Friday, 6 February 2009

Byzantium: 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

Patrick Comerford

In the Western world, popular perceptions of Byzantium range from the hostile to the romantic, so that Byzantium represents political intrigue and decadence, on the one hand, or, on the other, the height of cultural achievement and spiritual awakening.

Voltaire was dismissive of Byzantium, describing it as “a worthless repertory of declamations and miracles, a disgrace to the human mind.” Ruskin, in his Stones of Venice, offered a more ambivalent view as he described Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice: “Whatever in San Marco arrests the eye, or affects the feelings, is either Byzantine, or has been modified by Byzantine influence; and our inquiry into its architectural merits need not therefore be disturbed by the anxieties of antiquarianism, or arrested by the obscurities of chronology.”

However, for the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, in Sailing to Byzantium, the city embodied the mystery and splendour of the greatest cultural capital:

… 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 has been organised by the Royal Academy in conjunction with the Benaki Museum in Athens. It includes priceless items never before seen in public. There are more than 300 objects on display, 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.

Walking the path of history

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 city of Constantinople was inaugurated in the year 330 by the Emperor Constantine the Great, who reigned from 324 to 337. He built his new fortified capital on the site of an earlier town known as Byzantium, on the shores of the Bosporus. The new city soon became known as New Rome, and became the capital of the Roman Empire after the “Old Rome” fell to the Barbarians.

The exhibition traces the history of Byzantine art, from its foundation by Constantine in 330 to its fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. It was the longest-lasting European empire and Christian state, and the exhibition documents its patrons and artists, and unveils their world. The fall of the city to the Crusaders in 1204 was devastating but not a death-dealing blow, and although the city never fully recovered it later blossomed in a final revival of creativity, with works from Constantinople, the Balkans, Ukraine and Russia showing the final phase of those distinctively Orthodox forms and functions.

‘Handiwork of God’

Byzantine art was designed to teach and promote Christianity, and to support and enrich Church worship. By 391, Christianity was the official religion of the Empire, pagan temples were demolished or converted into churches, Biblical subjects gradually superseded pagan mythological stories in art, and pagan motifs were refashioned as symbols of Christianity: for example, the shepherd became Christ the Good Shepherd, the eternally sleeping Endymion became Jonah saved from death.

To visit a Byzantine church was to enter “heaven on earth.” Saint Germanos, the last Patriarch of Constantinople before the devastating onslaught and destruction of iconoclasm (715-730) wrote: “The church is the temple of God, a holy place, a house of prayer, the assembly of the people, the body of Christ. It is called the bride of Christ. It is cleaned by the water of his baptism, sprinkled by his blood, clothed in bridal garments and sealed with the myrrh of the Holy Spirit … It represents the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Christ.”

When the ambassadors from the court of Kiev visited the great church of Aghia Sophia in Byzantium in 987, they famously said: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.”

Shortly before the fall of Byzantium in 1453, George Sphrantzes described Aghia Sophia as “that most huge and all-holy church of the Wisdom of Giod, that Heaven upon Earth, throne of the glory of God, the second firmament and chariot of cherubs, the handiwork of God, a marvellous and worthy work, the delight of the whole earth, beautiful and more lovely than the beautiful.”

And so, the exhibition opens appropriately with visitors standing in the Wohl Central Hall in the Royal Academy beneath an enormous copper chandelier or choros. Now in a museum in Munich, this large 13th or 14th century chandelier was designed to hang from 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. Where we see gold in Byzantine art, the Byzantines saw divine light, and for the Byzantine worshippers who first stood beneath it in prayer and attending the liturgy, this chandelier would have symbolised the ultimate meaning of their whole culture: the revelation of light, the light of Christ.

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 Cloisters Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was first discovered around 1911, it was claimed that the Holy Grail or chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper had been discovered.

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.

Far-spread influence

It is too easy to mourn that so much of Byzantium was either first destroyed by the iconclasts or that it was 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. However, it is surprising that such a comprehensive exhibition can include so many exhibitions on loan from the British Museum in London, yet has no items from Mount Athos, Patmos, Mystras or Saint Catherine’s Museum in Iraklion in Crete. How can Byzantium be understood or imagined without seeing their place and contribution?

The Riha Paten, ca 565-578. Photograph © Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection, Washington

The cataloguers agree that “Byzantium and Islam came to admire the qualities of each other’s art, leading to a cross-fertilisation between two different faith.” And so it is curious that the exhibition does not include a separate section illustrating this interaction between the Byzantine and Islamic worlds.

After the fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Moscow claimed a unique place as their heir to the Byzantine tradition, and staked a claim to the title of the “Third Rome.” But the splendour of Byzantium also lived on in the emerging Balkan kingdoms, including Bulgaria and Serbia, and in Romania, as well as places such as Armenia and the Venetian-held territories of the former Byzantine Empire, including Crete and other islands.

The Cretan School of iconography flourished when Crete was under Venetian rule during the late Middle Ages, and reached its climax after the fall of Byzantium in 1453. It went on to become the central force in Greek painting during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

Dramatic presentation

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.

It was one of the unexpected consequences of the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 640-642 that Saint Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai became a centre of traditional Byzantine iconography, where it managed to survive the blind ravages of iconoclasm in the eighth century.

The Mount Sinai school of icon writing later contributed to a new flowering of iconography in the East, and to western art through the Sinaitic School of Saint Catherine in Iraklion on Crete. The Cretan artists developed a particular style of painting under the influence of both Eastern and Western artistic traditions and movements. The most famous student in the school, Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614) – better known in the West as El Greco – was the most successful of the many artists who tried to build a career in Western Europe, and also the one who left the Byzantine style furthest behind him in his later career.

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

Appropriately, the final treasure in the exhibition is the Icon of the Heavenly Ladder of Saint John Klimakos. This icon dates from the late twelfth century, and trials, tribulations and rewards of the ascetic life led by the monks of Mount Sinai. It is so well-known, viewers are amazed it is so small (41.1 x 29.1 cm). Byzantium never died. It sometimes appears to have an eternal existence. And this one small icon is a reminder that the secret in Byzantium’s glory and 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 2009: www.royalacademy.org.uk/byzantium

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was published in the February 2009 editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough), the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) and Newslink (Limerick and Killaloe).