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Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Arts & Letters

The Power of Faith: Public Worship and Private Devotion in Late Byzantium


Now you may know that those who had never before seen Constantinople looked upon it very earnestly, for they never thought there could be in all the world so rich a city; and they marked the high walls and strong towers that enclosed it round about, and the rich palaces, and mighty churches of which there were so many that no one would have believed it who had not seen it with his eyes — and the height and the length of that city which above all others was sovereign. And be it known to you, that no man there was of such hardihood but his flesh trembled: and it was no wonder, for never was so great an enterprise undertaken by any people since the creation of the world.1

— Geoffrey de Villehardouin (c. 1150 — c. 1213)

This well-known text was written some years before the event that marks the beginning of Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), namely, the rather humdrum reconquest of Constantinople by the Byzantine army. Geoffrey of Villehardouin was one of the leaders of the Fourth Crusade (which eventually sacked Constantinople in 1204), and thus a “foreigner.” The excerpt from his Histoire is valuable for several reasons, but here I would like to emphasize that his impression of Byzantium is particularly modern: it resonates with the perceptions of many who visited the seminal exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. People in North America may or may not have been familiar with Byzantine art, but almost everyone, including Byzantinists, were astounded by the splendid pieces brought together by this show, the ingenuity and diversity of creative expression, and the quality of art produced by an empire that, truth be told, was in decline. In fact, one result of this exhibit will surely be to redefine late Byzantine decline, and its permutations and manifestations.

Most of the objects assembled in New York were religious in use or, at least, in character. This fact reflects a reality of the art produced in late Byzantium, but it is not to say that secular objects were nonexistent. Their absence is due, on the one hand, to their nature — usually small pieces made of precious materials — and, on the other hand, on accidents of preservation: it is easier, in other words, to lose a small jewelry box than a large icon. In purely Darwinian terms, an icon, because of its content, context, and (sometimes) size, was more likely to survive in the Middle Ages, as is also the case today. The goal of this essay, in any case, is to use some of the objects exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in order to illuminate religious behavior during the late Byzantine period, be it at home, in church, or in city streets.2

In Orthodox practice, public worship plays a vital role even today. There is abundant textual evidence describing the Byzantines’ lavish religious processions, in Constantinople and elsewhere.3 A common manifestation was the procession of an icon through the streets. One such icon (double-sided, so that it could be viewed from both sides) is the centerpiece of the first gallery of the exhibit, depicting The Virgin Pafsolype (of the Cessation of Sorrow) and scenes from the Great Feasts on one side, and the Crucifixion on the other. The reasons for these public manifestations of devotion were manifold: to honor the saint (or event) depicted on the icon on his or her feast day, to ask for help in an exigent situation, or as a customary expression of piety toward a cherished relic. A magnificent depiction of a religious procession aimed to invoke divine protection for a city (in this instance, Novgorod) is the splendid fifteenth-century icon depicting the battle of Novgorod and Suzdal’. According to the legend, the city was besieged in 1170 by Andrej of Bogoljubovo, prince of Suzdal’. As a protective measure against the invaders, Novgorod’s archbishop, John, had the icon of the Virgin transferred to a wall of the fortress. The upper register of the icon depicts this procession: a person carrying a cross leads a group of people, which includes deacons, priests, the archbishop, and laymen. Although this icon comes from outside the Byzantine empire’s borders, it is an excellent representation of what a Byzantine procession would have looked like.

Public demonstrations of piety were relatively frequent, but the most common expression of communal faith took place indoors. It is very difficult to recreate the feeling of a late Byzantine church in a museum gallery, but several of the exhibits helped visitors to reconstruct the setting in their minds. A Byzantine church was typically divided into three spaces: the narthex, serving, among other things, as a kind of entrance hall; the naos, or main nave, habitually topped by a dome; and the bema, or sanctuary. The church interior was lavishly decorated with mosaics or, more commonly, frescoes and rich liturgical furnishings. The figural decoration is, as a rule, a microcosm of the universe: Christ Pantokrator (Ruler of All) is situated high up on the dome, among angelic powers; standing figures of saints are found at the lower parts of the walls; and the Virgin, the connecting link between divinity and humanity, is placed in the semidome surmounting the sanctuary’s apse. Events from the gospels or other narrative cycles complete the decoration. Outstanding examples of late Byzantine frescoes were to be found in Gallery III. Some of the most striking examples of such frescoes depict figures of military saints, such as the one from the Church of Saint Nicholas in Pyrgos, Euboea, which dates to the thirteenth century, with the saint’s elegant pose, his armor’s decoration, and the pearl diadem crowning his thick, curly hair. Since Byzantium faced difficult political situations and was threatened by numerous enemies at that time, the prominent role of military saints in iconographic programs, and as the empire’s protectors, is easily understood.4

The church’s interior decoration was completed with a number of fixtures, some of which had a practical purpose. A great example was the choros on display in the exhibition’s second gallery, which probably came from Asia Minor. A loose equivalent of a chandelier that was lavishly decorated with metal crosses and stylized mythical beasts, it hung under the dome of a church and provided light through candles and lamps. The Metropolitan’s installation was particularly instructive, since the lighting of the choros recreated the original effect it would have had in a church.

