On Cecily Hennessy’s book, Images of Children in Byzantium:
Cecily Hennessy’s purpose is to determine “the place and significance of children in visual representations and, by extension, in Byzantine society at various points in the past”. This book, the first extensive and systematic treatment of the visual images of children in Byzantium, draws upon various sources–from monumental frescoes and mosaics to manuscript illumination and coins–dating from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries. As Hennessy points out, children were not only subjects but also recipients and even makers of visual imagery.
In the first chapter on “Setting” the author provides a useful survey of the literature that pertains to children from antiquity to the present day, and any student of the topic could mine the chapter for references and thoughtful summaries. She also supplies information about the legal and cultural status of Byzantine children, briefly discusses various forms of available education, and examines the role of the church in defining various aspects of childhood. She notes that despite the pervasive role of Christianity in Byzantine society, there was not a uniform understanding of youth, and that children could be easily perceived as innocent or deeply flawed. The author generalizes that children in Byzantium had their own distinct identity to which pertained certain laws and culture-specific expectations.
Depictions of children in two ninth-century manuscripts–the Khludov Psalter and the Sacra Parallela–as well as in several copies of Gregory of Nazianzos’s liturgical homilies provide, according to Hennessy, a window into Byzantine perceptions of childhood and youth. The author emphasizes that the large number of children and adolescents found in these manuscripts may be a realistic reflection of the actual overall youthfulness of Byzantine society, where the average life expectancy was less than thirty years.
The chapter entitled “Family” explores the images of children with parents and siblings. Hennessy relies on a wide range of visual sources–from Roman and late antique golden glass medallions to fourteenth-century manuscript illumination. She uses the representations of families in the sixth-century Vienna Genesis in order to re-evaluate the perception of the relationship among various family members as loving and affectionate rather than as distant and formal.
Hennessy goes on to consider the seventh-century mosaic images of children in St. Demetrios in Thessaloniki and concludes that their prominence within the church’s decoration indicates an aspect of the patron saint Demetrios as protector of children and alerts us to their spiritual independence and special relationship to the sacred. The chapter further discusses the frescoed images of the Maccabees and the donor portraits in the Theodotus chapel in Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome and concludes with the familial portraits in the so-called Lincoln typikon, the monastic foundation document of the nunnery dedicated to the Virgin of Certain Hope in Constantinople. Hennessy notes that the Maccabees were meant to symbolize the power of the family in difficult times, while the portraits of the children in the Theodotus chapel she views not as commemorative but as indicative of their status as benefactors and thus as equal recipients of grace. The author points out that in the Lincoln typikon the young Euphrosyne, while represented as a member of a large extended family, is more closely aligned with her spiritual rather than secular relatives.