Sunday, 20 September 2009
Byzantine art has a slightly odd reputation. It is regarded, on the one hand, as something remote, hieratic and difficult. On the other hand, the word ‘Byzantium’ has a very romantic ring – it lives in our minds as the name of a citadel of civilization, a place that preserved for posterity both intellectual and material treasures that would otherwise have vanished forever.
The remarkable exhibition now at the Royal Academy in London touches on both of these aspects. It is extremely rich in objects made from precious materials, such as gold or ivory, and it is equally rich in things that are usually inaccessible to all but the most intrepid and persistent travelers. As the catalogue introduction points out, Byzantine art responded to the ebb and flow of often-conflicting historical forces.
In its first phase, it was a modernization of existing classical forms to suit the needs of newly dominant Christianity. In the eight and nine century a.d., there was a sudden revulsion against the use of images, particularly those representing Christ, the Virgin and the saints. Many scholars think this was due to rising influence from the East, and in particular from Islam. Iconoclasm failed, and there was a powerful return to figurative religious art. It is this so-called Middle Byzantine period that produced the powerful artworks that we now regard as ‘typically Byzantine’. At the same time, there was a renewal of interest in art that used purely classical subject matter.
This period came to an end with the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Western European armies of the Fourth Crusade. Many of the most spectacular Byzantine objects now known to us are the products of this sack. The city remained in Latin hands until 1261, when it was recaptured by the Palaiologan rulers who had been living in exile in Nicea. The Byzantine realm was thenceforth much diminished. Despite this, and despite the steady encroachment into its territories being made by the Ottoman Turks, Byzantium retained a widespread cultural influence thanks to its status as the headquarters of Orthodox Christianity.
At the same time, the art produced there, and in territories directly dependent on the city or influenced by it, took on a new, more passionately emotional guise. Icon painters were increasingly influenced by what they learned from artists working in the west.
The exhibition covers a period of more than a thousand years. It is therefore not really surprising to discover that what it contains is far more various than the established legend might suggest. There are a large number of secular objects in addition to the sacred ones.
The emphasis is nevertheless on images linked to religion.
The Byzantines believed that sacred images carried within themselves an element of the divine. They entered into a dialogue with the worshipper that went beyond a dialogue between spectator an artist. In countries where the Orthodox faith is paramount, this idea persists today. I remember, some years ago following, an old woman round an exhibition of icons held at the National Gallery in Athens. Some panels she passed quite casually, scarcely stopping to look at them. In front of others – a few – she halted, stood for a while gazing at them intently, then swiftly crossed herself, before moving on to the next panel. When I, in turn, found myself looking at the same paintings, they were always the best in the show.
Primitive societies have often attributed special, magical powers to certain works of art. The Byzantines understood this reaction. Indeed at one period in their history – the Iconoclast period – they understood it so well that they became afraid of it. What their society did, in general, was to codify the magic of art. As is well known, the icon painters were not encouraged to be original. They had to return again and again to the same fixed types, trying to make them, if possible, even more intense.
A Byzantine exhibition of this extent and quality is of particular interest now for several reasons. One is that contemporary art puts an increasing emphasis on the idea of the magical – on the psychic power inherent in a certain kind of inexplicable object. It may seem, however, that while we cultivate the idea of originality at all costs, Byzantine artists did the opposite. Yet this leaves out one of the commonest strategies found in avant-garde production – I am speaking of ‘appropriation’. To appropriate is to take full possession of an object or idea that may indeed have been invented by someone else, but to make it, by sheer force of will, completely one’s own. The great icon painters of Byzantium constantly did this – it was their established method of working. However, they did so within a framework of religious belief that we now lack – which accounts, I think, for the fact that their productions tend to be consistently more power than our own.
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