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Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Arts & Letters

Late Byzantine Artistic Identity: Negotiating Faith and Power

Michael VIII Palaiologos triumphantly entered Constantinople on August 15 — the feast day of the Dormition of the Virgin — in 1261, thus ending the 57-year Latin occupation of the Byzantine empire’s coveted capital. The historian George Akropolites witnessed the event and described the people’s joyful response to the emperor’s solemn procession through the city’s Golden Gate, bearing the icon of the Virgin before him. Significantly, Akropolites noted that the emperor did so “in a godly rather than an imperial manner.”1 This precedence, of the spiritual over the imperial, sets the tone for our understanding of the Byzantine empire’s last three centuries. Such a tension was evident in the very title of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), in which the world of late Byzantium was presented as one divided by politics, yet united by common expressions of faith and power. Concepts such as faith and power — broad, encompassing terms with multiple valences of meaning — were used in the exhibition to explore how objects of faith, of personal and liturgical devotion, related to the institutional powers of both the emperor and patriarch. In negotiating this range, the exhibition showcased a vast collection of liturgical objects and church furnishings, including fresco and miniature painting, textiles, sculptures, and icons. In particular, the icon — in miniature mosaic, steatite, and painted panel — emerged as the privileged expression of both faith and power. The saturated gold panels that filled Galleries VI and VII ranged in size from tiny to immense and represented, in many ways, the timeless beauty that many have come to expect from Byzantine icons; the viewer might also have been pleasantly surprised by the diversity and earthliness, as well as subtlety and specificity, of some of these icons.

Despite the icons’ obvious appeal in the exhibition’s central galleries, I will focus primarily on the exhibition’s first and last galleries, which framed and commented upon the principal expressions of faith and power contained in the show’s main space. In her catalogue essay for the exhibition, Annemarie Weyl Carr has written of a sense of the self-referential that permeates the Palaiologan period’s icons. This same concept governed the exhibition’s organization: just as icons often comment on their own privileged status (with prayers, portraits, and narratives framing the central holy image), so, too, did the objects in and the arrangement of the exhibition’s first and final galleries comment on the core expressions of faith and power contained in the middle areas. The first gallery introduced the diverse peoples of Byzantium who shared these core expressions, while the last three explored the means through which these expressions were interpreted by others elsewhere.

Gallery I presented a microcosm of the exhibition: icons occupied the central space as the representational mode uniting the various peoples of Byzantium. On the walls surrounding these icons, objects in various media evoked the diversity of the Byzantine oikoumene. But beyond mere orientation, this introduction revealed the tensions at play in the construction of late Byzantine artistic identity as a negotiation of faith and power. Three large double-sided icons, the epitome of Byzantine visual idiom, occupied the central space and were framed by works that testified to the diversity of late Byzantine culture and its extended symbolic kinship system. The first image encountered in the center of the room was The Virgin Pafsolype, which was framed by feast scenes from the collection of the ecumenical patriarchate in Istanbul. The accompanying label thanked the archbishop of Constantinople, and acknowledged him “as the direct heir of those who have held the title since the city’s foundation in 330.” The icon, as the site of the holy in addition to being the standard of artistic achievement, exemplified the Byzantine conception of the Orthodox faith’s enduring power as it is embodied in the figure of the patriarch, and in the continuing existence of the ecumenical patriarchate. Surrounding these three prominently placed icons was a range of other objects, including manuscripts, ivories, ceramics, coins, textiles, and more icons, all of which demonstrated the engagement of Byzantine artistic practices with contemporary self-perceptions.

