Friday, 9 January 2009

A taste of heaven on earth

A perfume brazier in the form of a domed building, from Constantinople or Italy, late 12th century. Photograph © Procuratoria di San Marco/ Cameraphoto Arte, Venice

A major exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts spotlights the wonders of the Byzantine Empire, from the foundation of Constantinople in AD 330 to its fall in 1453.

By Patrick Comerford

In the English-speaking world, Byzantium represents political intrigue and decadence, on one hand, or, on the other, the height of cultural achievement and spiritual awakening. For W.B. Yeats, in Sailing to Byzantium, it embodied the mystery and splendour of our culture:

… I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium …

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come
.

And so it is hard to believe that the current exhibition in London on the splendours of the Byzantine Empire, “Byzantium 330-1453,” hosted by the Royal Academy of Arts, is the first major exhibition of its kind in Britain for half a century.

This exhibition, organised in conjunction with the Benaki Museum in Athens, includes priceless items never before seen in public. There are more than 300 objects, including icons, parchments, frescoes, mosaics, sanctuary doors, ivories, children’s clothes and works in gold and silver, with rare items from monasteries, museums and collections across Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Egypt and the US.

Visitors are invited along a chronological path, from the foundation of the city by Constantine in 330 to its fall in 1453. We see the wonders of Byzantium through a variety of themes as we explore the origins of Byzantium, the rise of Constantinople, the ravages of iconoclasm, the post-iconoclast revival, the great crescendo in the Middle Ages, and the close links between Byzantine and early Renaissance art in Italy.

The exhibition traces the history of Byzantine art, documents its patrons and artists, and unveils their world. Despite its fall to the Crusaders, the city later blossomed in a final revival of creativity, and works from Constantinople, the Balkans, Ukraine and Russia show the final phase of distinctively Orthodox forms and functions.

The exhibition opens appropriately with visitors standing beneath a large 13th or 14th century copper chandelier or choros. Now in a museum in Munich, it once hung in the central dome of a Byzantine basilica or church, and is a first reminder that Byzantium was essentially enlightened by the light of Christianity and enriched by the liturgy, icons, rituals and music.

The Antioch Chalice, lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photograph © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

When the Antioch Chalice, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was first discovered around 1911, it was touted as the Holy Grail or chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper. From Saint Mark’s Treasury in Venice there is the ornate Chalice of the Patriarchs, and an elaborate silver perfume brazier or burner in the shape of a multi-domed church. There are unique, two-sided icons from the Byzantine Museum in Kastoria and the Icon Gallery in Ohrid. From the State Historical Museum in Moscow comes the Khludov Psalter from Constantinople, dating from soon after 843, with the parchment open at an image of an iconoclast rejoicing at the crucifixion of Christ.

It is too easy to mourn that so much of Byzantium was either first destroyed by the iconclasts or later dispersed throughout the world. But the imaginative selection of works from across the Mediterranean basin, the Balkans and Europe and beyond shows the far-spread influence of Byzantium. But it is surprising that such a comprehensive exhibition can include so many exhibits from the British Museum in London, yet has no items from Mount Athos, Patmos or Mystras – how can Byzantium be understood or imagined without seeing their place and contribution?

Russian works – including an embroidered icon from Moscow, woven to advance the city’s claim to be the Third Rome – might have provided the historical departure point for the exhibition. Instead, just as it opened with a realisation of the over-arching influences of the liturgy on Byzantine life, the exhibition closes with a dramatic presentation of the place of the splendour of iconography with a collection of icons from Mount Sinai. On Mount Sinai, iconography survived iconoclasm as an unexpected consequence of the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 640-642, and Mount Sinai later contributed to a new flowering of iconography and to western art through the Sinaitic School of Saint Catherine in Iraklion on Crete.

Icon of the Heavenly Ladder of Saint John Klimakos, late 12th century, from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

Appropriately, the final treasure is the 12th century Icon of the Heavenly Ladder of Saint John Klimakos. It is so well-known, viewers are amazed it is so small (41.1 x 29.1 cm). Yet this one small icon is a reminder that the secret in Byzantium’s splendour lies in its ability to bridge the chasm between earth and heaven.

Byzantium 330-1453 continues at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 22 March: www.royalacademy.org.uk/byzantium

Canon Patrick Comerford is an Irish priest, writer and theologian. This review was first published in the Athens News on 9 January 2009, pp 26-27.