The exhibit assembled a number of smaller objects that would have been used regularly during worship, including several liturgical manuscripts from Byzantium, Russia, and Georgia. They were decorated with miniatures, inspired by either Biblical texts or the liturgical calendar, and were remarkable for their workmanship and artistic quality. The Evangelion (lectionary), probably the most commonly used book, contained the gospel passages read during the liturgy throughout the year and was usually decorated with portraits of the evangelists.5 Such a portrait was contained in a lectionary from the monastery of Saint Catherine at Sinai found in Gallery VII. Luke is presented sitting on an elaborate wooden throne and, instead of writing his gospel, is painting an icon of the Virgin and Child. According to tradition, Luke was the first to paint the portrait of the Mother of God. Another often-used liturgical book was the Psalter, which contained the 150 Davidic psalms. A remarkable example of book decoration was the leaf from a psalter depicting King David standing between Wisdom and Prophecy. David was an archetype for the Byzantine emperors, and is dressed as one in this miniature. Moreover, he is holding an open book, on the page of which is quoted a psalm referring to kingship. Psalms were an integral part of Christian worship from its inception, and these books would have been used during the services for the recitation of the appropriate texts.

Expensive manuscripts frequently had luxurious bindings made of precious metals and stones. Three magnificent examples could be seen in the central case of Gallery III. Some bore crosses, such as the manuscript from Armenia. Others were illustrated by complex symbolic iconographic programs. The book in the middle, probably produced in Thessalonike, had a front cover decorated with the Crucifixion and a back cover depicting the Resurrection, two antithetical yet complementary images evoking Christ’s passion. The prophets, apostles, saints, and angels grouped around the two scenes act as witnesses to these two key events of salvation history.

Rhipidia, or liturgical fans, is another category of liturgical objects. At first, they were made of fine skin, peacock feathers, or linen,6 and deacons used them to keep insects from falling into the chalice. As often happens in liturgy, a purely utilitarian action acquired symbolic meaning, and these objects came to be identified with seraphim or cherubim. They were eventually manufactured of metal and carried in processions. A rhipidion from Serbia in the second gallery bore inscriptions in Cyrillic inspired from texts quoted in the liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. In keeping with the rhipidion’s symbolism, it was decorated with four medallions displaying six-winged seraphim.

Textiles, either worn by the celebrants or used during the ritual, played a major role in the liturgy. Because textiles are fragile, few of them have survived, but some astonishing examples could be seen in Byzantium: Faith and Power. The so-called “Dalmatic of Charlemagne” — which is, in reality, a Byzantine sakkos made sometime in the fourteenth century — was displayed in Gallery V. A sakkos was a vestment worn exclusively by patriarchs or high-ranking metropolitans on feast days, although it is standard for all bishops today. The complex iconography of this sakkos includes, on the front, a depiction of the Church Triumphant gathered around Christ in Heaven and, on the back, the Transfiguration. The latter image is notable for its amazing mannerist poses of Peter, James, and John below the transfigured Christ. In fact, the quality of this embroidery, made of silk with silver and silver-gilt thread, is equal to that of contemporary Palaiologan monumental mosaics and frescoes, such as the ones at the Chora monastery in Istanbul.

In the same gallery, one found an intriguing group of liturgical textiles commonly known as epitaphioi (the singular, epitaphios, means “upon the tomb”). Although the epitaphios is used exclusively on Holy Friday and Saturday in Orthodox practice today, it appears that it was originally used regularly in worship to cover the paten and chalice during the preparation of the gifts; it was then paraded around the church during the Great Entrance, when the eucharistic vessels were transferred to the main altar. A magnificent example of such a textile is the fourteenth-century epitaphios from Thessalonike. As usual, its central section is decorated with Christ, lying dead on the tomb, surrounded by lamenting angelic powers and the symbols of the four evangelists. At both ends, we have two scenes from the Communion of the Apostles, a clear allusion to the Eucharistic use of this textile.

