Medieval Rus′

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Sample referee report

Author: [insert author’s name here]
Title: Narration and semiotic representation in medieval religious images
Referee: [referee’s name]
Date: 2005-03-28

Recommendation: Revise and resubmit

This article concentrates on narrative structure in icons, and particularly on the representation of such structure in icons of St. Nicholas v zhitijax, where a central portrait is surrounded by scenes from the saint’s life. The analysis relies significantly on Augustine’s theory of signs as presented in his On Christian doctrine, with interpretive details about individual East Slavic icons derived primarily from Ouspensky and Lossky’s The meaning of icons. The analysis of specific icons is insightful, and the reproductions very useful, although the author appears to have swapped figures 3 and 4 without adjusting the references in the text. The description of conventional personal and extra-personal elements as signs supports the author’s argument that images, through repetition, manufacture the authority of St. Nicholas’[s] story over time (p. 6), and a reference to the arbitrariness of the sign might be appropriate here.

The author’s description and critique of Panofsky’s icongraphy is helpful, and could be enhanced by explicit bibliographic references to Panofsky’s own writings. In light of Panofsky’s attention to composition, the article suffers from a lack of explanation of the function of the specific accompanying saints (Savva, Paraskeva, Catherine, Barbara in figure 3). The same is true of the collective icons mentioned on p. 11; St. Nicholas participates in a collective, but what is the effect of situating him in that particular collective, and how does the specific company he keeps help construct his saintliness? Similarly, the description of the scenes from St. Nicholas’s life is clear and helpful, but it seems to stop at description, and it would be enhanced by more analysis. After all, the tripartite structure of the textual hagiography (a reference to Loparev would be appropriate here) also corresponds to the chronology of human life (birth, life, postmortem), which makes it appear to be more of a coincidence than a reflection of medieval aesthetics. Is there variation in the scenes that can be depicted in icons of St. Nicholas v zhitijax and, if so, what might that variation mean? The discussion of perspective (p. 10) might benefit from a reference to Žegin (which is the source of most of what Boris Uspensky says about perspective in his small volume).

The article refers to the seventh ecumenical council of 787 (= second Council of Nicea), but fails to note that this council was convened specifically to refute iconoclasm, which had been imperial (and even ecumenical) doctrine for much of the eighth century. The iconoclastic background is important because it provides a context for the proclamation the author mentions on pp. 2–3.

The Benjamin portion of the article is interesting, and the analogy of the storyteller and the icon painter is persuasively argued, but this issue is not integrated as effectively as it might be with the rest of the text. The problem may be that the article begins with general considerations, moves to a close reading of specific icons of St. Nicholas, then steps back to general considerations of Benjamin, and then simply walks away from Benjamin to return to further close reading of St. Nicholas (in a way that is not connected explicitly with the preceding discussion of Benjamin). The problem, in other words, is organizational; the material is solid, but it should be restructured in a way that either makes natural connections or falls into natural discrete categories.

The bibliography is good, although there are a few inconsistencies in formatting (marked on the copy). Ouspensky’s and Lossky’s names should be spelled as they are in the book itself, which is with “y” (not “ii”), at least in the revised edition (and the author should use that edition, rather than the first, in any case). As I mention earlier, I think Žegin could be helpful here. See also the first chapter of B. A. Uspenskij, Filologičeskie razyskanija v oblasti slavjanskix drevnostej, Moscow: Izdatel′stvo Moskovskogo universiteta, 1982, and especially the section entitled “Kul′t Nikoly i ikonopis′” (pp. 14–16).

The preceding is an actual referee report prepared for a submission to this course in a previous semester, reposted here, for pedagogical purposes, with permission of the author of the original submission.