Virgin and Child, Hagia Sophia

Photios, the patriarch of Constantinople, inaugurated this apse mosaic in 867
CE with the following words: “a
lifelike imitation . . . she fondly turns her eyes upon her begotten child in the affection of her heart. . . . You might think her not incapable of speaking.” But the depicted Virgin does not fit the description, nor is the image particularly illusionistic. So was Photios’ description just a rhetorical flair or a consequence of a hallucination? It is more likely that the patriarch was not treating the image as a portrayal of the Virgin, but rather as her non-portraying image-substitute. Or so I argue in my JAAC paper ‘Substitution by Image: The Very Idea’.

Image source