Doru Costache

Stavros Lazaris: “Le Physiologus grec, vol. 2: Donner à voir la nature”

Vol. 3
8 February, 2024

Book Review by Doru Costache

Le Physiologus grec, vol. 2: Donner à voir la nature
By Stavros Lazaris
Micrologus Library 77/2
Firenze: Sismel Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2021; 432 + xvi pages
ISBN 9788892901377, 1st edition, paperback

On reviewing Lazaris’ earlier volume on Physiologus (“natural philosopher”), in last year’s Christian Perspectives on Science and Technology, I deplored the forgetfulness of contemporary Christians about this ancient book of science, the first of its kind. For this is, by all accounts, the oldest Christian scientific treatise, regardless of how peculiar it might appear to modern readers. Its first version, in Greek, dates to the second century, but successive editors added material to it even much later, in the Byzantine era. As to its peculiarity, this work, as Lazaris reminds us in this second study (pp. 14–15), tackles the items by moving from διήγησις (exposition, description) to ἑρμηνεία (interpretation), typical for the Christian intellectual tradition of Alexandria.

Specifically, the first step of the method, διήγησις, which draws on ancient treatises and anecdotal evidence, describes the characteristics of various animals, minerals, and plants, while the second step, ἑρμηνεία, brings to light their spiritual meaning through the lens of scriptural material (p. 15). Compared to modern scientific textbooks that do not include symbolic interpretations, Physiologus is clearly peculiar. It actually shows less interest in “describing the real behaviour of the various species,” no matter the obsolete data on which it relies, instead focusing on the items “as moral or religious symbols” (p. 18). This is not the modern analytical science; this is a holistic approach to reality. I concluded my review of the first volume by highlighting useful lessons of Physiologus, of which one refers to the contemplation of nature. Granted, this lesson might not serve modern scientists in their research. It could inspire them and their audience, however, to develop wonder at the natural world and to read this “other scripture”—to paraphrase Paul Blowers—for spiritual profit. This would work well for Christians committed to the contemporary scientific culture.

Scholars are not unaware of Physiologus, but study it within frameworks that most times present no interest for faith and science conversations. And even when historians of science discuss it (see Arnaud Zucker, “Zoology,” in A Companion to Byzantine Science, 2021, pp. 272–276), they ignore the accompanying illuminations, as Lazaris points out (pp. 25, 93–94). It is to the analysis of these illustrations, which make nature visible, as the subtitle says, that he turns in this second volume. He does so by examining thirteen Byzantine manuscripts of Physiologus (pp. 25–85), comparing the imagery found therein (pp. 89–308). This imposing book also includes a preface by Guglielmo Cavallo (pp. 3–12), a general introduction (pp. 13–22), a general conclusion (pp. 311–343), an exhaustive bibliography (pp. 345–410), 317 illustrations (amounting to 158 unnumbered pages, preceded by the list and the credits, pp. 411–419), and two indices compiled by Alexis Chryssostalis (pp. 423–432).

Lazaris examines the codices in detail. One of these illuminated manuscripts was discovered by him in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1999 (pp. 38–41). The author systematises the findings by way of four tables of various length, of which the first two, quite short, list the available manuscripts chronologically (from the eleventh to the sixteenth century) and by the editorial stages they represent (the first recension, the second recension, and three mixed recensions). The last two tables, lengthy, compare the order of the sections in all thirteen codices and present the illustrated items alphabetically. This information is then distilled in the general conclusion, where the codices are treated from the viewpoint of their aesthetics and technical approach to the items (pp. 312–318).

Of particular interest is the thorough description and comparison of the illustrated items (pp. 103–289), which mostly depict terrestrial animals (excluding all domesticated ones but including several imaginary ones, such as the gryphon, the siren, and the unicorn, taken for granted by the ancients and the medieval believers alike; pp. 101–102). These are accompanied by images of aquatic animals, insects, minerals, and plants. While the catalogue of Physiologus is poor, including only 63 items, both its text and the supporting illuminations bring to light the interest of the medieval editors and artists in the natural world.

Lazaris studies these images “in their historicity, plasticity, dynamism, and fertility” (p. 342) to understand the complex processes entailed by their production (p. 20). To illustrate the catalogue, Byzantine artists sought inspiration both in the Physiologus and in other textual and visual sources (pp. 293–295). Lazaris indicates the sources available to the artists (see, for example, pp. 93, 342), which differ from those on which the original text relies. He points out that, by drawing upon further sources, the artists produced a “visual exegesis” of the text (pp. 97, 290–291) and an interpreted reality (p. 302), a visualisation of nature. Sometimes, in the absence of models, the illustrators had to be imaginative (pp. 21, 300–301). Other times they attempted to depict the items within their environment (pp. 103, 109, 117, 133, 306, 311–313, etc.). Most times, they meant to generate “new layers of meaning” (pp. 97, 307), not to produce realistic depictions. The resulting illuminations tell a richer story than the text taken by itself. Nevertheless, the supporting images depend on the text to tell the fuller story (p. 291).

Lazaris’ second volume on Physiologus therefore is about making sense of illustrators’ awareness of the natural world (pp. 337–338) and of the interplay of text and image in depicting nature for Christian edification (pp. 98, 296–298). It establishes what scientific literacy amounted to among Byzantine Christians during the process of manuscript illustration and, dare I say, shows that these believers lived in a complex universe, including nature, not only transcendent realities. The analysis of text and image provides important insights into how reality and interpretation, as well as science, faith, and art, crossed paths within the intellectual world of Byzantine believers (pp. 89, 336–339, 342). As Lazaris shows in conclusion, both the text of Physiologus and the imagery of its many versions evolved through the centuries, in proportion to editors’ and illustrators’ awareness of the natural world. This is an inspirational story. It encourages Christians of any age, including our own, to continue the quest for understanding by engaging the available sciences from the viewpoint of their faith.

This erudite volume is meant for historians of culture and science, religious studies scholars, and historians of science and religion, to whom I wholeheartedly recommend it.