On Physiognomy

March 17, 2010

Aristotle says that thinking does not occur without images (De Anima III.7, 431a17). In support of this observation, I would note my own curious habit, when reading, to form mental pictures of persons whom I have never seen and of whose appearance I actually have no notion. Often these mental pictures are later found to bear little resemblance to reality. Orthodox iconography appeals to this natural human tendency by presenting standard ways of representing people: St. Paul is always represented as balding and dark-haired, with a dark beard, a somewhat thin man, as befits a scholar; St. Peter is usually shown with a full head of greying, curly hair and a short, curly beard, a stocky, muscular man, as befits a fisherman. The Three Great Hierarchs have their own recognizable physiognomies; no one familiar with Orthodox iconography would confuse an image of St. Basil the Great with an image of St. Gregory the Theologian, or, again, an image of either of them with one of St. John Chrysostom. It is possible that these iconographic traditions go back to portraits drawn from life; it is also possible that, in some cases, they are imaginary representations. Whether the iconographic tradition of representing female saints is as well developed as this, I would not venture to say; I can recognize an image of St. Xenia of St. Petersburg from afar and can differentiate it from, say, an image of St. Mary of Egypt or from an icon of St. Macrina, more however because of their respective manners of dress than from their physiognomies as such.

So what do I imagine people like John Bekkos, Gregory of Cyprus, George Metochites, Constantine Meliteniotes, George Moschabar, the Emperor Michael Palaiologos, and all the rest of the characters I am engaged in studying looked like?

I used to think that Gregory of Cyprus looked like Vice President Dick Cheney with a beard. That is to say, someone with an ingrained scowl, someone whose long experience in secret dealings behind other’s backs to overthrow political and personal enemies had left recognizable traces upon the face that God gave him, leaving a kind of public testimony to a life shaped by arrogance and resentment. I have no way of demonstrating the truth of this intuition, and probably if I were better versed in the Cypriot’s own writings I would have to revise this picture in various ways, but I am simply stating for the record how I have imagined his appearance.

Is it not a remarkable thing how the mind shapes the body? If one looks at a picture of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy and compares it to a picture of Rush Limbaugh, does one not detect a certain spiritual resemblance: the pudginess of the face, the beadiness of the eyes? One would think that holding certain political views for long periods of time effected changes in one’s bodily structure: the eyes and brain shrink from lack of use, the jowls expand….

What about Bekkos? I am not sure. There is a representation of him made by an anonymous artist in the seventeenth century to accompany Jacques Goar’s Euchologion; some months ago I scanned this image and added it to the Wikipedia article on Bekkos. The image shows a medieval Greek bishop, holding the wide-brimmed hat then in use, leaning slightly backward on his episcopal staff, as if poised either to declaim against some injustice or perhaps to hurl the said episcopal staff down on the ground in a fit, as Bekkos once did in the presence of the Emperor Michael when the latter refused to pardon a man. The expression on his face is somewhat ambiguous, and might even be read as a smile, but more likely it is an expression of defiance in response to some affront or to some egregious statement of untruth. The dramatic poise suggests that the artist was acquainted with the acting conventions of seventeenth-century Italian opera.

I have no idea if this image looks anything like Bekkos’s actual appearance. It conveys a certain type: an image of a Greek bishop, forthrightly glaring at his foes, passionately rejecting the perpetuation of Christian division. In some ways, that is all that an image of a person one has never seen can be expected to do: to give a visual representation of the fundamental idea that shaped the person’s life. The image serves as a kind of play actor. One does not have to see a production of the play King Lear to know that the leading role has to be performed by a man who can convey both authority and instability at the same time. An image of King Lear is already present in our minds before we see Richard Burton or whoever else performs the role on stage take it upon himself for a certain season. And few people can actually perform this role convincingly because, quite simply, few of us have the internal resources of character to represent greatness. There are few things more pathetic than to see a convention of Lincoln impersonators, men who think that, by merely donning a beard and a stovepipe hat, they can cover the mediocrity of their own lives and represent this man to other people. One cannot put on a love of justice and truth quite so easily as a hat and a beard; without that, the external representation rings hollow.

