, how does it occur that Paul or Peter or another apostle or martyr is seen in many places often at the same time? For not even angels are able to be in different places at the same moment, only God, the uncircumscribable, has that ability.’ (MPG 89:717CD).

6. MPG 28:616AB.

7. Allatius, L., De utriusque ecclesiae occidentaux atque orientalis perpetua in dogmate de purgatorio consensione (Rome 1655) 520.Google Scholar

8. The activity of the souls was also an issue in the eleventh century as the writings of Nicetas Stethatos (Opuscules et lettres, ed. Darrouzes, J. [Sources Chrétiennes, 81. Paris 1961] 13045)Google Scholar and John the Deacon and Maïstor ( Gouillard, J., ‘Léthargie des âmes et culte des saints: Un plaidoyer inédit de Jean Diacre et Maïstôr’, TMS [1981] 171ff.Google Scholar) attest.

9. Allatius, De utriusque ecclesiae occidentalis atque orientalis, 521 ff.

10. Dagron, G., ‘Rêver de Dieu et parler de soi. Le rêve et son interprétation d’après les sources byzantines’, in I sogni nel medioevo, ed.Gregory, T. (Rome 1985) 47ff.Google Scholar

11. The text is found in Blondel, C., Macarii Magnetis quae supersunt ex inedito codice (Paris 1876).Google Scholar

12. Pitra, J.B., Spicilegio Solesmensi compleclens sanctorum patrum scriptommque ecclesiasticorum anecdota hactenus opera, 4 vols. (Paris 1852-8) 1:302ff.Google Scholar

13. Blondel, , Macarii Magnetis, 214, 212, and Pitra, , Spicilegio Solesmensi, 1:327, 1619.Google Scholar

14. Blondel, , Macarii Magnetis, 215, 3033.Google Scholar

15. See Jugie, J.M., in Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. Vacant, A. and Magenot, E. (Paris 1899-1950) VIII:819ff.Google Scholar

16. Mansi, J.D, Sacrorum conciliorutn nova et amplissima collectio (Paris-Leipzig 1901-27) XIII:164C-5DGoogle Scholar; and see Thümmel, H., Die Frühgeschichte der ostkirchlichen Bilderlehre. Texte und Untersuchungen zur Zeit vor dem Bilderstreit (Berlin 1992) 3278 and 112ff Google Scholar. The translation is based on Mango, C., The Art of the Byzantine Empire. 312–1453. Sources and Documents (Toronto 1986) 1401.Google Scholar

17. See my unpublished dissertation, ‘Representing Angels: Cult and Theology in Byzantine Art’ (Johns Hopkins University 1995) 144ff.

18. The writings of Epiphanius of Salamis (ca. 315–403) survive only in the fragments found in the rebuttal of Nicephorus; see Pitra, Spicilegio Solesmensi, IV:292–380, and Thiimmel, Die Frühgeschichte der ostkirchlichen Bilderlehre, 65ff. See also Philoxenus of Mabbug (ca. 440–523), for example in Theophanes, Chronographia, ed. Boor, C. de, 2 vols. (Leipzig 1883-5) 1:134 Google Scholar, and Severas of Antioch (ca. 465–538), in Les homiliae cathédrales, PO 8/2, ed. Brière, M. (Paris 1919; rp. Turnhout 1971)Google Scholar. And see my dissertation, ‘Representing Angels’, 103ff.

19. Mansi, , XIII: 164C Google Scholar; Thümmel, , Die Frühgeschichte der ostkirchlichen Bilderlehre,327, 14.Google Scholar

20. Mansi, , Sacrorum conciliorum, XIII:164CD Google Scholar; Thümmel, , Die Frühgeschichte der ostkirchlichen Bilderlehre, 327, 57.Google Scholar

21. Mansi, , Sacrorum conciliorum, XIII:164D Google Scholar; Thümmel, , Die Frühgeschichte der ostkirchlichen Bilderlehre, 327, 78.Google Scholar

22. Mansi, , Sacrorum conciliorum, XIII:164D Google Scholar; Thümmel, , Die Frühgeschichte der ostkirchlichen Bilderlehre, 327, 811.Google Scholar

23. Mansi, , Sacrorum conciliorum, XIII:164DE Google Scholar; Thümmel, , Die Frühgeschichte der ostkirchlichen Bilderlehre, 327, 1118.Google Scholar

24. Mansi, , Sacrorum conciliorum, XIII: 164E165A Google Scholar; Thümmel, , Die Friihgeschichte der ostkirchlichen Bilderlehre, 327, 1923.Google Scholar

25. Mansi, , Sacrorum conciliorum, XIII:65A-C Google Scholar; Thümmel, , Die Frühgeschichte der ostkirchlichen Bilderlehre, 327, 24328,40 Google Scholar. The passage preceding that quoted in the texts runs as follows, ‘Concerning angels and archangels and the holy powers above them, and I shall add our human souls, the Catholic Church recognises them to be spiritual, but not altogether incorporeal and invisible, as you pagans say. They have subtle bodies of an ethereal or fiery nature, according to scripture: “[God] who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire.” (Ps. 104:4) And we find many of our holy Fathers think this, namely Basil the Great, St. Athanasius, Methodius the Great, and others among their followers. The Godhead alone is truly incorporeal and uncircumscribable, whereas the spiritual creatures are not entirely incorporeal and invisible like the Godhead. Hence they are localised and admit of circumscription.’

