…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 the moment of transition between the Rome of the Caesars and the Basileia tôn Rhomaiôn, the Greek-speaking political entity that still called itself “Kingdom of the Romans”1 ; the second exhibition, “The Glory of Byzantium,” exactly twenty years later, presented Constantinople by beginning some five hundred years from its refoundation and renaming by the Emperor Constantine in 330, tracing its art through the Crusader conquest of 1204 to the eve of its recovery by its last dynasty, the Palaiologoi.2 This was the period in which the city flourished as the sole surviving capital of the Roman Empire, as well as the nerve center for Orthodox Christianity.
“Byzantium: Faith and Power” concentrates on the period that has always been seen as presenting the most problems for scholars and museum curators, when the power that gave life to Byzantium was no longer temporal dominion but the power of faith, faith both in the Orthodox tradition and in the city’s timeless destiny, a power of persuasion that reaches deep into the Balkans, into that part of northern Russia called Rus’, into Coptic Egypt, into Ethiopia, into the Islamic world, and finally, significantly, into the European West, where its influence emerges in Sicily, Naples, and, surprisingly, in sleek, practical Flanders.
This Byzantium is late in coming, influenced by every conqueror and every creed that has passed among its monuments, as unorthodox as any cosmopolitan culture must necessarily be. Yet in our own globalizing world, it is in this late, hybrid, Byzantium of the imagination that we can best recognize ourselves—as William Butler Yeats implicitly understood, for the Byzantium of his famous poem is not the city itself, but its long reach into Italy, whose brilliant mosaics supplied the real substance of his “artifice of eternity.” When Yeats wrote of the forms “such…as Grecian goldsmiths make/ Of hammered gold and gold enamelling/To keep a drowsy Emperor awake,” he had in mind works that were actually made for popes and lords who had never seen “the holy city of Byzantium” except in their imaginations, wrought by people whose nationality shifted with the demand for their art.
Like Yeats’s great poem, the Metropolitan exhibition pays gorgeous tribute to the connective force of ideas, but it is also a monument to diplomacy. The gathering of this thrilling, instructive collection is a triumph on the part of the exhibition’s curator, Helen Evans, and Mahrukh Tapoor, associate director for exhibitions, who literally scoured the world for traces of Byzantium’s legacy, a legacy they have interpreted with inspired ingenuity. There can be no consistency of style when dreams of Byzantium once engaged three continents: a big icon in scratchy strokes of gray and black shows Christ as the Man of Sorrows as if Jean Dubuffet had painted him in the mid-twentieth century rather than a Russian artist eight hundred years earlier. A fourteenth-century icon of Christ transfigured on Mount Tabor comes straight from the city and its mystical hesychast movement—whose name comes from the Greek word hesychia, silence, and which emphasized silent contemplation as the best way to know God. Like the Quakers after them, the hesychasts saw silence as a force of enormous power, charged with active divinity. In this Transfiguration, a favorite hesychast theme, the sudden recognition that their master Jesus is a prophet greater than Moses or Elijah is a physical event that blows the terrified Apostles outward into our own world, as Heaven suddenly blasts its own version of space and time down through the earth’s atmosphere.
Raphael would not have seen this picture before painting the whirling vortex at the center of his own 1520 Transfiguration but he saw something like it, right down to the colors, with their iridescent sheen, of the Apostles’ clothing. Above all, though, he must have reeled back, as we do, from this violent collision between competing levels of reality, for his own painting, in the Vatican museum, contains a wild vortex at its center that crushes and blinds the Apostles as they cower beneath the opening heavens.
One place where Raphael may have seen just such an atomic explosion of a Transfiguration is a holy garment, a bishop’s robe “painted” with silk and metal thread rather than pigment; this coat of many colors, the Vatican sakkos, was embroidered in Constantinople (or perhaps Thessalonike) before coming to Rome as a gift to the papacy. Stiff with ornament, dotted with an infinity of pearls, it represents the same mystic vision of Jesus transfigured with exactly the same explosive spatial sense. The wealth of textiles in the Metropolitan show, with their deep layers of embroidery and intricate weaving (especially a holy scene surrounded by damascened tulips), is as extraordinary as their state of preservation; some look no more than a few years old, with only their exquisite quality to speak of another age, another sense of time and devotion (detailed in an excellent catalog essay by Warren Woodfin).
