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Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Arts & Letters

Byzantium’s Legacy Revealed


The exhibition Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557) can be viewed as a sequel to the previous two shows on the art of the Eastern Roman empire mounted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1977 and 1997. To present this show as a sequel, however, is to downplay its powerful message and ambitious goal, since this exceptional exhibition explored, from a global perspective, a phase of Byzantine art that is not well-known. It is an exhibition that challenged the received wisdom about an entire culture, and did so with flair. By assembling approximately 350 objects, Byzantium: Faith and Power showcased the centrality of Byzantine culture during the formative period of early modern Europe’s foundation, at a time when the Byzantine state had lost its political panache. Power had been gained and sought through faith, which, as the series of icons attested, was unquestionably a potent component of this show.

As a worldly Mediterranean culture, Byzantium came into contact and dialogue with various contiguous cultures. Long before 1261, the Byzantines had fought battles and formed alliances with Muslims, Armenians, Slavs, Bulgarians, and Europeans (including the Crusaders). Since the late seventh century of the Common Era, large parts of its Christian population (in Palestine, Syria, and Egypt) had been ruled by Muslims and had adopted Arabic as their everyday language, although Greek and Syriac remained liturgical languages denoting religious affiliation. We are all aware of the strong linguistic, religious, and political ties that existed between Byzantium and the Slavic world. As Elena Boeck amply demonstrates in her essay, it is hardly surprising to hear that Moscow named itself the “Third Rome” in an attempt to emulate the brilliance of Constantinople, the “New Rome.” What is worth noting is the subtlety with which Serbian, Bulgarian, and Russian rulers and aristocrats manipulated Byzantium’s official and religious imagery to claim themselves as the Romans’ lawful descendants. In the East and in the North, Eastern Christianity was always a defining characteristic, both in forging identity and in asserting that identity’s connections with the culture of Byzantium.

Things were somewhat different in western Europe, which seems to have rediscovered Greek culture after the capture of Constantinople and through intensified trade relations with Byzantium from the twelfth century onward. The relationship between Byzantine and Western medieval art has been studied extensively by Byzantinists and Europeanists alike; at the end of the twentieth century, what is clear is that the cultural lines of demarcation between East and West were hard to define. Even Italy, parts of which were intimately associated with Byzantine culture in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (Sicily and Venice are the primary examples), seemed to attain a new appreciation of Byzantine art and culture after the middle of the thirteenth century, as can be seen in Venice in the atrium mosaics in San Marco’s basilica and in the church’s refurbished western façade. Yet, it is in the painting of Duccio and works sponsored by the Franciscans and Dominicans during the thirteenth century’s second half that Byzantine iconography asserted its influence. Was this an effect of the Crusaders’ intense contact with the art of the East in the Holy Land and at the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai? (The so-called Crusader icons in the exhibit’s Gallery VII were a powerful statement on the interaction between the religious art of the Orthodox East and that of the Europeans.) Was it the result of traveling artists? Or were the works of art that reached the West in themselves influential in setting the tone for emulating the East’s riches?

The exhibition did not give an obvious answer to these questions, but it brought to the fore concrete examples of artistic borrowings and cultural similarities that, at times, seem uncanny. As Cecily Hilsdale points out in her essay, the themes of late Byzantine art were rehearsed with new artistic force throughout the show’s chronological and geographical expanse. After seeing this exhibition, one had to wonder how it was ever possible for art historians to miss the close ties that existed between fifteenth- and sixteenth-century icons and their Western reincarnations. One answer is that the direct intermediary of that period—hundreds of religious icons produced on Venetian-ruled Crete—was almost unknown outside Greece until thirty years ago. Unlike the crusader icons from St. Catherine, which were not meant to leave the monastery, the Cretan icons were painted for clients in western and eastern Europe; the Cretan school thus became the heir and promoter of Byzantine (or post-Byzantine) art after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

The exhibition skillfully explored the new tendencies in art that arose in Byzantium after 1261. As Constantinople lost its brilliance, the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries allowed the empire’s periphery and various provincial centers to find their own artistic voice. This is visible, above all, in the numerous churches and monasteries that flourished in Arta, Mistra, Thessalonike, Meteora, and Trebizond, as well as in the northern Balkan states. Surprisingly, this is also true for Cyprus and Crete, as well as for the Aegean islands that, despite Latin rule, display an unusually rich repertoire of painted churches in which older Byzantine forms were celebrated and elaborated upon. Glazed graffito ceramic wares were widely produced from the thirteenth century on throughout the Byzantine world (including Cyprus) and were even copied in Venice. So, even if the Constantinopolitan court lacked the prestige and riches of the earlier period, the artistic production in the provincial centers testifies to the culture’s enduring force.

The exhibition focused on the interconnection between faith and power. It explored the ways in which Byzantium’s cultural core, with its center of gravity firmly located in Greek Orthodoxy, permeated society in the church and at home, and also reached outside the empire’s borders to embrace all Orthodox peoples. Vasilis Marinis’s essay explores the centrality of Orthodox cult practices to preserving this culture and explains the significance of icons and relics in this construct. Interestingly, the crucial importance of Orthodox practices and icon worship is also seen in the use of Byzantine icons within the Western church. Icons made in the East during earlier periods—or thought to have been made there—acquired the prestige of sacred relics, which were deeply venerated in the West. In fact, these Byzantine icons occupied a special position in the late Middle Ages in Europe (especially in Rome and France), and in the Renaissance became prototypes for post-Reformation religious painting.

