Friday, December 19, 2008

Byzantium: Treasures of a lost empire

From The Times of London
October 21, 2008

Crosses, frescoes, carvings and silks...the Royal Academy's new show has all the swagger of a blockbuster

By Rachel Campbell-Johnston

Icon with the Virgin Psychosostria, Thessaloniki or Ohrid from the middle of fourteenth century. Consists of egg tempera and gold on wood, with a silver gild revetment.

Has the Royal Academy set itself an impossible task? When you shut your eyes and imagine Byzantium, the dome of your skull is roofed with a million glittering mosaic pieces. Your mind is suffused by a shimmering golden light.

Can a museum show capture that vision? Can we discover its glories through a series of historical artifacts when what we really hoped for was the Hagia Sophia, the epitome of Byzantine architecture in Istanbul?

The visitor must bring as much to this new Royal Academy exhibition as the curators have done. And they have brought a lot, gathering together almost 350 objects, many of which are only very rarely loaned from the museum collections and monastic treasuries to which they belong. Several will never before have been seen in this country and will no doubt, in your lifetime, never come here again. These are the myriad pieces that, like mosaic fragments, must be carefully fitted together to form the glimmering visions of your imagination.

Together they must capture the story of a vast empire that, ruled from its fabled capital of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), encompassed at its most extensive a long belt of North Africa, Egypt, the Holy Land, Italy and Greece, large parts of the Balkans and the southern regions of Spain. They must capture a sense of its shifting fortunes as it waxed and waned, diminished by plague, ransacked by barbarians, besieged by Muslims or enlarged and enriched by plundering conquests. They must convey its colourful, turbulent and often sensational history as a succession of 90 emperors fought (often viciously) for power, as well as the richness and diversity of its artistic output as it subsumed myriad cultures into its melting pot. Lastly the artefacts must highlight the power and importance of its spiritual vision as, with the conversion of Constantine the Great to Christianity on his deathbed, the religion that he had so radically legalised in 313 spread.

This must be one of the most ambitious and complex shows that the Royal Academy has taken on. It does not flinch from its task. Covering the period from 330, when Constantine inaugurated his “new Rome” with sumptuous festivities and chariot races, to 1453, when the glittering capital of Christendom finally fell to the Ottoman Turks, it takes nothing less than the entire 1,100-year history of the Byzantine civilisation as its time span. And on top of that it asks us to wonder how it is that this period has been so unjustly neglected, why it is that we leap from the splendours of classical antiquity to Renaissance glories, barely noticing this era, which we dismiss as the “Dark Ages”, along the way - and not least when, as the curators are keen to suggest, so many of the foundations of our own modern civilisation were laid in this era.

Unknown artist, Incense burner in the shape of a church, 10th - 11th century. Photo: Procuratoria di San Marco/Cameraphoto Arte, Venice

The show, assembling an extraordinary jumble of treasures, from coins to cutlery to processional crosses, through fresco paintings, wood carvings and embroidered silks, to ivory diptychs, brooches, icons (such as this one of St Theodore Tero) and bracelets, evokes an intriguing sense of the sprawling diversity of this civilisation. It sweeps through its history following the broadest of courses, but helping us to make a bit more sense of it along the way by ushering us into thematically organised galleries. There are sections that look at iconoclasm, for instance, or domestic lifestyle or the luxuries of court.

Unless you are already an expert, dip into a history beforehand (I loved Judith Herrin's delightfully lively and manageably brief Byzantium), invest in the splendidly illustrated catalogue, or maybe (I didn't listen to it) use the audio tour, because the printed labels will tell you little. It is all the more irritating that they are in the display cases so that exquisitely detailed objects that require minute examination are so far away that you can't see them properly, especially when the lighting is so gloomy. The truth is, many objects can be seen only in the catalogue.

But keep your focus. Each of the objects can become a metonym for something far bigger. Look at the fantastically fine ivory carving of the Veroli casket, for instance, and see it as a legacy of the luxury of the imperial court, where the Byzantine emperor sat on a gold throne, flanked by golden lions that roared and golden birds that twittered in jewel-encrusted golden trees. Astoundingly beautiful illuminated manuscripts speak of an articulate, highly literate culture that built Christian teachings on to sound classical foundations. Coins evoke a strong economy that maintained a gold standard unchanged for almost a millennium. Fabulous jewellery serves as more than mere decoration. It creates a shimmering aura of power that establishes authority throughout an empire.

Sometimes you can almost hear the music of a society whose long banquets were enlivened by dances performed to organs operated by water power, whose church services were accompanied by choirs of castrati, by unearthly chanting and the sounds of bells. You can almost smell the headily exotic scents that rise smoking from braziers or uncoil from the lips of a fish-shaped perfume flask. Sometimes, for a moment the shimmering eternity of Yeats's poem Byzantium becomes almost real again as we perceive its precious marvels. For a few moments, perhaps, we can almost stand, as a pair of 10th-century Slavic ambassadors once stood in the Hagia Sophia, and report: “We knew not whether we were in Heaven or Earth.”