The idea of Byzantium, and its beauties, traveled worldwide in portable objects like textiles, icons, metalwork, and manuscripts. The metalwork of the era is now hardest to find; a series of decrepit coins in debased gold and silver alloys show how relatively poor the Byzantine economy became in an age of political instability. Jewelry and tableware, especially, were melted down to make coins, or weapons to fling against Crusaders, Ottomans, and upstart lords. But there was no way to recycle mosaic icons, picked out in bits of stone the size of a pinhead, or painted images, or written texts, and here the gold of Byzantium still glitters undiminished, though the saints sometimes take on Western Crusader dress, especially the soldier saints like George and Theodore, who answered so many fighting men’s prayers in this unstable era. Saint Catherine, however, in an assortment of icons from different times and places, always retains the sloe-eyed scowl of an Egyptian princess from Alexandria, another conquered capital whose library, by now long vanished, still tugged on the imagination.
When I go there, into a church of the Greeks,
with its aroma of incense,
its liturgical chanting and harmony,
the majestic presence of the priests,
dazzling in their ornate vestments,
the solemn rhythm of their gestures—
my thoughts turn to the great glories of our race,
to the splendor of our Byzantine heritage.
—C.P. Cavafy, “In Church,”translated by Edmund Keeleyand Philip Sherrard
“Byzantium: Faith and Power” is held together by the larger idea of Byzantium in the final centuries of its existence: the Orthodox version of Christian faith, with its distinctive liturgies, its closed-off altars, its married priests, and its diffuse structures of governance. Orthodoxy by this time was an idea as hybrid as Byzantium itself; the textiles, icons, and manuscripts gathered in New York bear inscriptions in Greek, Serbian, Old Church Slavonic, and Russian, with the odd note in Arabic or Latin. Some of the themes are also hybrid: the naked Christ, stretched out on the shrouds called epitaphia, came to the East with Franciscan friars bound already on missions to China. One section of the exhibition is devoted entirely to the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai, the oldest continually inhabited monastery anywhere in the world. Favored by its remote location and the dry Egyptian climate, the monastery still preserves spectacular sixth-century icons in the ancient Roman encaustic technique, so startlingly modeled and shaded that they seem to embody real people rather than the company of heaven. But what we see on display at the Metropolitan are the later works that have usually been overlooked, their hanging in this secular space duly blessed by the monastery’s archbishop, Damianos, who has also provided a catalog essay in which he describes, movingly, just what these icons still mean to his ancient community.
Some of them are as fine in their own right as the great encaustics of a previous millennium, including the big, opulent Gabriel Archangel, who has been chosen for the catalog cover and posters of the exhibition. However hoary the tradition in which they work, these icon painters are always finding fresh ideas, burnishing a halo to provide a barely perceptible contrast with its gold-leaf background, picking out the fall of silken drapery in stripes of gilt, making human flesh pulse with warmth within elaborate patterns of drapery that take on their own kind of life as pure form. (In a frenzy of inspiration, Gustav Klimt would use the same contrast between flesh and pattern for his Viennese society portraits.)
The standards for icon painting differ radically from the standards for painting in the European West; the surface of the painting is prepared in entirely different colors that require entirely different methods to build up modeling and flesh tones. These late Byzantine icons continue to pay homage to the holy figures by placing them flatly against a gold background, at a time when Western painters are plumbing the depths of perspective space. And yet both kinds of painting exult in their own kind of beauty. Furthermore, each of the two aesthetic systems need not exclude the other, and once the Crusaders had invaded Constantinople they merged in remarkable ways.
