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.
Indeed, the “glory” of Byzantium did not reside only in the court. What we meet, through the artifacts of the Metropolitan exhibition, are not only fragments of a barely imaginable splendor located in Constantinople but, rather, the solid, local “glory” of the little big men. The more we have come to know Byzantine art and archaeology on the regional level, the more we have come to appreciate the solidity of these little big men—local men of power in the provinces, founders of churches, abbots of family monasteries.
Whether it is Nikephoros the Strong in Cyprus, the artist Gabriel Sapereli in Georgia, or the Petro and Mariia whose names appear on a Kievan chalice: such people—and not the distant emperor and courtiers—were the ones whose wealth and determination to identify with an Orthodox Christian order brought the “glory” of Byzantium down to the local level of Christian communities. As the events of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries showed, it was they who provided the firmest roots for an Orthodox Christianity under storm, after the all-too-vulnerable splendor of the royal cities had passed away.
And these little big men belonged to a wider, more flexible world than we might first think. The majority of Byzantine artifacts owe their survival to the church. Most are of an ecclesiastical nature. Stored in ecclesiastical treasuries, designed for use in Orthodox worship, often extant on the walls of Orthodox churches, they had a greater chance of survival, which has made medieval Byzantium appear to be a more “churchy,” more inward-looking world than it was. It is the particular merit of this catalog that some of the best articles in it—notably those of Henry Maguire on “Images of the Court,” of Ioli Kalavrezou on “Luxury Objects,” of Eunice Dauterman Maguire on “Ceramic Arts of Everyday Life,” and of Priscilla Soucek on “Byzantium and the Islamic East”—have struggled bravely to recapture for us a sense of the confident profanity and the eclecticism of the well-to-do. In societies greatly preoccu-pied with power and status, there was nothing trivial about luxury objects associated with the pleasures of the great: they also spoke with a heavy, quasi-religious voice of the due order of things.
What we meet, scattered throughout the exhibition, are snatches of a profane language of power and ease that spread with surprising facility from one society to another, splendidly insouciant to religious and political frontiers. A Chinese phoenix appears on the end of a box that shows scenes of the arrival of an emperor in the old late Roman style. A box with a similar imperial scene is flanked by a naked figure sitting cross-legged as he plays the oudh. The most convincing renderings ever produced by a Byzantine artist of figures from classical Greek pottery appear on a cup whose inner rim is lined with pseudo-Kufic Arabic script. Falcons and cheetahs, associated with the joys of the Islamic hunt in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, and an echo of the prowess of Vahram Gur, the hunter-Shah of fifth-century Sasanian Iran—the Bluff King Hal of the medieval Middle East—appear on the dishes of Byzantine Corinth. Secure in themselves, far less concerned than we are that their main historical duty was to preserve a pure “Hellenic” heritage to pass on to later ages (that is, to our good selves), the little big men of Byzantium lived with ease in a society that was, in their opinion, the best-ordered, although by no means the only, society to occupy the crossroads of Europe and Asia.
But as in many pre-modern, “non-secular” societies, a tenacious sense of the claims of profane life among the great went hand in hand with universal loyalty to a divine order rendered palpable on earth—on this occasion, by the supreme, majestic order of Orthodox Christianity. This was the taxis that gave Byzantines and their Orthodox coreligionists in Eastern Europe and the Middle East a unique status in their own eyes. Profane symbols of power—such as the worldwide epic of Alexander the Great—might be shared by all members of the VIP Club of Europe and Asia. A disk showing the fabulous world ruler ascending to heaven in a chariot drawn by griffins, discovered at Muzhi in western Siberia, may have been made for a Catholic, Frankish conqueror of Constantinople (Henry of Hainault, 1206-1216). A similar Byzantine dish validated the power of a Turcoman dynast, “splendor of the nation…slayer of infidels and polytheists.” But only a Georgian princess could speak of herself, in confidently Byzantine, Christian terms, as “Rusudan…Queen of queens, glory of the world and faith…daughter of Tamar, champion of the Messiah.”