And then we come back down to Earth. Thanks to the historical legacy of Montesquieu, Voltaire and the historian Edward Gibbon, the stereotype of Byzantium is of a despotic and often corrupt government of ambitious tyrants and creepy eunuchs, of a society mired in intrigue and obsessed with empty rituals and bureaucracy. It represents “the triumph of barbarism and religion”, Gibbon says.

An icon of the Heavenly Ladder of St John Klimakos from Constantinople or Sinai from the late 12th century. Consists of egg tempera and gold leaf on wood primed with cloth and gesso. The Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine and the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Sinai

Byzantium certainly has its brutal and barbarous moments. Here are stepmothers boiled alive in overheated baths, an emperor with his nose and tongue cut off to prevent him ever ruling again (he survived and returned to power wearing a golden nose patch and using an interpreter to speak) and an empress who, in her determination for power, blinds her own son in the same purple chamber in which she had given birth to him 26 years earlier.

Such grisly details seize the imagination. But they upset a balance which this exhibition now sets out to redress. Byzantium was not, as Gibbon might have us believe, a civilisation that replaced the glories of Ancient Greece with a barbarous primitivism. This show invites us to follow carefully the many ways in which an empire founded on the principles of tolerance of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who ended the persecution of Christians, adapted and incorporated the culture of the classical pagan world into its new land of Christendom. Here in a new Christian world with its saints are images of the hunt or the hippodrome races that the classical world loved. These were, after all, people who were brought up on the stories of Homer, familiar with the tales of pagan mythology. Here is the sleeping Endymion reawakened as the biblical Jonah, the beautiful Apollo resurrected as Christ.

But even more importantly, how can we see the glimmering icons of the Byzantine culture merely as a deteroriation of Classical acquirements? The icons are a numinous presence in this show. Gaze at the treasures that, for the first and perhaps last time, have travelled from the monastery of St Catherine in Mount Sinai to Britain. How vivid is the Icon of the Heavenly Ladder of St John. Here is a sort of divine conveyor belt up whose rungs the faithful ascend, constantly in peril of missing their step, falling prey to the demons who hook, shoot and pincer them from their heavenly path. Look how casually one demon strolls off with his prey. Notice how frantically the monk kicks as he plunges headfirst into a pot of hellish pitch. Feel how thankfully the topmost climber reaches out his hands to a receiving God. It may be a schematised (and apparently much restored) image, but its message is strikingly real.

As you gaze into the great all-seeing eyes of the saints (one sternly condemning, one benignly forgiving), you are looking at a form of religious expression that set out to prove itself superior to the paganism of Classical predecessors, to replace literal lifelikeness with a spiritual presence that would outlast the years. These art works become less replicas than living things.

In the 1930s, even Soviet commanders, ordered to stamp out the influences of Christianity, understood their power. They didn't simply smash them. They lined them up, sentenced them to death and then shot them. These are works that for two millennia have kept their religious power.

Drawing of Hagia Sophia - Interior

Sadly, the earliest ever icon of Christ is too fragile to travel from Sinai. But as we look into the faces of his saintly ambassadors, we are linked in an unbroken chain to the foundations of our Christian culture. Here are the roots of many ceremonial, diplomatic, legal and economic traditions that still survive in our society. And here too can be found lessons that are still relevant today.

How is it, for instance, that the Christian monastery of St Catherine survived intact through the centuries, unharmed by Arab raiders? The answer was simple. A mosque was built alongside it. Muslim and Christian cohabited in peace. The Byzantines could see the larger picture. It shimmered like their visions of glittering gold.

Byzantium: 330-1453, Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1 ( ; 0870 8488484), from Sat until March 22

Related Links
Byzantium at the Royal Academy
Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

From The Sunday Times
October 26, 2008

Byzantium: The empire strikes back

The Royal Academy has staged a dramatic show highlighting the myriad influences that made Byzantium

12th Century enamel icon of the Archangel Michael at the Entrance to Paradise is displayed at the Royal Academy of Arts, in London, on October 21, 2008. The piece is part of the 'Byzantium exhibition 330-1453' which comprises around 300 objects including icons, detached wall paintings, micro-mosaics, ivories, enamels plus gold and silver metalwork. Some of the works have never been displayed in public before. The exhibition will run from October 25, 2008 to March 22, 2009. (Getty Images)

By Waldemar Januszczak

I have been awaiting the arrival of Byzantium with a strange mix of excitement and trepidation. Excitement, because these are underexplored stretches of art’s global output that are certain to offer surprises. Trepidation, because Byzantium is Byzantium: an empire notorious for its knuckle-rapping religious seriousness and its orthodoxy — a byword for the stern and the hierarchical. If ever a show appeared, by its very presence, to be criticising the way we live and think today, that show was surely going to be Byzantium.

However, I was wrong, for two reasons. First, because I had underestimated the ability of the Royal Academy’s designers to construct a sumptuous journey through this sometimes stern but always glorious religious bling. And second, because Byzantium, on this evidence, was not the cruel and controlling force for orthodoxy we have so long imagined it to be. Variety, naturalism, experiment and perhaps even tolerance were included in its make-up. In its plush, coffee-table-ish way, this stunning display finally succeeds in conjuring up a new Byzantium.

