16 February 2004

Byzantine Studies, Kilkenny, 2004:
6: Byzantine Literature and the Arts

Tertullian asked, ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Liberal Studies Group,

Maynooth University Campus

Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny,

Monday, 16 February 2004

Byzantine Literature and the Arts

The recovery of learning in another mediaeval society

Outside the Augustaeum, in Constantinople, one would notice a statue of Justinian wearing what was known at the time as the armour of Achilles. But the Emperor carried no weapon. Instead he held in his left hand the symbol of power of the Christian Roman Emperor, the globe, which signified his dominion over land and sea, and on the globe was a cross, the emblem of the source of his rule.

Justinian as Achilles was a natural example of the fusion of classical culture with Christianity in the Eastern Roman Empire. This fusion began before Justinian's time, but was to continue to be one of the distinguishing marks of education and literature in the age of Justinian. Along with the legal and architectural splendours, the reign of Justinian also saw a flowering of literature such as the Greco-Roman world had not enjoyed for many years.

The earliest Christians avoided the worldly learning of the Greeks with their ‘philosophy and deceit,’ and saw no way in which the blasphemous literature could be brought into any sort of relationship with Christian teaching. This reaction of many Christians, as late as the second century, could be summed up in Tertullian’s famous phrase: ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’

In time, however, Christian thinkers began to realise that there was much to be carried over into Christian teaching from the Classical Greeks. Socrates and Plato, for example, often seemed to approximate Christian thought. Likewise, many of the writings of Aristotle could be fit right into the teachings of the Church. Indeed, after the adoption of Christianity people such as Saint Basil and the other fathers of the Church, all trained in Greek literature, were able to show that Pagan literature contained a wealth of teaching that was in accord with the philosophies, dogmas and symbolisms of Christianity.

It is true that such literary themes as the loves of the Olympians, and the witty humour of Aristophanes, represented views of life that Christianity came to replace. However, the fathers of the Christian Church and other later thinkers had the insight to perceive that it was possible to make some basic distinctions, and separate those elements from classical literature that were not in accord with Christianity, keeping all the rest.

The writings of the Fathers of the Church, and many others after them show an established conviction that was vital for the future of the Byzantine civilization, and indeed, all Christian cultures. This conviction brought about the establishment of a ‘new’ Christian culture, one utilising all the best writings of the classical Greek thought and fusing it into the writings and teachings of the Orthodox Church. The process of such a fusion took centuries, and its final step was not to be completed till the age of Justinian.

Even after Christianity had grown to the point where numbers of prominent people were Christians, public life was still in the hands of people who had a classical education. By this time, the educational system had come to be viewed as the embodiment of the ancient heritage, political and philosophical as well as literary. In the Greek East, even under Roman subjugation, Greek literature kept alive for centuries the tradition of the political, philosophical and artistic achievements of the classical Hellenic world.

For a Greek Christian to give up all the classical teachings simply because parts of them were indelicate would have meant losing a great deal. It would have meant, had he chosen to accept only the teachings of the early Christians, that he would be cut off from a major part of his cultural heritage. Most people were not prepared for this.

It was into a world founded on this ideology that Justinian came. Indeed, Justinian immediately recognised the meaning of the classical spirit and set himself to absorb it and be absorbed by it. The Greek language itself also fascinated him and he took great pleasure in composing state papers in it, although he had a skilled secretariat for this purpose. A humorous anecdote in this vein comes to us in Procopius’s Secret History, where he tells us rather wickedly that the Emperor took great pleasure in performing public readings of his works, in spite of his provincial accent, which he never lost when speaking Greek (of course, who was to tell the Emperor that his accent was provincial?).

Justinian decided to put an end to the idea of Paganism as heresy. He saw, however, that there was a major problem in the manner in which Pagan writing was being taught in the schools and universities. In particular, it was being taught in two different ways.

In the schools of Constantinople, Gaza and Alexandria, the classics were being taught by teachers who were themselves Christians. Procopius was typical of such Christian teachers steeped in the classics. He and his pupils and colleagues composed great ecclesiastical works based on the classical style. The theatres of Gaza were often filled with Christian professors who would give public exhibitions in which they declaimed before enthusiastic audiences their rhetorical compositions. Another such teacher, alive in Justinian’s day, was John Philoponus. His works included both theological treatises and polemics, as well as commentaries on Aristotle.