And the glory of God can make even little big men look small. In his chapter on “Religious Organization and Church Architecture,” Thomas Mathews writes with transparent enthusiasm of the meaning of the smaller domed churches which, in his opinion, sum up so much of the Christian piety of the middle Byzantine period. From the central dome, Christ the Pantokrator, the Ruler of All, looks down to bless the entire Christian people, men and women, standing below Him. Despite the eerie look conveyed on such an image by modern photography, this Christ is neither a distant nor an angry figure. The exact opposite is the case. He is the High God who bends to earth, in a gesture of breathtaking intimacy, to listen to the prayers of the humble and afflicted.
Mathews may exaggerate the extent to which such exquisite little churches were representative of the entire period. But his basic point is clear: to enter a Byzantine church was to be encased in a building filled with the glory of God.
Whether peasant or landowner, foot soldier or emperor, the Byzantine found his or her religious center in an ambience of oriental richness…. Entering the church, one entered a very different world.
Such an experience was not altogether bad for ordinary men and women. Far from crushing, it exalted them. Participation in the splendors of Orthodox worship gave them a direct taste of the glories associated with the very top of their society.
Hence the remarkable fact, stressed by Annemarie Weyl Carr in her essay “Popular Imagery,” that there was no such thing. Unlike in Western Europe there was little direct confrontation between elite and popular culture. Rather, we are dealing with
a conception of the order of things that proved remarkably durable and adaptable, traversing class boundaries.
Thus when a new style of icons developed in the twelfth century, they owed their “rich emotional and intellectual content” to court circles. These icons assumed habits of meditative reading, in luxurious manuscripts, available only to a tiny elite, such as are described by Jeffrey Anderson. They give visual expression to the new sense of human pathos expressed in Byzantine devotional texts. The Virgin, for the first time in Byzantine art, presses her cheek against that of the Infant Jesus, or expresses, with gestures made all the more poignant by their ceremonious restraint, her desolation at the death of her son. Such new icons mark a revolution in Christian sentiment, quite as decisive for the piety of the Orthodox world as that fostered in the West, at the same time, by the Cistercians. Though created by aristocrats, such icons were soon to be found on the walls of every village church. In the same way, local miraculous icons were rapidly adopted by pious circles in the capital.
To participate in this unbroken continuum between top and bottom could be exacting. Baptized Christians were nature’s aristocrats. Once converted, therefore, even Bulgars, in their churches, could stand in the presence of God. But, in order to do so, they had to shape up. Baggy trousers, heavy ornamental belts, and Central Asian caps were not part of the dress code current in the courts of heaven: those who were called to mirror on earth the Byzantine glory of that court had to learn to dress accordingly. Western tolerance for “ethnic” variations, such as trousers, struck Byzantines as based on a thinly disguised contempt. An Orthodox Christian, whoever he or she might be and from whatever nation, was entitled to nothing but the best. Barely on speaking terms, for most of this period, with their Latin Catholic neighbors in the West, Orthodox Byzantines, at least, never dreamed of talking down to their fellow believers: even the most humble men and women could take upon themselves the entire weight of the glory of God.
As with many traditional societies, the price of a proud sense of belonging to a glorious, present order was forgetfulness of the past. Like the Ottomans who replaced them, medieval Byzantines practiced selective amnesia on a vast scale. Their capacity for ingratitude to the past astonishes many modern persons, encouraged as they are to value the continuity of their national heritage, and puzzles scholars, who are trained not to forget. But Robert Ousterhout’s study “Secular Architecture” draws attention to Byzantine villages huddling in disorderly clumps amid the ruins of the Greek and Roman towns of Asia Minor. That majestic past did not preoccupy Byzantines greatly. It was not until the end of our period that the more cultivated and depressed among them began to notice Greek ruins. To the emperor Theodore II Laskaris (1254-1258), it was sad to see the modern buildings of Byzantine Pergamon peeping out between great cliffs of brick and marble, as small as “mouseholes” in the wainscot of a house.
