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The Charms of Byzantium

Sonia Halliday Photographs
The interior of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul; from J.B. Bullen’s Byzantium Rediscovered

On May 29, 1453, the armies assembled by the young Ottoman sultan Mehmet II breached the land walls of Constantinople, which had resisted assault for a millennium. By the next morning the invaders had arrived at the doors of the imperial church of Hagia Sophia. The sources speak of plunder and rapine, but also of an act of preservation. As the conquering sultan gazed in awe at the vast resplendent interior, he came across a soldier breaking up the marbles of the floor with an axe. “Wherefore does thou that,” he asked, and the soldier replied, “For the faith.” Mehmet struck him in anger, saying, “Ye have got enough by pillaging and enslaving the city, the buildings are mine.”

Hagia Sophia had been built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 532–537 and had served as the cathedral of Constantinople and the central church of the Byzantine Empire for over nine hundred years, but after its forced conversion it entered a new life as an imperial mosque, Aya Sofya Camii. And a mosque it would remain for the next five hundred years. Aya Sofya provided the model for the imperial mosques of Constantinople. It was intensely studied and imitated by the great Ottoman architect Sinan. But as far as Western architecture was concerned, Hagia Sophia effectively dropped out of the canon.

It was extremely difficult for non-Muslims to visit the mosque of Aya Sofya. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European travelers tell tales of bribery and disguise to gain entrance at risk of life and limb. To make a drawing inside was next to impossible. In 1611–1612, when the French ambassador wanted a portrait of Sultan Ahmet, he took with him to Constantinople a budding artist with a photographic memory, Simon Vouet. He hoped to have Vouet memorize, and then draw in private, not only Sultan Ahmet but also Aya Sofya and the other notable places of the city. Sixty years later the French writer Guillaume Joseph Grelot bribed the guards and hid his artists at gallery level in order to produce a new plan and section, which he published in 1680, the first glimpse Europe had of the church since the conquest. Until late in the nineteenth century men were prepared to pay dearly, and women to cross-dress, for permission to enter the church-turned-mosque.

Not only did the great church disappear from Western consciousness, but Byzantium was reviled in the Enlightenment as a civilization ridden with superstition. The French historian Hippolyte Taine wrote in 1865 of the mosaics of Ravenna—the seat of Byzantine government in Italy—that the saints and angels figured in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo looked like “vacant flattened sickly idiots…great simpletons with staring eyes and hollow cheeks.” Gibbon, writing The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776–1788, condemned the Oriental despotism and corruption of the Byzantine state and had little good to say of its architecture. Even one of the early defenders of Eastern Christian art, Alexander Lindsay, twenty-fifth Earl of Belcares, writing in 1847, says that his readers are

apt to think of the Byzantines as a race of dastards, effete and worn out in body and mind, bondsmen to tradition, form and circumstance, little if at all superior to the slaves of an Oriental despotism….*

This is the heavy mud out of which a remarkable array of travelers, artists, architects, writers, scholars, and political figures lifted Byzantium and Hagia Sophia in the century between 1850 and 1950. At the beginning of this period Byzantine architecture and mosaic decoration were generally considered Oriental, feminine, decadent, sensuous, and corrupt. By the end they had inspired innovative painting in a wide variety of modern styles, two of the greatest poems of Yeats, and a late masterpiece by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.

Churches everywhere, but also throne rooms in Germany and statehouses in America, were built with the flat domes, gold ground mosaics, bright marble columns, and apses within apses that recalled Hagia Sophia. When the Greek widow of Louis Pasteur came to choose a style for her husband’s mausoleum, now the centerpiece of the Institut Pasteur in Paris, she turned to the symbol-drenched world of Byzantium and had the saga of her husband’s battle with rabies depicted in colorful mosaics. And when Seth Low wanted to convince the trustees of Columbia University to build the great rotunda known as Low Library in the center of the campus, his architect, Charles Follen McKim, held up a large photograph of the dome of Hagia Sophia.

The two books under review chart the phenomenon of the Byzantine revival, the understudied successor to the Gothic revival. Though they traverse common ground they are quite different in tone and organization and make a good complementary pair. J.B. Bullen, a literary scholar who has previously explored the historiography of the Renaissance in the nineteenth century and written on many pre-Raphaelite themes, here turns art historian, organizing his book, Byzantium Rediscovered, around the great stylistic shift toward Byzantium in the later nineteenth century.

In four magisterial chapters Bullen gives us the story of the Byzantine revival in Germany, France, Britain, and the United States. Each chapter tends to begin with forerunners in the 1820s and 1830s, critics who revive Byzantium from the opprobrium of Gibbon. Then he turns to the historiography of the Middle Ages and in particular of Byzantium in each country. One finds beautiful photographs and insightful descriptions of hundreds of interiors that achieve sensuous coloristic effects with gold ground mosaics and precious marbles. The author is especially alert to the strange confluence of Byzantinism and modernism in the first decades of the twentieth century, and provides a new setting for the work of Klimt, Matisse, and French symbolist painters like Maurice Denis. Bullen is eloquent about art but also widely read, and one finds mention of virtually every nineteenth-century book in English, French, or German that ever treated the art of the eastern Mediterranean. He explores fascinating junctures of nationalism, Orientalism, historiography, nation-building, and theocratic kingship.