26. Mansi, , Sacrorum conciliorum, XIII:165C Google Scholar; Thümmel, , Die Frühgeschichte der ostkirchlichen Bilderlehre, 328, 4042.Google Scholar

And, also, at Nicaea II, see Mansi, , Sacrorum conciliorum, XIII: 132D Google Scholar, ‘These holy and venerable icons, just as it was predicted, we honour, and adore and respectfully worship. So it is that images of the magnificent God and saviour Jesus Christ incarnate, and of our undefiled mistress and all holy Mother of God, from whom he was well pleased to be born, both save and release us from all impious idol-madness and also of the holy and bodiless angels for as if men they are made manifest to the just.’ And Mansi, XIII-.404D — ‘(we acclaim… the images) of the holy angels, as men they were made manifest to those worthy of this epiphany.’; immediately above this sentence is stated (404D) that Christ is to be depicted ‘insofar as he was fully human,’ in historical scenes. It is noteworthy that only Christ and the angels need to be specified. Christ is depicted in his historical, earthly guise, and likewise angels; but the depiction of an angel is different in another way since an angel’s appearance is conditional, temporary and also needs to be, in some manner, attested by witness.

27. See MPG 95:309ff., and the recent study by Speck, P., Ich bin’s nicht, Kaiser Konstantin ist es gewesen. Die Legenden vom Einfluβ des Teufels, des Juden und des Moslem aufden Ikonoklasmus, BYZANTINA 10 (Bonn 1990) 321ff.Google Scholar

28. MPG 95:328BC. And see Speck, Ich bin’s nicht, 416ff.

29. Although the image of Christ as man was the unmovable centre of the iconophile position, the iconophiles were not adverse to symbolic representations of animals which represent virtues and qualities. This citation of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite by John of Jerusalem is merely one example among many demonstrating the iconophile sympathy with allegorical images. However, see Dagron, G., ‘Image de bête ou image de Dieu. La physiognomonie animale dans la tradition grecque et ses avatars byzantins’, in Poikilia. Études offertes à Jean-Pierre Ventant (Paris 1987) 76.Google Scholar

30. See Speck, Ich bin’s nicht, 418 n1049.

31. MPG 95:328C-329A. And see Speck, Ich bin’s nicht, 418–9.

32. See my dissertation, ‘Representing Angels’, 278ff.

33. MPG 100:108B-D and Nicephori Archiepiscopi Constantinopolitani Opuscula Historica, ed. Boor, C. de (Leipzig 1880/rp. New York 1975) 184, 17185, 18 Google Scholar. And see, also, Alexander, P.J., The Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople. Ecclesiastical Policy and Image Worship in the Byzantine Empire (Oxford 1958) 12930 Google Scholar, and Travis, J., In Defense of the Faith. The Theology of Patriarch Nikephoros of Constantinople (Brookline, Massachusetts 1984) 30ff.Google Scholar

34. The intervention of the artist was limited in iconophile theory to , that is the production of images, not their invention. Creation, or , was the domain of the Fathers of the Church who had arranged the disposition and established the conventions of Christian art. The labour of artists and programmers was thereby clearly demarcated and, in this way, the Church eliminated any possible charge of artistic whim as the determining factor in the creation of art. See Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum, XIII:252BC, and F. de’ Maffei, Icona, pittore e arte al concilio Niceno II (Rome 1974) 69ff. As de’ Maffei points out, was applied by the iconoclasts to artistic labour in a sense that included invention , design and disposition ; by this description of artistic practice, the iconoclasts placed artists in an overweening position. The iconophiles did not demean artistic practice overtly but certainly took initiatives out of their hands and placed it under the control of the Church. See Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum, XIII:256A, where the iconophiles claim Law and Tradition as their realm; artists are assigned material production only. On this importance of tradition for the iconophiles, see Brubaker, L., ‘Byzantine Art in the Ninth Century: Theory, Practice and Culture’, BMGS 13 (1989) 23ff.Google Scholar, and for the pre-Iconoclastic period, see Cameron, Averil, ‘Byzantium and the Past in the Seventh Century. The search for Redefinition,’ in The Seventh Century: Change and Continuity/Le septième siècle: changements et continuités (London 1992) 250ff.Google Scholar

35. I owe the ideas expressed in this paragraph to Stéphane Beauroy’s fruitful readings of this text.

36. Derrida, J., Memoirs of the Blind. The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, trans. Brault, P.-A. and Naas, M. (Chicago-London 1993) 30 Google Scholar, writes about the appearance of Raphael to Tobias, which he calls ‘a simulacrum of sensible visibility’.The commemoration of the appearance is commanded by Raphael himself and Tobias writes down a description of the series of events himself, ‘… at the origin of the graphein there is a debt of gift rather than representational fidelity. More precisely, the fidelity of faith matters more than the representation, whose movement this fidelity commands and thus precedes. And faith, in the moment proper to it, is blind. It sacrifices sight, even if it does so with an eye to seeing at last.’

37. The distance that creates an aura was described by Benjamin, Walter, in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations, ed. Arendt, H., trans. Zohn, H. (New York 1969) 222ff.Google Scholar

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