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A More Glorious House’

The Glory of Byzantium

exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, March 11-July 6, 1997

The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, AD 843-1261

catalog of the exhibition edited by Helen C. Evans, by William D. Wixom
Abrams/Metropolitan Museum of Art, 574 pp., $50.00 (paper)

1.

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 of the Mediterranean and in all of Eastern Europe, from the Baltic to Calabria and from the Carpathians to the Caucasus, it was the only Christian civilization that mattered. With the catalog of this exhibition in hand, let us first explore that vanished world, so as to try to decide where, exactly, lay the secret of its “glory.”

We meet at once an ominous blank. The Great Palace of Constantinople no longer exists. Long eroded by the sea, traversed by a suburban railway line, and now further devoured by restaurants and gentrified small hotels, modern Istanbul has virtually no remnant of the center of power, in whose proximity and at whose behest some of the most precious objects of Byzantine art were produced, accumulated, and deployed in a “politics of bedazzlement” (to use the apt phrases of Priscilla Soucek on p. 405) on a scale and with a sophistication unrivaled by any other early medieval state.

In this, Byzantium is unlike China. In Beijing, the Hidden Palace has survived. It has been possible, in New York and Washington, to glimpse some of the treasures of the Imperial Palace that made their way to Taiwan. By contrast, the “glory” of the Great Palace of Byzantium can only be guessed at through mere fragments, preserved by having been dispersed at a safe distance from Constantinople itself, first through diplomacy and, later, through looting.

Let us, for a moment, risk a comparison of two imperial worlds. In Sung China, the great painted scrolls reveal a court where public and private were free to coexist. Though his body is swathed in the scarlet of his imperial robe, the face of the emperor Sung Ju-Tsung (1022-1063) has been rendered unforgettable by a master of physiognomics: it is the quiet, shy face of a scholar. Not so with his near contemporary at the other end of Asia, Nikephoros III Botaneiates (1078- 1081). Set between an equally resplendent robe and a heavy diadem, the face of Nikephoros is as hard as bronze, deliberately impersonal and interchangeable.1 The fact that the portrait was originally that of Nikephoros’s predecessor worried no one. Nikephoros was no longer an individual: on becoming emperor, he had become the power of the Eastern Roman state personified. We are confronted with an art permanently tensed to bear the weight of power. Even themes of leisure and of hunting were charged with public meaning. In Byzantine pottery, “an art,” in the words of Eunice Maguire, “made joyous by unpretentiousness,” the motifs still speak insistently of “the celebration and the protection of social status.” In such an art, we cannot expect to find kittens playing beneath peony blossoms.

What we do find, above all, is taxis, an instinctive, unflinching confidence that through the poise of their bodies, through measured gestures and appropriate raiment, and, a fortiori, through the harmonious forming of precious materials (so much more malleable than the hard stuff of human nature), it was possible for human beings to create little pools of order in this world which would bring to earth a touch of the true, inviolable “glory” of heaven. Respect for taxis, a dogged faith in the inherited ability to defend themselves against disorder, was the social gyroscope of the people of medieval Byzantium. It convinced the Orthodox Christian populations of the empire and a rapidly expanding body of coreligionists in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus that they were on an unwavering course. Even along the ragged edges of their world, in the war-torn frontier zone of the Taurus Mountains, among populations barely Christian or Muslim, uninstructed either by the priests or by the mullahs, remnants of that sense of order were maintained. Even Muslim families were careful to have their children baptized, “lest they smell like dogs.”

In order to understand the attraction of the “glory” of Byzantium at this time, we must realize both that the central Byzantine value of taxis was a flexible notion, readily capable of transplantation, and that, precisely in the period between the ninth and twelfth centuries, the social and cultural conditions of much of Europe and the Middle East were particularly favorable to a venture in transplantation whose scale and success remain one of the most impressive, but puzzling, phenomena of the central Middle Ages.

Byzantinists tend to make it harder to understand this unusual development by taking their empire, if anything, too much for granted. A sense of the looming absence of the Great Palace of Constantinople, combined with the chauvinistic rhetoric of Byzantines themselves (too often replicated without question by modern scholars), have wished upon Byzantium a more top-heavy structure and more de haut en bas relations to the outside world than it may have possessed in reality. It is only too easy to emerge with the impression that medieval Constantinople was like a powerful central-heating plant which, at regular intervals, sent gusts of warm, Hellenic air into the colder regions of northwestern and eastern Europe. The history of Byzantine art, and of Byzantine diplomacy, has been written in terms of the outreach of a superior power, capable of holding in check and even of “acculturating” its more primitive, “barbarian” neighbors.

Ghosts of this view occasionally flutter through the pages of some essays in The Glory of Byzantium. It is given tacit support by the decision of the catalog editors to discuss the diffusion of Byzantine art outside the empire in separate chapters devoted to separate regions and nationalities, as if this diffusion were best analyzed in terms of the reception, in potentially autonomous regions, of periodic “pulsations” of “influence” from an over-mighty center. Prestigious objects, such as could only have been produced in a milieu with the wealth and skill of Constantinople, undoubtedly circulated with stunning effect. But we need to know more. What did these objects mean to those who received them? Why were some appropriated with such zest?

This process is better explained if the Byzantium revealed in this exhibition is not treated as an out-and-out superpower, but rather as the adroit primus inter pares of a constellation of new societies, each in its own way in need of taxis. In 843, Byzantium was itself a deeply changed society, stripped of much of its past by persistent disasters. It faced a new situation. The cold war that had gripped the Middle East and the Mediterranean throughout the early Middle Ages—not “cold,” in fact, but the murderously “hot” pressure of the Islamic Caliphate on the broken remnants of the Eastern Roman Empire—had ended. Faced, in the East, by the unexpected disintegration of its traditional rival, the Abbasid Caliphate, Byzantium was ringed to west and north by emergent societies. These were rapidly taking on the features of a socially stratified, usually monarchical, order. Whether it was the new merchant oligarchies of Novgorod and Venice, the hegemonial kingdoms of Ottonian Germany and Georgia, the competing appanages of Kievan Rus’ or the mini-empire of the Bulgars at Pliska, Byzantium spoke to groups that had developed, on their home ground, a new, sharp zest for order. They liked the way the Greeks handled such things.

The situation is not unlike that which had prevailed in the western Mediterranean at the time of the Punic Wars in the third century BC. A long way from the major Hellenistic kingdoms, the very different societies of Etruria, Rome, Carthage, even the Celtic chieftaincies of the hinterland of Spain and Gaul, adopted Hellenistic culture with remarkable thoroughness, in order to have a common language with which to speak to each other of their new ambitions. In the tenth century AD, as in the third century BC, imitation was the most effective form of rivalry. To take a small example: the splendid earrings hidden by the Bulgarian boyars at Preslav, when the city was sacked by the Byzantine emperor John I Tzimiskes in 971, are the same as those worn by loyal servants of the emperor, except that those carried the inscription “God Save the Lord John.”2 From the cultural point of view, what is often portrayed as a “national” clash between Bulgars and Greeks was, in fact, a civil war between members of a common oikoumene—if anything, an occasion for yet further diffusion and adaptation. It was by innumerable small convergences between Byzantine tastes and the ambitions of local elites that a new world order was made safe for taxis.

  1. 1

    See No. 143, pp. 207-208 of the catalog.

  2. 2

    See Nos. 167 and 227, pp. 245 and 333 of the catalog.

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