A sense of Christian order could take in so much and no more. At a time when, in the Latin West, with the reform of the clergy and the rise of the Preaching Orders, the Catholic Church had attempted to reach down into every nook and cranny of society, talking down insistently—using vernacular literature, vernacular styles of art, vernacular forms of storytelling—so as to embrace the world of the laity, like the root system of a great tree, slowly but surely grinding into mold the solid blocks of unbaptized profane life, the Byzantines did no such thing. What had not been brought into the fixed order of the church was simply left outside. This could mean large areas of the human body and of its experiences of hope and pain. By a tacit agreement, which the clergy rarely challenged, these were left to older powers. It is a shock, after one passes so many necklaces hung with exquisite protective icons, to find oneself looking into the face of a classical Gorgon, ringed with the words “Holy, holy, holy” and bearing a prayer to still the womb that had changed little since the days of ancient Greece: “[O] womb, dark [and] black, like a serpent you writhe, like a dragon you hiss.”
Such powers existed. They were not invariably malevolent. But they had no place in the taxis of a Christian order. They lurked, a little shamefacedly, on its margins. The figures of the classical gods presented to us on even the most refined Byzantine ivories are not the majestic Olympians, waiting, for a moment, to step back on stage for the Renaissance to begin. They are figures of fun. The gentleman whose fat buttocks protrude from a basket into which he has stuck his head would be surprised to learn that, thanks to persons such as himself, Byzantium was the place, as the catalog puts it, “where the classical age converged with the Enlightenment of Western Europe.” He was just being silly.
With the advantage of hindsight, we may wish to see Byzantium as making the decisive contribution to the Italian Renaissance of classical Greek texts, preserved throughout the centuries in Byzantium and brought to Western Europe by a remarkable generation of Greek scholars after 1453. But around the year 1000 AD it was a Christian notion of true order which stood firmly at the center of things. Like the performing bears and their masters who were persistently condemned by the clergy for over eight hundred years—from the Council of the Dome at Constantinople, in 692, to the Council of the Hundred Chapters at Moscow, in 1551—as dangerous representatives of “Hellenic paganism,” lumbering embodiments of anti-taxis in a solemn world, so the cheeky gods stayed on, on sufferance, as
marginal images, engaging, subversive, and sometimes disturbing, [who] both denied and confirmed the fixity and good order of the center.
One cannot build a Renaissance on dancing bears. But who, in any case, needs a Renaissance? For Byzantines, the final, most glorious and definitive transformation of the ancient world had already taken place, five hundred years before 843 AD, in late antiquity, with the foundation of Constantinople as New Rome, the turning of the Roman state into a Christian empire and, with the Fathers of the Church, the baptism of all that was most inimitable in the language and thought of Greece. That was the triumphant new order from which the taxis of the present had come. For the time being, at least, at the end of the first millennium AD, there was little need for any other glory.
It is the glory (a glory which, for the reasons we have given, consists overwhelmingly of religious artifacts) that has been re-assembled in the Metropolitan Museum. The overall impression of the exhibition is of walking into a world of truly humbling beauty and grace. The very abundance of the objects assembled—a forest of near-identical processional crosses in the first room, rows of similar ivories in the third—does not oppress. The sheer “redundancy” of repeated visual messages enables us to sense the manner in which Byzantines wove a visual world around themselves. Repetition strengthened the belief that every religious representation, wherever it might be found, was the faithful reflection of an original reality. The pointed absence of that invisible reality made it present, in its images, anywhere and to everyone throughout the world of Orthodox Christianity. It is an art driven by pothos, by “fervent longing” to make the absent present. Its very uniformity shrank the vast distance of a medieval civilization, where visual forms constantly re-echoed each other from Asia Minor to the edge of the Arctic.
Even the paint itself of a representation of a saint might make that saint “present,” thereby encouraging behavior frowned upon in modern museums. Added to the label of an eleventh-century fresco from Greece that showed the healing saints Kosmas and Damianos, a citation from an account of the miracles of those saints shows “fervent longing” at work. A sick woman, pining away in the provinces, at a distance from the friendly presence of the shrine of Kosmas and Damianos in her native Constantinople, was reassured to find, in this distant town, a fresco of the saints:
Leaning on her faith as on a stick, she scraped off with her finger nails some plaster. This she put into water, and after drinking this mixture she was immediately cured of her illness by a visitation from the saints.
As for the icons of the saints, they were there to be kissed, frequently and “with hot desire.” As we walk through the quiet rooms of this exhibition, past works of art shielded within near-invisible cubes of perspex glass which render them as silent and as infinitely distant from us as exotic fish in an aquarium, we must remind ourselves that we are passing through a Sleeping Beauty’s palace, crowded with the soft “presences” of Christ and the saints, waiting to be woken and to move again, as “fervently” willing to cluster round their Byzantine protégés as Byzantines were anxious to lure them to themselves by precious offerings of art.