The last section of the Metropolitan show traces the influence of late Byzantine manuscripts and paintings on Western art; a similar case is made for sculpture throughout the course of the show. A marvelous shaggy lion from a column capital is a perfect hybrid, not only of East and West, but also, more deeply still, of antiquity, where lions first make their appearance in art, and Christianity, which adapts them to the figures of Saint Mark and the Lion of Judah. Tiny Flemish paintings reinterpret the encompassing curve that bends a Byzantine Madonna around her child as they look into each other’s eyes (another touching example, by an anonymous Flemish artist, forms part of the Frick Collection), or the face of Christ, swollen with tears in sorrow at his own pain, but also at human folly. The monumental altarpieces in medieval Italian cities like Siena and Perugia seek to convey an icon’s sense that the Virgin, Christ, or the saints are immediately there with the worshiper who addresses them in prayer. The dominance of the medium of icons did not prevent other kinds of Byzantine artistry from having their effect. An artist can pick up anything—a piece of chalk, a needle with silk, a sliver of stone or glass, a chunk of marble, a paintbrush—and bring heaven down to earth, or sail the works of Byzantium to the far corners of the world.
In the years between 1436 and 1439, Byzantine East and Catholic West attempted to create a political and religious bond as enduring as the ties of art and commerce. On that occasion, Emperor John VIII Palaiologos made a state visit to Italy with high prelates from the Orthodox Church, hoping to convince the two branches of Christianity to merge again once and for all so that they could present a united resistance to the building threat of the Ottoman Turks. Italian artists from Piero della Francesca to Pisanello were much taken with John’s handsome profile, his shaggy horse, his rich robes, and his astonishing hat, all much in evidence in the exhibit, including two exquisitely elegant Pisanello drawings depicting emperor, hat, horse, and robes in careful detail. Two of the Emperor’s Orthodox companions were equally taken with Italy and converted to Catholicism rather than return home, one of them the great intellectual Bessarion, rewarded with a cardinal’s purple, whose personal collection of books would eventually provide the foundation for the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. But every attempt to agree on points of doctrine failed miserably, and the city fell to Mehmet the Conqueror only a few years later. The incandescent faith that glows from these sublime works of Byzantine art had its roots in a resilient system of belief no less potent than the militant Christianity of the Crusaders.
Amid the richness of Byzantine craftsmanship, it is more difficult to present the richness of Byzantine thought to a large public; manuscripts are necessarily turned to the most strikingly illuminated pages rather than the most moving texts, and the sheer force of Byzantine ideas on the West can only be sketched in the ubiquitous books, from a plethora of Bibles to the recherché poems of another eclectic age, the age of Alexandria, here exemplified in a heavily annotated copy of the fourth-century BCE poet Theokritos. Cardinal Bessarion acquired his intellectual ways because he was surrounded by philosophers, theologians, scientists, and scholars, many of whom escaped to Italy and saw to the rebirth of classical Greek on Italian soil. The Italian Renaissance is one more blessed offspring of late Byzantium’s volatile, fruitful mixture of people, ideas, and cultures.
The circle’s revolutions, as they mount up to the summit
And then descend; the wheel that soars before it turns to plummet,
The changing of the seasons as they follow without end,
To run their course toward good or ill with every errant bend;
The clash of warlike chariots, and hatred’s heavy toll,
The valiant strife of lovers, friendship’s blessing to the soul,
These move me to remember….
—Vincenzo Cornaro,Erotokritos (1550)
Among Byzantium’s scattered corners, Venetian-occupied Crete produced one of the most remarkable fusions of East and West in all its colorful history, lasting roughly from the early thirteenth century until the Ottoman conquest of the island in 1669. Late Byzantine Crete is best known now for its amazing icons, in which the mystical opulence of the Eastern Church meets the muscular physicality and perspectival space of Italian Renaissance painting.
But the two cultures mixed no less profoundly in language and music; the Cretan dialect of modern Greek still contains Italian words and a distinctive Italianate pronunciation, and the island’s great epic, Erotokritos, was composed in the mid-sixteenth century by an author, Vintzentzos Kornaros, whose name is pure Venetian: Vincenzo Cornaro. Its subject is the romance between Erotokritos, a young nobleman, and Aretousa, daughter of King Herakles of Athens, “that worthy land, the throne of virtue and the river of knowledge,” a love story that bears strong resemblances to the neopagan Alexander Romance, which is illustrated in the exhibition. But Erotokritos is a more sophisticated undertaking than the Alexander Romance; despite its ancient feel, it is shot through with up-to-the-minute literary references. Though written in Greek, Kornaros’s masterwork owes as much to another sixteenth-century epic, Orlando Furioso, as it does to the Odyssey, and thus to Italian as much as Hellenic sources. At the same time, however, the poem’s meter is called “political verse,” political not because it has to do with statesmanship but because it came from Hê Polis—it is Byzantine verse par excellence.