One centre of learning that even until Justinian’s time had never associated itself with Christianity was Athens. There the professors were still Pagan and were teaching the classics from entirely the Pagan point of view. This was found unacceptable. Not the fact that they were teaching classical works, but that they were not Christians. Justinian gave them the opportunity to become Christian but they refused. As a result, Justinian closed down their schools in 529, his second year as emperor. Of course, one could still continue to study the classics at Alexandria, Gaza, or Constantinople, where the teachers were Christians. Most of the Athenian professors went as refugees to the court of the King of Persia.

However, in time, they found conditions there even worse and they petitioned to be allowed to return home. For better or for worst, this action of Justinian’s was to be symbolic of what the ‘new’ Christian education and literature, based on the classics, was to be like.

The poetry of Byzantium

As well as his interests in law-giving, architecture, sculpture and philosophy, Justin was a poet: one of his hymns is incorporated into the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, and was included in the Romanian Orthodox liturgy I took part in yesterday.

Much of the new poetry of Byzantium, as might expect, was religious, some of it was part of the effort to recover the Hellenic world and the world of Greek philosophy. Later poetry would continue to maintain Byzantine cultural expressions despite Frankish and Ottoman occupation

The favourable atmosphere of Constantinople produced a number of distinguished literary figures in Justinian’s time. Many of their works were largely influenced by the teachings of Aristotle, Plato and other ancient Greek philosophers and play writers, whom they had all studied. Indeed, men in public life were frequently scholars and poets.

The work entitled The Greek Anthology, for instance, preserves selected specimens of the verses of nine such poets. Included in this list is John the Lydian, who wrote some autobiographical passages about the scholarly side of the government, and also a history of the Persian war. Procopius the historian and Paul the Silentiary were also in this list of distinguished scholars at the time of Justinian.

Procopius studied at Gaza, then a university town, and learned to mimic the style of the great Greek historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides. In 527 he went to Constantinople where he was to assume new heights as the leading historian of the day, as well as a legal adviser to Belissarius, the most brilliant of Justinian’s generals. He also wrote a panegyric in which Justinian’s vast construction program was described with the resources of literary art. After Procopius’s death another of his works, The Secret History, was published, in which he libelled the Emperor Justinian who, he believed, had failed to do justice to his hero Belissarius.

[*** hand out excerpt from Paul the Silentiary ***]

While Procopius went back to the classic Greek historians, Paul the Silentiary went back to Homer. He wrote a famous description of Aghia Sophia in 887 hexameters, about the length of one of the longer books of Homer. Homer became the vehicle for the praise of the noblest church in the empire. Like Procopius’s earlier work, Paul’s monograph on Aghia Sophia reflects a real Christian feeling via the subtlety and similes of the Homeric style. It was not only for his praise of Aghia Sophia that Paul is known for, however. In his day and later Paul was one of the most appreciated writers of occasional verses in the Classical style.

The 78 of his epigrams that are preserved in The Greek Anthology show that he was an accomplished practitioner of the classical style, with an intimate knowledge of classical literature and a delicate feeling for language and meter.

In the age of Justinian, Greek classical literature was a part of the ancient heritage, and Christianity, as a custodian of this heritage, was well able to absorb the classical literary tradition so long as it was understood that the tradition now played a vital role as an element in the new and larger Christian way of life that Hellenism and the entire Eastern Roman Empire had gradually evolved into.

Justinian knew that true patriotism and national pride would come from the teaching of the record of achievements of ancient Greece. Indeed, the Greek-speaking citizens of the empire were very conscious of their decent from the Greeks of ancient times who had produced the likes of Homer, Thucydides, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. They saw no essential discontinuity between themselves and classical Greece. It was now Justinian’s responsibility to see that the essential base of such a classical pedagogical system was maintained. Classical literature had proven its worth over many centuries, and was to survive alongside with Christianity. In the Christian Roman Empire Justinian hoped to shape what one could read and learn, and teach the classics, but only if he or she was Christian first

Other Byzantine arts

This inter-mingling of creativity in the architecture, poetry, piety and folksongs of Byzantium is reflected in the anonymous poem or folksong translated as The Last Mass in Santa Sophia [refer to handout]. The architecture of Byzantium provided the space for mosaics and frescoes, and inspired the poetry and literature of this great civilisation. But apart from architecture, literature and poetry, the Byzantine world of art was creative in many other fields too.

