Between the Textual and the Visual

Borderlines of Late Antique Book Iconicity


  • Zeev Elitzur Ben Gurion University



Torah Scroll, Midrash, St. Paul


A book is not a regular object. Like other objects, it can be perceived by the sense of sight. Unlike other objects, the visual form of the book subordinates itself to the linguistic sphere. Thus we tend to overlook the outer appearance of books in favor of their contents. In other words we tend to read books as opposed to viewing them. The iconic dimension of the book appears where this assertion fails—that is, when people notice (or even emphasize) the visual form of books. This article develops this observation in the context of late antique Judaism and Christianity. It describes two modes of crossing the boundaries between the book as an object of reading and the book as an object of viewing. In both traditions, the iconic dimension of the book bypasses the textual level and highlights the visual level. In the Jewish world, the transition is between the textual perception of the written sign and the visual perception thereof. In other words, it is between two alternative modes of perceiving the written sign. This is exemplified by several instances of “Visual Midrash”—a midrash that is based on graphical data. In the Christian world, the transition is between the textual function of the book and its subordination to the hegemony of the visual image—an historical process beginning with the Pauline visual encounter with Christ and culminating with the triumph of the image in eighth century Byzantium.


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How to Cite

Elitzur, Z. (2012). Between the Textual and the Visual: Borderlines of Late Antique Book Iconicity. Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts, Cultural Histories, and Contemporary Contexts, 6(1-3), 83–99.