The Byzantine Icon in the Era of Electronic Media



By Maria José de Abreu

engemetal-estrutura-metalica-santuario-padre-marcelo-rossi copy

Santuário Theotokos – Mãe de Deus, São Paulo; Engemetal estrutura metalica (Photo: Marcelo Scandaroli/ Kurkdiijan Fruchtengarten Engenheiros Associados under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

In her ground-breaking work „Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary“ (2005), Marie-José Mondzain invites us readers to investigate what she considers to be an essential thread linking contemporary artistic imaginaries to Byzantine Eastern orthodox visual tradition. In the final chapters of her book, Mondzain makes suggestions how the Byzantine icon might help us think through the aesthetics of modern photography, conceptual art, architecture or even CNN news reporting.

As Mondzain also explains, the principle that inhabits the icon is what in Christian theology is called a kenosis: the ability of an image to empty itself at the moment of appearing (De Abreu 2002). As she explores in unique ways,  the strategic force of this theological principle was enormous in the formalization of the political economy that will be come in vigor during the iconoclastic period of the 8th and 9th centuries a time when, she argues, the Byzantine icon would become a source of immense spiritual and political power. As iconolaters and iconoclasts disputed each other over the truth of the icon, this kenotic principle allowed for the establishment of a third group, the iconophiles or image lovers. For this group, the icon incorporates the compromise between effacement and appearing. At stake is not a matter of “either/or” as Soren Kierkgaard also exposes in his critique of representation. Rather, it is about how the visible partakes in its own withdrawal; how the image effaces itself in the very moment of appearing. By incorporating self-denial, the icon becomes paradoxically aniconic. It is oxymoronic in essence, and so it must remain against “all suspicion of idolatry”. The ability to invest the icon with such enigma, ideally as well as in its formal manifestation, is then, what in classic patristic thinking became known as the oikonomia, the economy of the image, or simply, the mystery of incarnation.

With my project on the recuperations of Byzantine repertoires into contemporary Sao Paolo by the Charismatic Renewal movement I analyze such interconnection, namely, that between pre-modern Byzantine aesthetics and contemporary electronic and digital imagery. The Charismatic Movement arrived from the U.S in the State of Sao Paolo, Brazil, in the late sixties through the agency of two Jesuit American priests. Relying on pneuma the Greek term for breath, air or spirit, Charismatics draw on the legend of Pentecost in in order to emphasize the transformative powers of the Holy Spirit when embodied through the charismata or gifts of the spirit. My entire work on the Charismatic Movement is based on the practical and performative engagements with the notion of pneuma, (the Greek term for breath, air or spirit); I describe and analyze how pneuma provides the Movement with an organizational principle or substance through which religion, technology, body and space, rather than being perceived as independent entities, enter a relational continuum.

While the pneumatic dimension of the Movement has been present from the outset, it was only when Charismatics began to employ electronic media in the eighties and nineties that pneuma received a really prominent place in Charismatic philosophy. Precisely at the moment that mediumship was threatened to become opaque under the regimes of technological mediation it was important to emphasize the immediacy of the medium. Curiously, such was enacted not by repressing the technological properties of technology but rather by popularizing structural analogies between pneuma and electricity, between bodies and antennas, between pixels and mosaics, between lungs and tents, between trees and networks. The Pneumatology of the movement would underscore the desire– or indeed promise– for immediacy and directness through electronic imagery while upholding an injunction against the politics of mediation attributed to freeze-frames and static images.

Electronic imagery is in motion—images appear and disappear, come and go—and this introduces a new life and dynamism that problematizes the stasis governing conventional ideas about traditional religious imagery. That is to say, the slippage of images on the TV screen—the fact that they are made up of thousands of discrete shots that move by so quickly the eye sees them as more or less continuous—disintegrates the sense of completion we get when looking at a sculpted image. Technically speaking, however, the sense of liveliness and animation in the TV image is possible only because of the disruptions and tracking through which electronic images come to pass. In electronic (as in cinematic) movement, interruption is presence insofar as the only way for the image to come together is by structuring the forces of arrest and fragmentation (e.g., editing out, framing, cutting, etc.) that constitute it. In other words, the liveliness of the electronic image is, paradoxically, predicated on a sort of serialized iconoclasm—a continuous, sequential breaking up—that undergirds it as a coming to pass. (De Abreu 2012).  As a dynamic and material principle pneuma would, in sum, make the link between electronic images and the principle of kenosis which, as mentioned above, presupposes the ability of the image to retreat in the moment of appearing.