Robert S. Nelson, on the other hand, is a Byzantinist, an art historian who writes on Greek manuscripts and icons and who brings to the task a knowledge of the vast literature surrounding the Byzantine world in general and, in particular, Hagia Sophia. Formed in the school of the historian Arnaldo Momigliano, he is also a student of historiography, and open as well to the theoretical implications of Orientalism. He is interested in the ways in which a monument is created, and he is alert throughout to the history of photography and book design. His story in Hagia Sophia, 1850–1950 is a majestic one, the recovery of Byzantine civilization in the consciousness of the West. But he is also curious about the pre-history of his own field. He combines both these concerns in dealing with a central theme, the reception of Hagia Sophia in modern times.

The 1840s and 1850s were crucial years in the formation of a new view of Byzantine art. Some of the key figures traveled to Byzantium, but many did not. In 1829 Lord Lindsay began the travels that would lead to his book on Christian art with a visit to San Marco in Venice, and he later visited Mount Sinai, where the monastery of St. Catherine held a treasure trove of icons that had escaped the wave of Byzantine iconoclasm of the eighth century. He developed an elaborate racial theory in which Byzantium represented the contemplative element of the original European character, as Rome did the practical. The cupola of Hagia Sophia was in his vision the crown of glory of Byzantium, which vindicated the dome as a Christian architectural form for the rest of time.

John Ruskin reviewed Lindsay’s book while an undergraduate at Oxford. Though skeptical of its larger theories, he drew on it as the first unbiased estimate of Byzantine art. The seed it planted blossomed in 1853 in his Stones of Venice. Ruskin never traveled to Constantinople but extrapolated from his intimate knowledge of San Marco in Venice. This became for him the paradigmatic Byzantine building, superior to anything else produced in the West.

Both authors rightly stress the centrality of Ruskin in the Byzantine revival. For Bullen, Ruskin’s language is effusive and even erotic, with a range of linguistic “voices” far greater than Lindsay or any writer up till then. He employs those voices to entice, to fascinate, and to convert his readers. Nelson stresses instead Ruskin’s geological and minerological acuity and the biblical resonances of a book in which the very stones cry out, in which the geology of the Venetian region is studied and the colors of the imported stones are described and mosaic analyzed as painting in marble. Ruskin took San Marco, a building despised by the Gothic revival, and convinced the British public that it was “as lovely a dream as ever filled human imagination” and a model worth copying.

The 1850s saw a renewed interest in Hagia Sophia by scholars and architects willing, unlike Ruskin, to travel east. A progressive Ottoman sultan, Abdülmecid, decided to raise the standard of architecture in the capital by commissioning a new university from two Swiss architects, the brothers Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati. They had already built the Russian embassy in Istanbul, and after the success of the university, Abdülmecid invited them to restore Aya Sofya Camii. The project lasted from 1847 to 1849 and involved as many as eight hundred workmen. The Fossati consolidated the structure, painted the exterior with the horizontal stripes that can be seen in old photographs, and gave the interior the colorful decorative frescoes and huge roundels with verses from the Koran that we see today.

The Fossati uncovered splendid mosaics that had been whitewashed in the early eighteenth century. From their scaffolding one could contemplate once again, as in the heyday of Byzantium, the Virgin and Child in the apse, a giant warrior angel on a nearby arch, the fathers of the Church on the side walls, and donor portraits of a number of Byzantine emperors and empresses. Abdülmecid was deeply moved, but also afraid that his reforms might be going too fast for his countrymen and the time not yet ripe for such a revelation. So he told his architects to cover the mosaics up again. They would stay hidden for another eighty years, between 1849 and 1932, until revealed once again in the restoration campaign of the Byzantine Institute of America.

In spite of Abdülmecid’s fears, two colorful books showed the newly restored Hagia Sophia to the Western world. Though the Fossati brothers never produced the definitive publication of their findings, in London in 1852 they published a portfolio of twenty-five picturesque lithographs showing Aya Sofya as a functioning mosque, carpeted from wall to wall and filled with turbaned faithful. The restoration by the Swiss architects and the book published in Britain paradoxically gave the church much of its Oriental allure. The other book was unofficial but more “scientific” in its illustrations. The Prussian architect Wilhelm Salzenberg was in Constantinople at the time of the Fossati restoration and returned to Berlin with drawings of the uncovered mosaics in 1848. His great volume on the church shows some of the mosaics that had been covered up just after his departure. The book was published in Berlin in 1855 and is intimately bound up with the Prussian interest in early Christian and medieval art.

  1. *

    Sketches of the History of Christian Art (London: J. Murray, 1847), Vol. 1, p. 59.

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