Byzantium: a word draped in exotic mystery, an entity claiming to be the continuation of the Roman Empire in the east, which lasted for over 1,000 years before being finally vanquished by the Ottomans after it had withered away to being little more than the metropolis of Constantinople.
Centre of the Orthodox east, for the medieval western Christian it was a place of both decadence and heresy, but also unparalleled riches, especially the spiritual riches of relics and magnificent churches. For the Orthodox world it was, and still remains, a dazzling manifestation of a Christian empire, presided over by God’s anointed, a memory of glory, temporal, intellectual and spiritual, a place of holy Wisdom venerated in her greatest temple, Hagia Sophia. Straddling Europe and Asia, it was Christian yet not Catholic but Orthodox, imperial and hierarchical but not really feudal. Enigmatic, somewhat arrogant, buffeted by twists of fate and convulsed by constant threats to its very existence, its significance for the history of Europe has sadly been mainly overlooked.
The study of Byzantium has been largely left to specialist academics who have had the instinct to probe beyond the dismissal of the empire by leading figures of the Enlightenment, who wrote it off as a “disgusting picture of imbecility: wretched, nay, insane passions, stifles the growth of all that is noble in thoughts, deeds, and persons. Rebellion on the part of generals, depositions of the Emperors by means or through the intrigues of the courtiers, assassinations or poisoning of the Emperors by their own wives and sons, women surrendering themselves to lusts and abominations of all kinds.”—Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History. This prejudice strongly influenced the place, or lack of it, in the teaching of history in European schools to the point that even a student of A-level history could have remained totally ignorant of its existence despite its fundamental importance in understanding how modern Europe was formed. Only in the last decade of the 20th century was Byzantine studies rehabilitated and given something of the prestige of other areas of contemporary research. “Currently, Byzantine studies, reflecting its classical heritage, is still much more dominated by philological and art historical concerns than Western medieval history. Still, there are interesting transformations evident. The French Annales School, represented by such scholars as Helene Ahrweiler and Evelyne Patlagean has applied the specific social, cliometric and "long duree" methodologies to Byzantine studies with some gusto. Purely social history, without a Marxist slant, is now well established, with Angeliki Laiou among the most productive writers. The Russian Byzantinist Alexander Kazhdan was responsible for a whole variety of initiatives, including a willingness to study religious phenomena in secular perspective. Finally, and much later than in other areas of historical study, the history of women is now coming to the fore.”Paul Halsall, ntroduction to the course in Byzantine Studies at Fordham University, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/byzantium/
As Halsall intimates, one area of interest revived much earlier was that of art, in effect its religious art. This too had been an area which had been much reviled by Western Europeans, indeed its denigration from the time of the Renaissance preceeded the general dismissal of Byzantium in the Enlightenment. “A lasting dismissive judgment of the artistic heritage of the Middle Ages was cast, while the notion of ART was confidently applied only to the artistic tradition associated with antiquitry and its post-medieval ‘rebirth’.” Article by Slobodan Curcic in Transition to Christianity, ed. Anastasia Lazaridou, Onassis Foundation, 2011. This attitude swept across Europe from Italy, not least in Russia where under successive Tsars its influence shaped not just the secular art and architecture of the imperial palaces and the like, but also that of Church art and its buildings. The dismissal of Byzantine art as something crude and, in the negative sense, medieval, affected even the Orthodox world.
The resurrection of Western European respect for the Medieval world began where it was first lost: with its sacred art and architecture. This was spearheaded by the Romantic movement, its poets such as Keats, Wordsworth and Byron inspired by the magnificent ruins, manuscripts and art of a world infused with spiritual vision rather than the rationalism of the Enlightenment. In the English speaking world the revival of Gothic and the growth of foreign travel to exotic places, pushed this Romantic spirit to embrace Byzantium. With their love of the Orient, the magnificence of Hagia Sophia and the numerous impressive remains of churches and monasteries across the Byzantine world never failed to inspire awe and wonder in travelling western Europeans. By the end of the 19th century, art scholars began to try to understand the role of Byzantine art in the formation of Western medieval art. As A.L.Fotheringam Jr wrote in 1895, , “To a student of the Middle Ages it is of extreme importance to understand what influence Byzantium exercised upon the West during its formative period, between the seventh and the eleventh centuries, when its civilization, complete, brilliant, and pervasive, was as a beacon to the crude and groping West, and was the only great centre of inspiration, although it was often antagonized and reviled.” The American Journal of Archaeology and of the History of the Fine Arts, Vol 10; ‘Notes on Byzantine Art and Culture in Italy and Especially in Rome’. Fifty years later Kurt Weitzman, the eminent scholar of Byzantine art, summarised this transition in an article in the same journal: “The preoccupation with Byzantine art has to be seen in the historical perspective as a rather late link in the revival of various phases of mediaeval civilization that started in the nineteenth century. Beginning in the romantic period with a movement for the revival of Gothic art, a more scientific and systematic investigation of the mediaeval past superseded in the course of the nineteenth century the emotional approach of romanticism and expanded backwards into the Carolingian and Romanesque periods. When at a comparatively late stage Byzantine art and culture were gradually integrated into the general history of mediaeval civilization, the scholars embarking on this field came from various camps, each group having a different training and approaching it from a special angle. This undoubtedly had a stimulating effect and put research in Byzantine art on a broad basis, but at the same time it prolonged the process of attaining a comprehensive and coherent picture of the evolution and significance of Byzantine art.”