Occasionally, the ancient sense of presence stirs again. Passing through the fourth room, one is struck by the intense, sidelong glance and furrowed brow of a twelfth-century icon of the Virgin Hodegetria—Our Lady who Leads the Way—from Kastoria, in northern Greece. This heavy painted board was a portable icon. Carried on Good Friday, in connection with the burial procession of Christ, the harrowing sidelong glance of the Virgin, shown life-size on her icon, would brush the crowd, and once again, as in a very ancient Greece, the deathless guardians of the community could be seen, for a moment, moving majestically among men.
We, of course, are not Byzantines. Distances are not so easily bridged for us. “Presences” no longer come to visit us with supernatural ease. Two thirds of this exhibition consists of works drawn from outside the US, a large proportion of which have never been seen outside their usual, often proverbially inaccessible, place of origin. Such an unprecedented assemblage of precious Byzantine artifacts in the distant West is a stunning and benign reversal of the terrible lootings of 1204 and of subsequent centuries. The historian can only feel sharp gratitude for this. Works of art from Mount Athos, for instance, which no woman has ever seen, are now plainly on view in the fourth room. So, in the same room, are chosen icons from Mount Sinai and other such treasures, usually hidden from view in cluttered and morosely guarded sanctuaries.
The gratitude is heightened when we realize how narrowly such art has escaped destruction even in modern times. The brilliant greens and golds of the monumental mosaics of Kiev, in the sixth room, wake us up to a sense of the larger-than-life international standing of Kievan Rus’. But they would not exist at all, if they had not been
salvaged hastily by experts from the Mosaic Section of the Academy of Sciences in Leningrad during the brutal demolition of the church [Saint Michael of the Golden Domes] at the order of the Soviet regime in 1934.
To see them in New York is to be reminded of the sudden and unexpected freedom gained by Orthodox Christianity in the countries of former Communist Eastern Europe, of which the Metropolitan Museum has taken instant advantage. Nor should we forget those many scholars, many of them by no means Orthodox believers, who, with unusual tenacity and courage, maintained Byzantine stud-ies under restricted and dangerous circumstances.
It is all the more sad, therefore, that not all such countries have been able to participate in the exhibition. From the territories of the former Yugoslavia not a single work is to be seen. Given the circumstances, this is only to be expected. But the authors of the catalog have not bestirred themselves so much as to indicate or remedy that lacuna. Major studies by scholars from the former Yugoslavia do not appear in the bibliography. Even the geography of that sad region is allowed to grow blurred with chilling insouciance—Ohrid, for instance, is placed in Bulgaria instead of Macedonia. With that lapse, a significant arc of the great circle of Byzantine culture of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is lost to us.
Such omissions apart, the exhibition is studiously evenhanded in presenting every region of the Orthodox world. If there is a reason for complaint, it is that traditional favorites are not accorded any more attention than any other works on show. To one used to poring over standard histories of By-zantine art, the effect can be a little disconcerting. It is like realizing that one has just been speaking to a truly famous person, who has been circulating modestly in a well-bred gathering. For here, for the first time ever, are some of the near-inaccessible high points of Byzantine art, as we have studied it, through photographs, throughout this century.
Tucked away modestly at the end of a long row of manuscripts, we meet none other than the Khludov Psalter, brought from almost total seclusion in Moscow to remind us of the bitter hatreds of post-Iconoclast Byzantium. Beneath the scene of the Crucifixion, where brutal, buffoonish figures offer Christ, in mockery, a sponge soaked in vinegar at the end of a reed, an Iconoclast patriarch, his hair bristling like a wild boar with demonic malice, extends a sponge of whitewash to obliterate the calm face of Christ on an icon. In medieval Byzantium, to show disrespect to the faces of Christ and the saints, presented in their images, was to blot out their invisible “presence” in one’s life as violently as if one had insulted Christ to his face. Further on, in the fifth room, we meet the “Joshua Roll”—a remarkable fragment of antiquarian illumination, an uncanny glimpse of an ancient Roman art caught by a quiet scholar of the tenth century that has proved the starting point of so much modern discussion of the nature of the classical tradition in Byzantium.