Moving counterclockwise around the first gallery, we were introduced to the emperor and his court. The adjacent vitrine displayed the portrait of Manuel II Palaiologos in full imperial regalia, staring frontally out of the page of the funeral oration he wrote for his brother, Theodore, despot of Morea. Beside this book, a large copy of the works of Hippocrates lay open to reveal an author portrait on the verso, and, on the recto, a portrait of the donor, Alexios Apokaukos, whose monogram, on a capital from an earlier point in his career, was displayed next to the vitrine. Both books, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, conform to our expectations about court life in Constantinople: Manuel, as the embodiment of empire, wears the loros (a long, jewel-encrusted imperial scarf), and Apokaukos prominently displays his allegiance to the emperor by wearing the imperial image on his headdress. This type of headdress, which bears a portrait of the emperor standing, enthroned, or on horseback, is called a skaranikon2 and references Apokaukos’s newly acquired court title of megas doux, which is written in red above him between the parting curtains. Along this same wall, another member of the court, Constantine Akropolites (eldest son of the aforementioned George), is portrayed wearing the skaranikon: he is placed across from his wife, Maria Komnene Tornikina Akropolitissa, on the silver revetment adorning an icon of the Virgin Hodegetria in the Treit’iakov Gallery. Like his father, Constantine held the office of megas logothetes, which included the privilege of wearing such court insignia. The social standing of both figures, Apokaukos and Akropolites, is highlighted in their portraits: their privileged allegiance to the emperor is registered textually by their inscribed title and visually by their headdress.

These images evoke late Byzantium’s elaborate court system of precedence, as described by such authors as Pseudo-Kodinos in a manner that recalls earlier protocol books, in which privilege had everything to do with proximity to the emperor.3 The political realities of the Palaiologan period differed dramatically from earlier ones, however, and notions of continuity and restoration conveyed in the exhibition may be somewhat misleading. Michael VIII’s reconquest of Constantinople ushered in a new empire that looked very different from that of his pre-1204 predecessors. Moreover, the divided empire in exile left its mark on the post-1261 state, in which fragmentation and competing claims to authority plagued constituent members of the late Byzantine oikoumene. These tensions were played out in the first gallery, where rulers depicted in the imperial loros abounded on coins and seals from Constantinople as well as from Trebizond, Epirus, Tarnovgrad, Thessalonike, Pskov, and Serbia. This range of imperial reference was complemented by other objects associated with Serbia, Bulgaria, Armenia, and Russia. The viewer had to reconcile the profound sense of simultaneous difference and allegiance that permeated the disparate group of objects in this room, and the cacophony of voices asserting claims to Byzantine identity. Wearing the loros or the skaranikon might have defined the bounds of Byzantine imperial court tradition, but identity is a slippery term that is only complicated in late Byzantium by ever-shifting political and religious allegiances. This was an age in which religious compromise was employed for political ends and church unification (treated in the exhibition’s last gallery) was even used as a diplomatic tool.

In such an era, the means through which members of the late Byzantine community constituted and exhibited their Byzantine identity were diverse. Some visualized their “Byzantineness” through dress, liturgical or imperial, despite different linguistic traditions, as evidenced by the Gospels of Jakov of Serres and of Czar Ivan Alexander, respectively. Jakov, metropolitan of Serres, is represented in the Serbian gospel-book wearing clerical robes that announce his station within the Byzantine ecclesiastical hierarchy. In Czar Ivan Alexander’s Bulgarian Gospel, he and his family adopt the format, dress, insignia, and pose of Byzantine imperial portraiture. Similarly, in the dedicatory pages of the Armenian Marshal Oshin Gospels, multiple allegiances are visualized: the frontispiece with its dedicatory inscription creatively reinterprets the Byzantine decorative tradition of the canon table, while the donor portrait emphasizes the Armenian royal family’s connections to the West through the figures’ poses and the way their costume, with fleur de lys and fur-lined mantles, betrays Western influence. Each of these images negotiates Byzantium’s shifting cultural borders by asserting visual allegiance despite linguistic independence.

Objects associated with other peoples of Byzantium demonstrate linguistic commonality while expressing difference in visual terms. In a portrait from a Greek gospel-book in St. Petersburg, for example, Demetrios Palaiologos wears Venetian dress. Similarly, turbans appear throughout the pages of a copy, from Trebizond, of The Alexander Romance, whose protagonist, Alexander, is dressed as a Byzantine emperor. In each instance, the Byzantine representational system was adapted to local circumstance in creative ways. Moreover, the miniatures in the Greek Book of Job (from Mistra) are entirely Western in style, and the vitrine in which the book was displayed was framed by marble fragments (from Mistra’s Pantanassa monastery) of an epistyle that asserts an awareness of Gothic sculptural trends. This same awareness of Western artistic traditions was evident in many pieces throughout the exhibition, in a most pronounced form in the Sokolica Virgin in Gallery II and in Gallery V’s earthenware icons from Arta. Such confluences of styles suggest an expanding definition of the late Byzantine formal idiom, wherein artists incorporated diverse local, Eastern, and Western traditions to create an innovative new visual vocabulary.

