Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 658 pp., $75.00; $50.00 (paper)
…O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
—William Butler Yeats, from “Sailing to Byzantium”
In 1204, Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire for nearly nine hundred years, fell to a band of soldiers bound for Jerusalem on the Fourth Crusade. Theirs was no clash of religions; the Crusaders were Christians from different parts of northern Europe (French, Flemish, Lombard, German, and Venetian) on a mission to preserve the Holy Land for Christianity, at least until they saw the glittering wealth of this New Rome on the Bosporus and its Orthodox Christian rulers. Then greed got the best of piety: the loot was simply more than a warrior horde could resist. After stripping the city bare and torching its library, the Crusaders made cursory attempts to set up a government, but without much conviction; in 1206, they finally sold the plundered city to Venice, which had become a great colonial power in the eastern Mediterranean. But Venice, too, lost interest in governing a city of this size and complexity; by 1261, Constantinople was back in Greek Orthodox hands. So it remained for another two hundred years, until a band of Christian mercenaries conquered it for the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
The new Islamic conquerors smashed the city’s most treasured icon, the Virgin Hodegetria—the Way-finder—and transformed its greatest church, the sixth-century Hagia Sophia (Divine Wisdom), into a mosque, but on the whole the Ottomans, in Constantinople as elsewhere, preserved more than they destroyed. Thus when a German scholar in 1557 tried to capture the essence of this relentlessly durable, cosmopolitan city, he resorted not to the Roman name that it had worn since the early years of the fourth century, but to its ancient Greek name, Byzantion (in Latin, Byzantium). “Byzantium” it may have been ever since to Western Europeans, but to most of the Orthodox diaspora in the sixteenth century, as in the fifth, and in the twentieth, there has only been Hê Polis—“The City,” the natural successor to another eternal city, the Urbs Roma.
To this late, cosmopolitan Constantinople of the years between the Fourth Crusade and the Italian Renaissance, the Metropolitan Museum in New York has devoted the third in a series of monumental exhibitions presenting Byzantium to the Far West. The first, “The Age of Spirituality,” opened in the fall of 1977 with …