The Byzantine museums in Athens, Thessaloniki, Mystras, and on the islands, or the exhibitions such as the Treasures of Mount Athos, organised as part of the programme for Thessaloniki’s Year as European Cultural Capital in 1997 contain rich display of Byzantine works in sculpture, painting, marble, wood carvings, mosaic floors and tiles, frescoes and wall paintings, illuminated manuscripts, paper icons, portable icons, religious vestments, liturgical vessels, jewellery, decorative tiles, architectural embellishments, pottery, coins, objects worked in silver and other precious metals …

The architecture of Byzantium was to be seen not only in Constantinople but also in Alexandria, for long the second city of the Empire, in the Palace of the Grand Masters, for long associated with the Knights of Saint John or the idiosyncrasies of Mussolini, but the citadel of the fortified Byzantine city of Rhodes from the late seventh century to 1309.

Byzantine culture survives:

After the last mass in Aghia Sophia and the fall of Byzantium, Byzantine culture did not come to an end. Byzantium did not disappear when Constantinople fell to the Turks and was transformed into Istanbul. There was a cultural continuity with Byzantium in the cultural lives of Cyprus, until it fell to the Turks in 1571, and on Crete, the island of Candia, for almost another century after that

With the arrival of a new wave of scholars, artists and writers from Byzantium after 1453, in Crete, then the island of Candia, Byzantine culture was guaranteed its survival and prosperity on the island and its capital, Kastro (present-day Iraklion) until it was captured by the Turks in 1669.

And so, for example, the link between Byzantine literature and Renaissance literature, between late Byzantium and late Venice, the place where West looks East and East looks West in early modern Europe, is provided by the Cretan poet Vitsentzos Kornaros (1553-ca 1613/14), an immediate contemporary of El Greco, whose poem Erotokritos, is the best-known and the most admired work of Cretan Renaissance literature.

This 10,000-verse epic is more than a poem, it is a love story, it is a great work of fiction, it is narrative poetry and drama. In this poem, we find the balance of Greek culture is found in the balance between Athens and Byzantium, the city of philosophers and the city of emperors. It has inspired poets and musicians into the 20th century, such as this track from the Cretan songwriter Paradosiako.

[*** play track from Erotokrtios ***]

To put it into its cultural landscape, this poem is almost contemporaneous with Edmund Spencer’s The Fairie Queen (1596). It was written after 1595 and before 1610 in Kastro.

The tradition of Byzantine iconography was not only maintained, but it was nurtured and developed, for example among the exiles from Byzantium who found refuge in Crete, especially in the school that grew up in a church in Kastro (present-day Iraklion) associated with the Byzantine monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai.

There the leading writer of icons was Mikhailis Damaskinos (ca 1530-1591), whose better-known works include the Last Supper. The best-known of his pupils was young Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614). A contemporary of Cornaros, he left Crete at the age of 26 in 1597 and moved first to Venice and Rome and then to Toledo in Spain, where he earned fame as El Greco. Many western critics have tried to explain his style by suggesting various eye diseases, but, undoubtedly, he was totally influenced in his work by the Byzantine style of iconography brought from the City to Crete. His pictures are theological rather than religious in character; they make a clear distinction between the divine world and the material world, which are seen as separate but mutually accessible areas. But more of that in two weeks time!

On other islands, the Byzantine tradition of iconography was maintained by painters such as Nikolaos Koutouzis and Nikolaos Kantounis on Zakynthos.

Byzantine art, from the past and today, can be seen in museums and galleries throughout Greece, the most notable being those in Athens, Thessaloniki and Rhodes, but especially in Mystras, and it is also worth visiting the Byzantine museums in Zakynthos, Chania, Chios, Spetses and many other islands to see not a tradition from the past but a living tradition that is part of a living creativity and spirituality today

The poetry of Byzantium continued too.

Byzantium in literature and poetry today:

On our first morning [2 February 2004], I read W.B. Yeats’s poem, Sailing to Byzantium. But while Yeats was romancing about Byzantium as an El Dorado or Tír na nÓg of the past, Byzantium continued to be a living presence, a place of the present, in Greek poetry after the last mass in Aghia Sophia.