Central to these negotiations of Byzantine artistic identity, and prominently displayed throughout the exhibition, were objects associated with women. Foreign marriage, though certainly not unprecedented in earlier Byzantine periods, took on a heightened role in Palaiologan imperial diplomacy. The underlying logic for such marriages was succinctly outlined by historian George Pachymeres, in reference to the marriage of five-year-old Simonis, daughter of Emperor Andronicos II, to forty-year-old Stefan Uros II Milutin of Serbia (who was seen on the icon of his mother, Helen of Anjou, in Gallery I). Pachymeres wrote: “…indeed peace obtains many results that the sword does not achieve, and the treaties which follow upon marriages, because they are very solid and firm, end up accomplishing that which battles and war have never achieved.”4 Such an opinion seems to have informed most marital policy of the period. As Alice-Mary Talbot points out in her essay in the exhibition catalogue, of the final eleven Byzantine emperors, eight wed foreign women hailing from Italy, Armenia, Germany, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia. As diplomatic protocol, this is often read as a sign of weakness that reflected the state’s economic vulnerability.

Beyond facilitating fragmentation, however, might the phenomenon be read in a more nuanced light? As cultural mediators, diplomatic brides, both Byzantine and foreign, constituted a major force behind artistic patronage and circulation. Gallery I displayed a number of icons that had been commissioned by diplomatic brides; three of them, which were exhibited together as a group for the first time, represented, in the central space of their composition, their pious patroness, Maria Angelina Doukaina Palaiologina, daughter of Thessaly’s Serbian emperor and wife of the despot of Ioannina. Two of these were gifts to the monastery of the Transfiguration in Meteora, where her brother had been the abbot, and the third found its way to Cuenca, Spain, via Italy with her second husband, a member of the Buondelmonti family. Helen of Anjou, in particular, embodies the concept of bride as cultural mediator. This French-born, Catholic bride of Serbian King Stefan Uros I and mother of his successors, Dragutin and Milutin, was a benefactor of both Orthodox and Catholic communities. In addition to a fresco fragment from the Gradac monastery, which had been founded by Helen and her husband as their mausoleum, the exhibition displayed an icon commissioned by Helen as a gift to Pope Nicholas IV. Represented below a scene of Christ blessing Peter and Paul, who are named in Cyrillic characters, Helen is blessed by Saint Nicholas (dressed as a Latin bishop) and is flanked by her two sons, successors to the Serbian throne, who are dressed as Byzantine emperors. Here, the depiction of Helen’s sons wearing the imperial loros shows not only a negotiation of the Byzantine imperial ideal but also of religious allegiance: although dressed in the loros, they are also shown venerating the images of Peter and Paul, and Helen, depicted in a separate architectural space, receives a blessing from the pope’s namesake. As a papal gift, this icon represents the complexity of the intertwined political and religious affiliations associated with objects of exchange, and it illustrates a sophisticated understanding of different formal idioms in which the Byzantine mode was tailored to suit a papal audience.

While icons — centrally placed throughout — were presented in the exhibition as a unifying force of allegiance, the previous example shows just how adaptive the arts of Byzantium had been to the political realities of the Palaiologan world. The icon may be the site of the holy that binds together the diverse peoples of late Byzantium, but, in a world of shifting political and religious affiliations, it is not always timeless and unchanging. Nonetheless, one aspect of the icon was made abundantly clear by the exhibition: the late Byzantine icon had been appreciated by others. While the first gallery represented the Byzantine negotiation of identity, the exhibit’s final galleries (VIII through XI) revealed how the new artistic identity following the Latin occupation had been presented and interpreted by others outside the Byzantine oikoumene: local Christian communities of the Middle East, the Islamic world (the Ottomans in particular), and Europe (especially the mendicant orders, Venice, and northern Europe). The objects that filled these rooms demonstrated how the formal Byzantine idiom had been fused with traditions from other communities.