Whatever the external lineaments of John Bekkos’s face, it is clear to me that a love of justice and truth formed part of the internal lineaments of his mind and heart; given the nature of things, these internal lineaments probably manifested themselves upon his countenance in some way eventually. It is also fairly clear that the man had his limitations: at the show trial of early 1283, he consented to sign a document condemning his own teaching, and much of the final years of his life are marked by an unmistakable sense of bitterness towards the man who succeeded him as Patriarch of Constantinople. For myself, I do not make Bekkos my “idol,” as one reader of this blog charged earlier this year. I see Bekkos as someone, first of all, whose thought I would like to understand, since the fundamental problem which he confronted, the problem of Christian division, has not gone away; I presume to think that, as he analyzed the causes of this problem carefully and at great length, I might learn something from him. I altogether doubt that the solution for all the problems faced by Christianity in the present world, or even for the specific problem of Christian disunion, is to be found in a reenactment of the Union of Lyons. And I similarly doubt that, for many of the spiritual issues that confront me personally, John Bekkos has all that much to say; anyone who thinks that one can receive adequate spiritual nourishment by reading a steady diet of polemics over the Filioque issue surely has some self-examination to do. But I believe that Bekkos was an honest man, and an intelligent reader of the fathers, who rightly, I think, pointed out that the position of most of the early Greek fathers of the Church on the subject of the Holy Spirit’s procession was not as absolutely inimical to the Latin Church’s position on this subject as Photius and his followers represented it, and continue to represent it. And I also think that the debate between Bekkos and his opponents had important implications for the direction Byzantine theology would take in the next generation; questions of how the divine presence and activity in us are to be understood were already being argued over by Bekkos, Melitentiotes, and Metochites, on the one hand, and men like George Moschabar and Gregory of Cyprus, on the other. Both as an historian and as a Christian, I would like to understand the terms of that debate, and see how it unfolded.

So, in brief, while I do not have in my mind a clear picture of what Bekkos looked like, a photographic image is not the point of my reading him. One reads authors in order to perceive the truth that they perceived, and to be shaped internally by it. It would of course help me in my studies if I had a clearer mental picture of the streets of Constantinople in the late thirteenth century, of daily life, of the ritual of the imperial court, of what it was like to attend a liturgy in Hagia Sophia in the days before it became a mosque. My understanding of these things is necessarily limited, in part by the fact that I live seven hundred years later. But perhaps it is just as well that we don’t see the past with perfect vision; perhaps it would cause us to forget that life is actually lived in the present, and one emulates the life of the righteous, not by wearing the same clothes, but by serving the same God, who is the ever-living source of life to all.

2 Responses to “On Physiognomy”

  1. Dean Calvert Says:

    Dear bekkos,

    Re: One reads authors in order to perceive the truth that they perceived, and to be shaped internally by it. It would of course help me in my studies if I had a clearer mental picture of the streets of Constantinople in the late thirteenth century, of daily life, of the ritual of the imperial court, of what it was like to attend a liturgy in Hagia Sophia in the days before it became a mosque.

    I’d suggest reading the book “Russian Travelers to Constantinople in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries” (Dumbarton Oaks Studies) (v. 19) – Hardcover (Jan. 1, 1984) by George P. Majeska

    One of the commentaries includes a description, by a Russian traveler, who was present at the coronation of one of the last Byzantine emperors…(Manuel?)

    I’ve found that histories written by foreigners (ie Russian in C’nople, Chinese in Baghdad etc) are inestimably more helpful to us, 7 centuries later) who are trying to understand “what was it like” for the simple reason that they (those same foreigners) generally did not understand what they were observing. As a result, they tend to be much more descriptive and precise in their language, as opposed to locals. For example, what kind of New Yorker would go into detailed description of the Statue of Liberty? Never! The same holds true of the locals’ description of The City…it assumes a knowledge of the place that we just don’t have.

    In any case, I think this book might help you out.

    Best Regards,
    Dean Calvert

  2. bekkos Says:


    Thanks! I’ll look for it!


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