Byzantine Art and Scholarship in America, Kurt Weitzmann . Source: American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 51, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1947), pp. 394-418. Weitzman was himself to make an enormous contribution to Byzantine studies, and to the rehabilitation of Byzantium as fundamental reference point in the development of European Art. During the latter part of the 20th century Weizman, Grabar and other scholars established that “in its art and architecture, Byzantine culture was genuinely, and despite itself, innovative and capable of producing works of great beauty.” Halsall, Introduction to the course in Byzantine Studies at Fordham University, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/byzantium/
In essence the Byzantine world, and hence its art and architecture, were intensely spiritual, a fruit of a Christian world-view which saw reality through the lens of the incarnation of the Divine Logos and his life-giving death and resurrection. Matter, for Christians, matters. The paradigm of the Transfiguration established a particular appreciation of the visual, and in particular light, as a means of the interaction between humanity and God. While the Byzantine empire crumbled into non-existence more than 500 years ago, its viewpoint endures to this day particularly, though not exclusively, within the world of Orthodoxy, where not just the outward form of its liturgy directly relates to the Byzantine world but its art also reflects a fundamental way of looking at reality that is as comprehensible today to an Orthodox Christian as it was to his or her Byzantine forefathers. This view of reality is most conscious when it comes to the icon: “The icon is one of the aspects of divine revelation and of our communion with God. The Orthodox faithful assembled in church for a liturgy establish contact with the Heavenly Church by the intermediary of their icons and liturgical prayers” Michel Quenot, The Icon – Window on the Kingdom, SVS Press 1991, p.12. Iconography is at the very heart of Byzantine art, perhaps the jewel in its crown, the very essence of all that Byzantium came to stand for. It is certainly its most enduring legacy, still a living art form of deep spiritual resonance found in churches across both eastern and western Europe, and indeed wherever the Christian church has established a presence, be that in Africa or Oceania.
Despite this enduring appeal, and indeed the profound influence it has had on the development of Western art, its origins have remained something of an enigma. Grabar, one of the early art historians to understand their significance for the history of art as a whole, concluded after a life-time’s research that “it is not possible to define the precise moment when Byzantine painting was born." Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Painting by M. Chatzidakis and A. Graba. 1965. p.3
Why has their origin been so elusive?
Firstly, a civil war fought over the place of icons in Byzantine churches, raged violently, and with repeated moments of devastating destruction, across the Byzantine Empire for 150yrs. The Byzantine empire tore itself apart, during which time the iconophiles, who saw icons as profound theological manifestations of faith in the incarnation and thus essential to its life and worship, fought off ‘image breakers’, who saw in icons a work of the devil which broke the first of the Ten Commandments. Engulfing the empire with varying intensity between its outbreak under the Emperor Leo III in 725AD, and the eventual triumph of the iconophiles in 843AD, it resulted in not only the destruction of almost the entire corpus of early iconography, but by the end the mental landscape by which they were understood had been radically developed and re-shaped. This dearth of examples makes the traditional art critical method almost impossible to follow because it investigates origins in terms of comparisons. When there is a real paucity of examples to compare the method grinds to a halt.