The resultant visual hybridity, however, often looks different from objects we saw in the first gallery. Consider, for example, the image of the prophet Muhammad’s birth, from the Jami ‘al-tavarikh, produced in Tabriz. Here, the artist has creatively adapted Byzantine nativity iconography to depict the prophet’s birth. Likewise, the Armenian school of Khizan Gospel casts the Byzantine Anastasis imagery in a new formal idiom heavily indebted to Islamic art. We find such fluid slippages of form and content among a larger group of objects that combine different languages, including an amulet roll with Greek on one side and Arabic on the other, and two bilingual Coptic-Arabic manuscripts. Visual bilingualism is also evident in a dagger from Anatolia that combines common Seljuk themes, such as the bird of prey and victorious horseman, with decidedly Christian iconography, such as the hand of God. This piece calls to mind — as does the enameled glass bottle with scenes of monastic life— the larger corpus of Ayyubid metal and glass objects that combines Christian and Islamic motifs.5

Art associated with the Crusades figured prominently throughout the exhibition. In addition to the wonderful corpus of Crusader icons from Sinai, the celebrated Arsenal Bible, on view in Gallery IX, depicts King Solomon, most likely standing in for Louis IX, in the dress of a Byzantine emperor.6 But nowhere is the creative adaptation of the Byzantine style more evident than in the icons associated with the mendicant orders. Saint Francis enters into the pictorial space of many compositions of the Virgin and Child and the Man of Sorrows. One particularly enigmatic icon from Crete, painted by Andreas Ritzos, conveys this visual diversity: the narrative scenes all unfold within the strokes of the Latin letters JHS. In this abbreviated Franciscan emblem, the S incorporates a scene of the Anastasis with a more Western-style resurrection; yet, in both scenes, Christ carries a white standard with a red cross, reminiscent of the cross carried by Saint Sergios in two Crusader icons from Sinai in Gallery VII.

The last part of the exhibition emphasized the centrality of the Byzantine tradition to Italian panel painting and northern Renaissance pieces. In this way, like late Byzantine icons themselves, the exhibition was self-referential. By examining the cult of the Virgin and the Man of Sorrows in Europe, we encountered images with both obvious and subtler reference to earlier Byzantine expressions of faith and power, such as the Liège Virgin Hodegetria and the Holy Face of Laon, on view in the preceding galleries. Thus, a dialogue was engaged between objects in various galleries: the exhibition neatly bracketed the core expressions of faith and power with objects that acted as a commentary on and demonstrated visual allegiance to, as well as appreciation and adaptation of, Byzantine tradition.

While the exhibition’s last gallery treated the translation of the Byzantine holy image into northern and southern Europe, we also encountered images here that related to church unification and controversial issues of religious compromise. In the Palaiologan period, three emperors traveled in person to the West to seek assistance, among them John VIII, who attended the council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-1439) and captivated artists such as Pisanello. Two successive pages of Pisanello’s sketchbook, in separate collections, testify in word and image to the artist’s interest in the emperor’s appearance. Formal repetition and attention to detail are glossed with firsthand observations. On the recto of the sheet in the Louvre, the artist even correctly transcribed the monumental Arabic thuluth script of a tiraz band worn by the emperor.7 On the page from the Art Institute of Chicago, the artist sketched the emperor’s leather accessories listed in the Louvre page. It was a great thrill, and a triumph of the exhibition, to see these two sheets not only together but also placed within the context of a larger corpus of objects related thematically to the Council. Within this corpus, we found portrait busts and medals of John VIII, as well as related medals of Mehmed II and Cardinal Bessarion, along with the cover of Bessarion’s staurotheke.