In the geography of the Greek poet, Byzantium was not the only Byzantine city. Alexandria, which had been won and lost so many times in the Hellenic and Byzantine conflicts, came to symbolise the sensuality of all Greeks. This had been primarily a Greek city from the days of Alexander the Great until the rise of Nasser and the Suez Crisis in the mid-20th century, and the cycle of the loss and redemption of Alexandria represented the losses and the hopes of all Greeks.

Alexandria was the second city of Byzantium, it was the sensual Byzantium, and the loss of Alexandria, for Byzantines, as for Hellenes before them and modern Greeks after them, symbolises the loss of cultural riches, the loss of cultural diversity, the loss of sensuality and pleasure, the very pain of losing love itself

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, who romanticised the Hellenic and Byzantine world, wrote many of his poems on themes provided by Byzantium. Anna Komnina (1083-1146) was ‘a power hungry woman’ driven by the consuming regret of never having managed to gain the throne; Anna Dalassini is eulogised for never having uttered ‘those cold words “mine” or “yours”.’ Cavafy discovers a remnant of royal Byzantine pride in the fact that John Kantakuzinos and his wife Irini chose to wear bits of coloured glass in place of jewels during their coronation, which came at a time when ‘our afflicted empire was extremely poor.’ And Cavafy comments on the occasion:

… I find
nothing humiliating or undignified
in those little pieces of coloured glass.
Just the opposite: they seem
a sad protest against
the unjust misfortune of the couple being crowned,
symbols of what they deserve to have,
of what surely it was right they should have
at their coronation – a Lord John Kantakuzinos,
a Lady Irini, daughter of Andronikos Asan.

In the poem, ‘Theophilos Paliologos,’ Cavafy laments the fall of Byzantium in 1453, and with it the death of Hellenism as the mediaeval world knew it. But Cavafy was from Alexandria, and the loss of Alexandria to the Byzantine world symbolised the loss of sensuality and pleasure, the loss of the lover, the loss of life itself.

This is beautifully expressed in his poem ‘The God abandons Antony.’ In this poem, Antony was losing Alexandria to Caesar, just as 20th century Greeks would mourn the loss of Byzantium – the poem was written in 1911, just 10 years before the disastrous attempt by Venizelos to recapture or liberate Constantinople – the loss of Byzantium, or perhaps even the looming, inevitable cultural loss of Alexandria too.

[*** distribute the handout (say the translation is by Edmund Keeley and the Irish-born Greek scholar Philip Sherrard), play the reading (the narrator is the Cypriot-born actor John Ioannou). *** ]

The poem has influenced many other modern poets and songwriters. Compare it with the poem on the other side of the sheet by Leonard Cohen.

[*** Play track 7 from his 2001 album Ten New Songs ***]

Appendix 1:

‘The god abandons Antony,’ CP Cavafy:

At midnight, when suddenly you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive – don’t mourn them uselessly:
as one long prepared, and full of courage,
say goodbye to her, to Alexandria who is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceive you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty promises like these.
As one long prepared, and full of courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion,
but not with the whining, the please of a coward;
listen – your final pleasure – to the voices,
to the exquisite music of the strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

‘Alexandra Leaving,’ Leonard Cohen

Suddenly the night has grown colder.
The god of love preparing to depart.
Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder,
They slip between the sentries of the heart.

Upheld by the simplicities of pleasure,
They gain the light, they formlessly entwine;
And radiant beyond your widest measure
They fall among the voices and the wine.

It’s not a trick, your senses all deceiving,
A fitful dream, the morning will exhaust –
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

Even though she sleeps upon your satin;
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined;
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for this to happen,
Go firmly to the window. Drink it in.
Exquisite music. Alexandra laughing.
Your firm commitments tangible again.

And you who had the honor of her evening,
And by the honor had your own restored –
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving;
Alexandra leaving with her lord.

Even though she sleeps upon your satin;
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined;
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for the occasion;
In full command of every plan you wrecked –
Do not choose a coward’s explanation
That hides behind the cause and the effect.

And you who were bewildered by a meaning;
Whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed –
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

Next 7, Byzantine theology and Church life (1 March 2004).

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