At the same time during this period the sense of an empire of Byzantium, rather than of Rome, had consolidated itself. The iconoclast controversy came in the aftermath of the loss of the great cities of Alexandria and Antioch, as well as Jerusalem, the spiritual heart of the empire, so that by the end of the 9th century Byzantium had no rivals within the borders of the empire either economically, politically or spiritually. It had become, in this sense, the Empire. A cursory look at the ecclesiastical prominence of Constantinople gives apt evidence of the process. In 325AD the town was the seat of a minor bishop, with no theological or spiritual significance, while Rome, Alexandria and Antioch were universally recognized as pre-eminent due to the apostolic credentials of their founding apostles and the vitality of their theological schools, all of which mirrored their economic and cultural grandeur. By 451AD, at the council of Chalcedon, Constantinople was finally raised to the status not just of a patriarchate but as one second only to Rome. To this day the bishop of Constantinople styles himself “His Most Divine All-Holiness the Archbishop of Constantinople New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch”. At the same time Jerusalem, which was very much a pliant off-shoot of the imperial establishment, was raised to the status of a patriarchate. Meanwhile, on the theological front, the theological schools of Alexandria and Antioch were warring over how to understand the way in which Jesus was both fully human and fully Divine, a controversy over whether Jesus had one or two natures. A complex theological and political wrangle, it resulted in the patriarchates of both Alexandria and Antioch in formal schism with Constantinople over dogma, an alienation that endures to this day between the Orthodox and Oriental churches. This was consolidated when in 641AD Alexandria was conquered by the Arab armies, which had happened to Jerusalem three years earlier, and Antioch five years earlier. Conquest took these ancient and prestigious cities, and their patriarchs, permanently out of the empire altogether. Thus we can say very clearly that the empire in the 6th century was a very different reality than at the end of the 9th.
Yet among art historians there is an assumption that the place of Constantinople in the life and culture of the Byzantine Empire remained constantly the same from the outset: i.e. effectively a city with an empire rather than an Empire with a capital. "Byzantine art spans more than 1000 years and was centered on a Christian society based in Constantinople, which was dedicated in 330, and was the capital of the Christian Empire until 1453 when its religious landscape and art became Islamic." Robin Cormack, the Oxford History of Ar:t Byzantine Art. 2000. For these critics it is "Constantinople, the greatest city in the world, to which Byzantine art owes not only its supremacy but also its homogeneity." Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Painting by M. Chatzidakis and A. Grabar. 1965. Here we have the consensus of the art historical world which has held sway for half a century, and held to by some of the most eminent, learned and respected experts in the field. And while it is true that after the defining crisis of surviving the Islamic attacks and the civil war over images Byzantium really was culturally and spiritually centered on Constantinople, this was certainly not the case in its initial, earlier period.
By making this mistaken assumption about the earliest period of the Byzantine empire, the art historians have been trying to build their understanding of the origins of its art on false foundations, and so it is not surprising that they have come up with a blank as to the origins of iconography. Their preoccupation with Constantinople has prevented any serious evaluation of other possible places of origin. "In the field of Byzantine art and literature, it is frequently assumed that the capital of the empire, Constantinople, served as the model and set the standards for the other cities of the Empire. As a result, the artistic developments and achievements of the various regions within the Empire are viewed as a reflection of innovations and creative movements that originated in Constantinople despite the frequent lack of physical evidence in the capital. In the not so distant past, the same hypothesis pervaded the scholarship of the Roman Empire. However, scholars have now successfully challenge the long-held notion that the provinces of the Roman Empire were influenced solely by the developments in Rome and incapable of artistic innovation. A similar change in approach is only recently begun to occur in byzantine studies." Karen C. Britt, 2001 AIAR Fellows' Reports 2000-2001 This is the observation of an archaeologist rather than an art historian, but the insights of experts such as Brett need to be taken into consideration if we are to make an accurate evaluation about the milieu in which icons and Byzantine art in general came into existence, an evaluation which should give us the possibility of postulating as to the time and place at which the form of Christian art came into existence. At the very least it is imperative to begin to look beyond the walls of Constantinople for the birthplace of iconography. Grabar wrote in 1965 that “it is not possible to define the precise moment when Byzantine painting was born", a conclusion which is hardly surprising if he and his fellow scholars were, as Brett and others are now suggesting, looking in the wrong place.
Thus on two grounds the traditional art historical method is flawed in attempting to investigate the origins of iconography and the time and place of its birth: a lack of comparable examples and a flawed assumption about the preeminence of Constantinople. A final weakness is its lack of willingness to look at iconography ‘from within’, that is to examine its spiritual essence and the essential elements necessary for the transformation of pagan art with Christian themes, to a truly Christian art with an integral form. As iconography is still a living art integral to a living faith tradition examination of that spirituality offers another avenue for understanding how and when iconography came into being. What elements are enduring and essential to distinguishing iconography from other religious art, and what cultural/spiritual elements are essential to it? These then open other questions such as when and where such elements emerged in the Byzantine world, and where was there a convergence of such elements in a context which was conducive for iconography to emerge?