That said, how could we ever have believed in the immobile and monocultural Byzantium of legend? The timescales involved are so huge that no culture in history could have remained unchanged throughout them. The birth of the Byzantine empire is neatly dated to AD330, when the Roman emperor Constantine, having converted to Christianity, founded his new Rome on the site of the old Byzantium, on the banks of the Bosphorus, and called it Constantinople. And the empire’s end can be dated just as neatly to May 29, 1453, when the new Rome was captured by the Ottoman Turks and claimed for Muhammad. Thus, the full story of Byzantium spans more than a millennium of dense Asio-European history. A large chunk of late antiquity, the whole of the Middle Ages and a decent slab of the Renaissance can be fitted into it. Of course there would have been variety.

The trick to encapsulating the output of such a huge stretch of cultural territory successfully depends on subtraction rather than addition. Anyone can put the whole lot in front of you and say: “Make sense of that.” A harder ask is to identify the milestones and the turning points, and to construct a telling journey between them.

The first thing you see here is an inordinately large copper chandelier, in which a baffling number of crosses and candles sway like a rusty Calder mobile across the RA’s central octagon. What drama. The gigantic chandelier — the biggest, I suggest, you will ever see — manages to convey simplicity as well as complexity; heavyweight religious passion and feather-light religious joy. It dates from the 13th century, a long way into the Byzantine story. But the agenda it sets so successfully promises drama and beauty, surprises and size. And that’s what you get.

A technician works on re-assembling part of a mosaic pavement with personifications of the months from the early sixth century which is to be displayed from October 25 as part of the "Byzantium 330-1453" exhibiton at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, on October 14, 2008.(Getty Images)

Having foolishly imagined the art of Byzantium to have arrived at its start line with all its subsequent stiffnesses in place, I found it thoroughly enlightening to watch it finding itself so oddly. The show’s earliest stretch looks at the continuing influence of classical models on the new empire’s art. A Jonah being swallowed by a sea monster, carved out of marble, twists and fidgets like a miniature version of the snake-strangling recorded so momentously in the Laoco├Ân. Marble. Movement. Male nudity. Monsters. None of it is expected. At this stage, it is predictably difficult to differentiate between the last gasps of the Roman empire and the first cries of Byzantium. A Christian mosaic displaying lively personifications of the months — February holds a duck, April a lamb — may have been inspired by “Pavlos, priest and teacher of the divine word”, but it is basically indistinguishable from its late-antique predecessors.

The true spirit of Byzantium begins appearing, instead, in the fabulous horde of carved ivories that now arrive at the show. Their first subjects — a deer hunt, Apollo chasing Daphne — are taken still from the catalogues of Roman paganism, but slowly, beautifully, the carved ivory’s potential for intense Christian messaging is discovered and explored. It may be only elephant bone, but bone is bone, and every Byzantine ivory brings an air of skeletal hush to any subject it illustrates. By the time we reach the 10th century, a fully formed Byzantine aesthetic is giving us a Christ Pantokrator who stares out at us as sternly as a High Court judge delivering a death sentence. Which the ivory seems somehow to guarantee.

Set mostly in twilight, the show does a decent job of implying the solemn religious atmospheres for which most of this art was made. But the melodrama is smartly rationed. And even the notorious Antioch Chalice, the ornate silver cup from the Met in New York that was once thought to be the original Holy Grail, is dealt with sensibly and studiously.

Byzantium’s dangerous location on a busy crossroads between East and West brought a huge variety of influences to its doorstep. Some stretches of the show appear thoroughly Muslim. Others seem to have come straight out of the saddlebags of a passing crusader from Limoges. But this aesthetic good fortune could lead quickly to tragedy. The most notorious event in the empire’s action-packed history was the violent iconoclasm that erupted in the 8th century when the emperor, Leo III, placed a ban on the manufacture of religious images. Leo, I read, was probably mimicking the nearby Muslim example — just as the Muslims had probably inherited their reluctance to worship images from Jewish converts to Islam. Whatever the origins of this terrible urge, the outcome of the image wars was startling.

When the bouts of iconoclasm finally ceased, a century later, Byzantium threw itself into the mass production of religious imagery with the enthusiasm of a released prisoner. The show has enough self-control not to drown us in the resulting flood of interchangeable icons. Their gradual unveiling is impeccably handled. But it is now that the real dangers of orthodoxy begin to show up. Strict instructions were drawn up for the presentation of Christ. Even the lines on his face were counted.

Icon with Virgin Psychosostria (L) and Icon with Christ the Pantokrator

With a sense of theatre that is to be thoroughly commended, the show culminates in a set of stupendous icons from the mysterious monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai, where nothing has changed for 1,500 years. You can mistake this firmness of purpose for stasis if you choose. Or you can celebrate it as a rare and precious display of continuity in a world that changes too readily. Over to you.

Byzantium 330-1453, Royal Academy, W1, until March 22

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