Like the Pisanello pages, the exhibition managed to reunite a number of other long separated items. Displayed together were two pieces of the Graeco-Arabic amulet roll (which is, in fact, divided between the University of Chicago Library and the Pierpont Morgan Library), as well as clippings from a Sicilian New Testament from Florence and Stockholm. In textiles as well, the exhibition brought together pieces of an embroidered belt divided between the British Museum and the Hermitage. Beyond actual objects that had divided and reunited, the exhibition provided the opportunity to see related objects together as a corpus, and this was the main benefit of its thematic organization. A Coptic Gospel Lectionary in Paris and a copy of the Epistles and Acts of the Apostles in Cairo, which had been copied by the same scribe in Cairo, were displayed alongside each other and may have originally belonged to a multivolume New Testament.8 The exhibition also juxtaposed sculptural fragments from the Pammakaristos workshop that are now in Berlin, Paris, and Istanbul.9

An astonishing number of objects were on display, and the exhibition managed to elicit wonder not only from members of the general public but also from scholars, for whom many of the objects may have been seen for the first time. Of the numerous surprises, I mention only two: the Hermitage’s Cretan Pentecost icon of the siege of Constantinople, which is painted on a woodblock fragment, and the Metropolitan Museum’s double-headed eagle podea fragment, associated with Paul Tagaris, who had traveled among European capitals masquerading as the titular Latin patriarch of Constantinople. Ultimately, by bringing together objects such as these, as well as more canonical pieces, the exhibition challenged our assumptions of and expectations about late Byzantine art. Clearly demonstrating that this art was not a mere echo of previous eras, the exhibition highlighted new imageries, such as the epitaphioi (liturgical veils embroidered with the image of the dead Christ or Lamentation),10 as well as technologies, such as silver revetments and miniature mosaics.11 These innovations may have originated earlier, but they found full expression only in the Palaiologan era; and it is to the great credit of the entire curatorial team of this enormous and pathbreaking exhibition that they managed to elicit, so clearly, the novelty of Byzantine artistic production in this period.

1. Cited in Helen Evans, ed., Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557) (Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2004), p. 17.

2. On the skaranikon, see Maria G. Parani, Reconstructing the Reality of Images: Byzantine Material Culture and Religious Iconography (11th-15th Centuries) (Brill, Leiden, 2003), p. 348.

3. Jean Verpeaux, ed. and trans., Pseudo-Kodinos, Traité des offices, Paris, 1966; see also André Grabar, “Pseudo-Codinos et les cérémonies de la Cour byzantine au XIVe siècle,” in Art et société à Byzance sous les Paléologues (Venice, 1971), pp. 193-221.

4. Byzantium: Faith and Power, p. 20.

5. The standard works on the subject are Ranee A. Katzenstein and Glenn D. Lowry, “Christian Themes in Thirteenth-Century Islamic Metalwork,” Muqarnas 1 (1983), pp. 53-68, and Eva Baer, Ayyubid Metalwork with Christian Images (Brill, Leiden, 1989). See also the contributions of Nuha N. Khoury, “Narratives of the Holy Land: Memory, Identity and Inverted Imagery in the Freer Basin and Canteen,” Orientations (1998), pp. 63-69. For related issues, especially with reference to enameled beakers, see Maria Georgopoulou, “Orientalism and Crusader Art: Constructing a New Canon,” Medieval Encounters 5/3 (1999), pp. 299-321.

6. Daniel Weiss, Art and Crusade in the Age of Saint Louis (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998).

7. The inscription is translated as follows: “Glory to our lord the sultan, the ruler, al-Ma’ayyad Abu al-Nasr Sayk, may his victory [be glorious]” Byzantium: Faith and Power, pp. 527-528.

8. Byzantium: Faith and Power, pp. 435-437, and Lucy-Anne Hunt, “Christian-Muslim Relations in Painting in Egypt of the Twelfth to Mid-Thirteenth Centuries: Sources of Wallpainting at Deir es-Suriani and the Illustration of the New Testament MS Paris, Copte-Arabe 1/Cairo, Bibl. 94,” Cahiers Archéologiques 33 (1985), pp. 60-96.

9. Byzantium: Faith and Power, pp. 107-110.

10. On epitaphioi, see the “Liturgical Textiles” essay, Byzantium: Faith and Power, pp. 295-298 and cats. 187-191.

11. Byzantium: Faith and Power, pp. 209-214 with cats. 126-139, and pp. 243-251 with cats 8.1-8.12.

Cecily Hilsdale is currently visiting assistant professor and postdoctoral fellow in the department of the history of art at the University of Michigan. Her ongoing research concerns cultural exchange in the medieval world, with a particular emphasis on the circulation of Byzantine luxury objects as diplomatic gifts.
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