Orthodoxy’s importance as a repository of the sacred is evident in The Man of Sorrows, an icon from the important papal Church of Santa Croce in Jerusalemme in Rome. This rather small mosaic icon, which celebrates the Passion of Christ at the moment of death, is the central element of a large altarpiece outfitted for the church’s high altar. While the icon, which remained untouched by any Western artist to showcase its Byzantine origin, offers a dramatic representation of death but no relics, numerous boxes with relics of various saints containing explanatory labels stress its value. This was an icon that—because of origin, craftsmanship, beauty, preciousness, and subject matter—was fit to adorn a church that celebrated the Holy Cross and referenced the Holy City of Jerusalem. The conflation of the Holy Land with the art of Byzantium hinges on this mosaic icon’s eloquence in portraying Jesus Christ dead on the cross.

Examples like this, or the icon from Chimay in Belgium and numerous works in the last two rooms of the exhibit, commented on the power of Byzantine culture over the West during the late thirteenth century and in the next two hundred years. As the Mediterranean became more global through trade, Byzantium’s legacy was identified not only as a repository of Hellenism and the classics, but also as a repository of sanctity. From the point of view of art history, this was, ultimately, the show’s revelation to non-Byzantinists. By juxtaposing Byzantine iconography’s older traditions with coeval European artworks, the exhibition not only unveiled the secrets of a hidden culture, but also educated the viewer on how to appreciate it.

It is instructive to think of the limitations of the 1964 show in Athens entitled Byzantine Art, A European Art, which focused primarily on the middle Byzantine period. While Byzantine luxury objects were famous in the West before 1204, the genuine connections between the art of Byzantium and Europe were realized in Byzantium’s last phase, when the Eastern Roman empire lost much of its political clout but offered the West a tremendous, and new, artistic impetus through its religious artifacts. After all, by the time of the Reformation, Byzantium had long resolved its issues with iconoclasm, and its icons were perceived as authentic because they followed older archetypes and traditions. It is important, I believe, to understand that Orthodox theology, and the justification for icons, ultimately worked in a Western, post-Reformation framework.

The exhibition also commented indirectly on Byzantine art’s immediacy as the art of the Orthodox in defining or, rather, suggesting the process of icon-making. Despite the existence of painters’ manuals for producing icons, the show brought to the fore an array of possibilities for copying sacred images. To its credit, the exhibition insisted on the fact that icon painting was hardly a stale tradition with an archetype, but, rather, an active engagement with Orthodox culture (and, possibly, in the case of Crusader icons, non-Orthodox culture as well) that responded to and was informed by local concerns and culturally specific notions of time and space. Thus, a careful observer at the show will soon realize that no two icons are exactly alike, even when they portray the same saint or scene. Producing an icon in Byzantium never meant making a carbon copy of another, even when anthivola (sketches transferred by punching) were used. In this subtle way, the show speaks eloquently to its Orthodox visitors by fusing time between the late Byzantine period and now. It is the establishment and radiance of the Orthodox tradition that is realized in this exhibition.

Finally, in portraying so many Orthodox icons, the show inherently commented on the power of Byzantium’s language, i.e., Greek. This was not only the language of Orthodox liturgy and cult, but, ultimately, of Byzantium’s political exchanges, embassies, councils, and gift-giving. Reading the show’s labels and catalogue, one realized that medieval Greek—which bridged ancient and modern Greek—is the language not only of the Byzantines but also of Byzantinists. As you will see in the next pages, the names for icons, saints, relics, liturgical vestments, and implements, as well as for painter’s instruments and the art of painting (such as proplasmos), point to the Greek language’s centrality in the Orthodox world—in Byzantium and beyond. The fact that the language of the Byzantines is still used in the church and understood by the Orthodox peoples is a testament to the exhibition’s currency.

Given the exhibition’s home, the curators were wise, I believe, to offer a rather Eurocentric view of late Byzantine art. Immediate connections with the art of western and eastern Christian Europe could be explored easily within the walls of the Metropolitan. After all, any intellectual endeavor is most effective when it suggests familiar connections, and visitors to the museum are surely acquainted with Renaissance art. The focus on Christian Europe, however, inhibited a deeper exploration of connections with Islamic art or even with archeological artifacts that bear no immediate, visible relation to Hellenic or Orthodox themes. It is a pity that the need to develop a unifying theme almost excluded those industrial arts (ceramics, glass, metalwork) that are crucial both for appreciating the channels of communication in the Mediterranean and for conveying important information on how artists and artisans worked. Similarly, the artistic interconnections among the Byzantines, the contiguous Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, and the Mamluks could have been explored in many interesting ways. I hope that these themes will provide the impetus for another show in the near future. All in all, however, Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557) managed, at the same time, to speak to the believer, to the uninitiated, to the scholar, and to the casual observer.

Maria Georgopoulou is associate professor in the history of art at Yale University, where she has taught since 1992. She has contributed to both catalogues of the exhibitions of Byzantine art organized in the last decade by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Glory of Byzantium (1997) and Byzantium: Faith and Power. Dr. Georgopoulou is the author of Venice’s Mediterranean Colonies: Architecture and Urbanism and founder of the program for Hellenic studies at Yale University.
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