Theotokos Sao Paolo Photo: Maria José de Abreu

Theotokos Sao Paolo (Photo: Maria José de Abreu under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

One the most important references to Charismatics in Brazil is the Theotokos icon. The title Theotokos has long been a source of dispute between those who either defended Mary’s divinity or Christ’s divinity and those who affirmed the unity of the human and the divine in the same economy of salvation also known as the incarnation. Theotokos became officially recognized as a term during the Third Council of Epheseus in 431 and given local nuances as it spread to different parts of Eastern Europe, Constantinople and the Roman Empire. Building on Platonic metaphysics and its central concern with the relation between appearance and reality, ideal and earthly forms, immanent and transcendent, Theotokos  proposes to capture a relational enigma through which several entities are synthesized into and as one signified as incarnation. Such synthesis was extremely political and pragmatic in its effects. The idea of three divinities, as posed by the Trinity risked being associated with polytheism and thus problematizing the monotheistic status of Christianity. In order to prevent that, the Fathers of the Church had to find an operational term that would administer the relational nature of the trinity, a network between personas, organized around one and the same divine principle. This term will be the highly pragmatic Greek term of oikonomia which signified the administration of the oikos, of the home (Agamben 2009).

In 2011, Sao Paolo became the home city for the sanctuary Theotokos, Marie Mãe de Deus. In my work I investigate how the formal properties and theological abstractions intrinsic to this icon inform the very political economy of the construction of the sanctuary itself. In specific, I analyze how the incompletion of the sanctuary translated into the visibility of its material infrastructures-scaffolds, pipes, electricity cables, etc-gains theological and political significance within Brazil’s neoliberal context.

In parallel to this analysis, I also relate the icon Theotokos to a form of media theory. As Mondzain explains, the Theotokos womb is not just a channel through which the image passes. For that again would imply “perigraphe”; it would imply a distinction between her body and the body of the son whom she contains. Instead, Theotokos is “graphe”, which is to say, she is not a mere channel through which the image passes but as a space that erases the borders of its edges. Mondzain concludes, “It, therefore, becomes important to assert that Christ, the son, did not pass through his mother as one traverses a canal; for that would suppose two forms: the form of the canal and for of the child. No: the virginal womb and the child are one and the same form. No corporeal envelop is visible.” (2005:163-164).  In other words, the medium is totally and entirely coincident with the message.

The resonances of that idea with Marshall McLuhan’s famous adage “the medium is the message” are strong and worth exploring. Of particular relevance, is the critique of “technological determinism” many have associated to McLuhan’s theory (De Abreu 2013). What would a re-reading of the theory of “technological determinism” via the aesthetic, geopolitical and temporal qualities of  “Theotokos” look like? What is the relevance of patristic thinking for today’s global culture of the image and the icon?


Agamben, Giorgio 2009, What is an Apparatus? And Other Essays. Translator David Kislik and Stefan, Pedatella (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics).

De Abreu, Maria José A. 2013, Technological Indeterminacy: Threat, Medium, Temporality. Anthropological Theory 13(3): 267-284.

De Abreu, Maria José A. 2012, The Fedex Saints: Patrons of Mobility and Speed in a Neoliberal City, in:Topography of Divine Things, edited by Birgit Meyer and Dick Houtman,  Fordham University Press, New York. Pp 321-338.

De Abreu, Maria José A. 2002, On Charisma, Mediation and Broken Screens in Etnofoor, 15 (1/2), pp. 240-259.

Mondzain, Marie-Jose 2005, Image, icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary. Stanford University Press. (Cultural Memory in the Present). Translation Rico Franses.

Maria José de Abreu is a cultural anthropologist and works at the University of Amsterdam as well as at the Amsterdam University College. She studied Anthropology of Media at SOAS, University of London, and received her PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam in 2008. She was Art Histories Fellow 2013/2014 at the Forum Transregionale Studien.


Citation: Maria José de Abreu, The Byzantine Icon in the Era of Electronic Media, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 13.08.2014

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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