The Glory of Byzantium
The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, AD 843-1261
In around 1140, the Abbot Suger of Saint Denis, rummaging among the ancient treasures of his monastery, came upon a “precious chalice out of one solid sardonyx.” Produced over a thousand years before, in the Alexandria of Queen Cleopatra, it had been stored in the Imperial Palace of Constantinople until sent, some centuries earlier, as a diplomatic handout to impress the distant Franks. We can now see it in The Glory of Byzantium exhibition currently in New York. The good abbot wanted to be reassured that his abbey had got the best:
I used to converse with travellers…to learn from those to whom the treasures of Constantinople and the ornaments of [the Great Church of] Hagia Sophia had been accessible, whether the things here could claim some value in comparison with those there.
For a Westerner on the eve of the artistic explosion of Gothic France, true Christian grandeur still lay elsewhere, in the troubling magnificence of a distant, very old Byzantium.
Already by Suger’s time, it was a fragile grandeur. Looting was in the air. Many of the best treasures, he was told, were now locked away, “for wariness is preeminently a characteristic of the Greeks.” The Greeks were right. Unlike Suger’s northern France, a still largely rural world, where wealth was evenly distributed among many monasteries and small cathedral towns, the glory of Byzantium had tended to cluster in large, showcase cities. These were so many banks waiting to be robbed. Soon the looting began. In 1185 Norman pirates from Sicily fell on Thessalonica. In 1204, Venetians and Crusaders systematically emptied Constantinople itself of its treasures. In 1240, the Mongols of Khan Batu fell on Kiev. In the Desiatynna—the great Tythe Church founded by Volodymyr/ Vladimir, the first Christian prince of Kiev in around 1000 AD—archaeologists have found only pathetic remnants: broken molds for the casting of the exquisite “temple pendants” that hung, decorated with griffins and filled with swabs of perfume, over the foreheads of lords and ladies in the high Byzantine fashion, were scattered among the skeletons of the fugitives on whom the great church had collapsed, as they crowded into it in order to seek sanctuary from their invaders.
It is not easy to recover the glory of a civilization brutally wounded in its nerve centers seven hundred years ago, changed profoundly elsewhere, and all but extinguished in much of its original heartland. Helped by the catalog of the truly overwhelming exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, AD 843-1261, the historian has to recapture, without nostalgia and the bitterness of hindsight, Byzantium as it was around the age of Abbot Suger, in 1140 AD. At that time, the Christian civilization associated with Byzantium—though already long spread far beyond the political boundaries of the state controlled by the emperors of Constantinople—was not only, perhaps, richer and more populous than Western Europe; but throughout the Middle East, in much …