One of the most charming stories of Byzantine piety is that of the Holy Mandylion (“towel”).7 The legend recounts that Abgar, king of Edessa, fell ill and sent a messenger to Christ, asking Christ to go to Edessa and heal him. Christ instead took a towel and wiped his face: his features were miraculously imprinted on the towel. He then sent the towel to Abgar, who was immediately cured. The Mandylion was kept in Edessa until transferred to Constantinople in the tenth century. Believed to be a true acheiropoieton (“not made by human hands”) image of Christ, it became one of the most venerated relics in Constantinople, and there are several painted “copies,” two of which could be seen in the exhibition. One was the celebrated Holy Face of Laon, still an object of veneration and pilgrimage in the Laon cathedral. The iconographic type follows that of the Pantokrator, although only the face is depicted, without the shoulders. The icon from Laon is meant to represent the actual textile, as indicated by the fringe at the bottom and the yellow background pattern. The Mandylion might have influenced the very similar Western legend of Veronica. European paintings of this saint holding the towel with the face of Christ on it could be seen in the exhibit’s last gallery.

The subject of popular piety offers a smooth transition to the last category of religious behavior examined in this essay, namely, private devotion. Most of the objects found in the Metropolitan’s exhibit — miniature mosaic and steatite icons — are assumed, because of their small size, to have been used in a private setting. Although we know little about private devotion, we can imagine that it was similar to the present-day Orthodox practice of keeping icons at home for prayer, protection, and meditation. Such would have been the case with the fourteenth-century icon of Christ Pantokrator, now treasured at the parish of Saints-Pierre-et-Paul in Chimay, Belgium. Miniature mosaics are remarkable for their workmanship.8 Hundreds of tiny, variously colored cubes, called tesserae, were densely set into a bedding of mastic or wax. In fact, one has to view the objects closely to appreciate fully their rich palette and naturalistic style. A noteworthy example is the icon with the Forty Martyrs of Sebasteia, now at Dumbarton Oaks, which depicts the martyrdom of forty Roman soldiers who were condemned to die in a frozen lake because of their Christian faith. In addition to the elegant poses, facial expressions, and gradations of color, what is remarkable is that the tesserae used to create the image measure less than 0.5mm. This icon might have belonged to a person with special devotion to the Forty Martyrs.

In closing, I would like to return to Villehardouin’s impression of Byzantium. It was, I trust, that of most visitors to Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), and one certainly justified by the splendid objects on display. This comprehensive and far-reaching exhibit of late Byzantine art, culture, and spirituality illustrated the broad influence of Byzantine art beyond Byzantium’s borders. The show revisited old problems with a fresh perspective, and introduced numerous new issues and ideas. Above all, it provided scholars and laypersons alike the opportunity to admire beautiful art. To cite yet another often-quoted text, from Yeats this time, it gathered together “monuments of unaging intellect.”

1. Geoffrey de Villehardouin, Memoirs or Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople, trans. Frank T. Marzials (J.M. Dent, London, 1908), p. 31.

2. For a deeper analysis of the themes presented here, the reader should consult the excellent essays and entries in the exhibit’s catalogue edited by Helen C. Evans. I will be providing some additional basic bibliography whenever necessary.

3. On this particular subject, see John F. Baldovin, The Urban Character of Christian Worship: The Origins, Development, and Meaning of Stational Liturgy, Orientalia Christiana Analecta, 228 (Pontificium Institutum Studiorum Orientalium, Rome, 1987).

4. On the subject of military saints, see Christopher Walter, The Warrior Saints in Byzantine Art and Tradition (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2003).

5. In that sense, the evangelion was different from the evangelistarion, which contained the full, continuous text of all four gospels.

6. B.M. Metzger, ed., Les constitutions apostoliques, 3 vols. (Cerf, Paris, 1985-1987), Book VIII.12.11-15.

7. André Grabar, La Sainte Face de Laon. Le Mandylion dans l’art orthodoxe (Seminarium Kondakovianum, Prague, 1931); Averil Cameron, “The History of the Image of Edessa: The Telling of a Story,” in Okeanos: Essays Presented to Ihor Sevcenko on His Sixtieth Birthday, Cyril Mango and Omeljan Pritsak, eds. (Cambridge, 1984); Herbert L. Kessler, “Il mandylion, ” in Il volto di Cristo, ed. Giovanni Morello and Gerhard Wolf (Electra, Milan, 2000).

8. A study of the portable mosaic icons of the late Byzantine period is under preparation by Edmund C. Ryder at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University.

Vasileios Marinis received his doctorate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For the academic year 2004-2005, he will be a research fellow at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto.
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