From Icon to Picture: Visual Biographies of Saints in the Late Middle Ages
Why is it that we tend to describe certain images as “icons”, while other, often from the same period on the same subject matter, simply as “pictures”? In my presentation I will address this question by looking at some vita icons, mainly from the 12th and 13th centuries, which bring to a head the problem of the icon in its relationship to pictorial narrative. The vita or narrative icon is a painting which represents a central portrait of a saint surrounded by scenes of the saint’s life. In my talk, I propose to approach these “visual biographies of saints” as intriguing exactly because they depend on a profound conceptual and visual paradox. Two modes of image-making - the “iconic” and the “narrative” - that follow two very distinct regimes of visuality and serve completely different purposes are brought together within the same picture space. After all, the narrative/ vita scenes have the function of telling a story, while an icon is profoundly non-narrative and eschews any references to a concrete moment of time and a concrete location.