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Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Our Opinion

Sailing From Byzantium

This special edition of is dedicated entirely to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), which closed last month. It has been guest-edited by Maria Georgopoulou, founder of the program in Hellenic Studies at Yale University, to whom we are very grateful for putting together this wide-ranging critical review. We are equally grateful to Helen C. Evans, curator both of the exhibit and of early Christian and Byzantine art at the Metropolitan, for agreeing to contribute the introduction to this edition. We believe that the reader will find all six essays that follow both illuminating and (if may we use the term for a quasi-theocratic empire that fell over 500 years ago) intellectually germane. In the current “clash of civilizations” in which the “West” is being told that the barbarians are at the gate — and that they are all coming from the “East” (although, once upon a time in the West, it was the latter that the ancients feared as the barbarian threat to Greco-Roman civilization) — the cultural afterlives of “Byzantium” are instructive, to say the least. (That is especially so since the very notion of Byzantium is pure invented tradition, as Helen Evans points out in her introduction à propos the term’s coinage by a German in 1557.) Nobody at is a Byzantinist — and we will, in any case, leave the scholarly analysis to the scholars whose analyses follow — but anyone who saw the exhibit, Byzantium: Faith and Power, or has even perused the show’s catalogue is struck by two inescapable conclusions.

The first, actually, is the well-known “perceptual” antagonism of the medieval West to the Byzantines that of course led in 1204 to Constantinople’s sacking in the Fourth Crusade. One can’t help but be shocked and awed by the Crusaders’ sanguinary consistency; it obviously took a certain severe definition of ecclesia to dispatch one’s co-religionists with the same savagery with which one exterminated the “infidels” (i.e., Muslims and Jews). The lesson here, in any case, is not only that one man’s West is another man’s East, but that communion with God is — as most of us have always feared — an inscrutable grace.

The second point, which Faith and Power proves with extraordinary coherence and depth, is that Byzantium was not a monolith, but — for reasons of sheer survival if no other — infinitely more syncretic, or at least assimilative, than it has been seen to be by all those prejudiced against it, from Gibbon to our own day. Moreover, it gave as good as it got — if not more so — especially after it “fell.” That’s an old tale, naturally. (Is there anyone who still doesn’t understand the connection between medieval Hellenism’s fall and Europe’s renascence?) Nevertheless, while cause(s) and effect(s) are matters for scholars to debate and confirm, there was, at the very least, a “permeability” — as they say nowadays — and a profound interaction that bespoke a truly worldly, and anything but hermetic, culture, even (especially?) when it was at its weakest, right before the end, in 1453.

Faith and Power: a provocative title, and eerily resonant. We all take away from it what we all always take away from any major examination of a culture that is utterly distant (not only historically but existentially): wonder and recognition. Of others, of ourselves, of the incalculable cultural migrations back and forth between others and ourselves. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Helen C. Evans for fashioning an exhibition about a culture’s “end” that was really about its afterlives and continuing reimagination. Which is finally to say that what really matters in this exhibition is what has always mattered in human culture: not what was, but what is — or, more accurately, how what was still is.

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