Kornaros couches his ostensibly ancient Greek epic in an atmosphere of neopagan chivalry that betrays its strong ties to the Christian Neoplatonism that Marsilio Ficino had been purveying in Florence in the late fifteenth century; thus, rather than invoking the Muses at the beginning of his work, as his models Homer and Virgil had done before him (and running the risk of idolatry), he invokes the great circle of the heavens, where the God of Abraham is equally at home but so, too, is Copernicus, whose De Revolutionibus was published in 1543, at about the time when Erotokritos must have been taking its initial shape in Kornaros’s mind.
It used to be said that if every copy of Erotokritos were suddenly destroyed, the text could still be reconstructed from the Cretans’ own memory of it; this was certainly true in the early 1980s, when every part of the island preserved not only the epic text, but also its own local set of tunes for singing the long rhymed verses, accompanied by the lyra, an upright violin that descends directly from the Italian Renaissance lira da braccio, but also, and more profoundly, from the tortoise-shell lyre that Mercury invented for Apollo when the Olympian gods were still children. It seems likely that Erotokritos will not contribute so fundamentally to Cretan life for much longer, once television and gentrification have done their work. This will be a real loss. In any event, the spirit of Erotokritos is everywhere in evidence in the Cretan icons on display in New York: the comely warrior saints with short skirts over strong-muscled thighs that put their spindle-shanked Byzantine brethren to shame (see illustration on page 23).
Most impressive of all are two four-foot panels from a local Cretan outpost of St. Catherine’s Monastery on Sinai, painted with a mastery that can only belong to the great Cretan painter Michael Damaskenos: a gaunt John the Forerunner (as the Baptist is called in the East) and a Saint Symeon, the aged Hebrew priest who recognized the infant Jesus as the Messiah when Mary and Joseph brought him to the Temple. Then Symeon took up the baby and cradled him in his arms, as he sang one of the few songs preserved in the Gospel narratives, a song that is often used in Christian liturgy to accompany the dead:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
Michael Damaskenos’s Saint Symeon is clad in teal-blue fabric shot with maroon; his robes could come right off the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and in a certain sense they do, for someone who saw Michelangelo’s wild colors added them to the palette, where they were seen by another artist who did the same, in a chain of influence that passed, bit by bit, from Rome to Venice to Crete. But Damaskenos’s graceful figures adhere neither to Byzantine nor to Western standards of drawing, modeling, composition; long and graceful as a Byzantine icon, physical as a central Italian fresco, vibrant with the colors of the whole Mediterranean (including the fair hair of errant Normans that occurs in Sicily and Crete), they are completely immersed in both traditions, and equally free of both. For their bizarre individuality, they may be equaled only by another Cretan icon painter, Domenikos Theotokopoulos—El Greco.
And it is with El Greco, appropriately, that the Metropolitan’s remarkable journey through Byzantium ends, with two paintings whose black background and shimmering chiaroscuro modeling are the exact opposite of Michael Damaskenos’s bright palette, El Greco’s inimitable silvery oil-based pigments glistening, almost moist, in a light utterly different from the colored reflections that bounce off the flat, hard lacquer of Damaskenos’s wooden panels. These two great painters, for their strangeness to each other and to their own traditions, show as well as any other objects in this astonishing exhibition that the inspired commingling of East and West is like any love affair: unpredictable, complex, and divinely necessary.
May 27, 2004
The Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century, edited by Kurt Weitzmann (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977). ↩
The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, AD 843–1261, edited by Helen C. Evans and William D. Wixom (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Abrams, 1997). See the review by Peter Brown, The New York Review, May 29, 1997. ↩