This reticence apart, we are not left without guidance. For once, a historian can be happy with the labels of an art exhibition. These labels are written for students of a once-living past and not, as usually, for auctioneers. Discreet descriptions are reinforced by well-chosen citations from original sources. They leave the visitor in little doubt, especially in the first rooms of the exhibition, as to the religious meaning and use of the artifacts for those who first commissioned and viewed them. The same instructive tone is maintained, if for a limited number of objects, by the audio-guide.
So we can wander through the galleries asking ourselves the basic question: What sort of art is this? It is a very ancient art, resistant to modern ways of viewing. Material objects speak of “presences” which we must acknowledge, not of pictures which we can view. We must allow the icons, for a moment, to look out at us, and, when we look at them, we must use our eyes to tease out from the flat surface (as in an optical puzzle) the three-dimensional living person whose “presence” is, as it were, tantalizingly suspended just beyond our grasp, by being flattened onto a painted board. It is also a courtly art in that, at the center, stands a court thought of as a clear mirror of the court of Heaven. But just because that center is, itself, a mirror, so the glory caught in its reflecting surface can also be caught faithfully in innumerable smaller mirrors. And in this world of infinite reflections, what you see is what takes you to the threshold of what you “fervently long” to get. Great or small, at Constantinople or in a distant village, there is always a glory beyond the glory that you see. Carved above the exquisitely regular patterns of the lintel of a church in western Thrace, the inscription reads:
Seeing this gate, reflect
That within it is a more glorious
Folded into ponderous parchment books, the illuminated pages of the greatest manuscripts would flash like a rippling sea of gold on being opened. Their shimmer, in itself, amounted to a revelation of the “glory” stored deep within the holy words themselves, just as, in the Armenian illuminations of the Canon Tables—the complex system of indexes to overlapping passages in the various Gospels that stood at the beginning of each Gospel book—the strutting peacocks, the exuberant flowers, and the colonnades in multicolored marbles, which echo the texture of opulent rugs, served as the airy forecourts from which to view the distant mountains of the Gospel message. (See page 20.)
It is, above all, an art convinced that it can join heaven and earth. Good Platonists in this matter, Byzantines would have agreed with Alfred North Whitehead:
In some sense or other, Importance is derived from the immanence of infinitude in the finite.
Nothing tested this belief more stringently than did the tiny objects that Byzantines wore on their persons, to bring the help of heaven into their own lives. As we enter the fifth room, we meet the enkolpia—miniature icons, minute relic-cases and pectoral crosses that hung around the neck and upon the breast of lay men and women—that remained crucial to Orthodox piety from that time onward. Exquisitely compressed, in a manner that makes the peau de panthère of Cartier (on show next door in an exhibition which Byzantines would have visited with enthusiasm and with a justified sense of their own superiority in such matters) seem clunky in comparison, these exquisite little objects, icons of the Crucifixion or of protecting saints, often complete with fragments of relics, challenged heaven to come down to those who wore them. (See page 22.)
Along with the larger icons, these enkolpia are the most enduring, because the most intimate, products of Byzantine art. We meet them still in the nineteenth century, in the great Russian novels of the period. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the pious Princess Maria places just such an enkolpion, a tiny icon on a thin golden chain, around the neck of her brother, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, as he leaves for the front. Lying near death on the field of Austerlitz, beneath an infinitely distant sky, Prince Andrei glanced at
the icon his sister had hung around his neck with such emotion and reverence. “It would be good if everything were as clear and simple as it seems to Maria…. How happy and calm I should be if I could now say: ‘Lord, have mercy on me!’… But to whom should I say that?…To a Power indefinable, incomprehensible, which I not only cannot address but which I cannot even express in words …or to that God who has been sewn into this amulet by Maria!”
Prince Andrei, as Tolstoy portrays him, was a man of the Enlightenment. As with most of us who visit this exhibition, Byzantium was a long way from him, as it was not so far from his pious sister Maria. What we have seen, however, is a world in which some Byzantines at least (to use their own words) “had greatly dared” to hope that heaven and earth—seemingly so very far apart—might yet be joined by art.
May 29, 1997