Magazine article The Spectator

The Power and the Glory

Magazine article The Spectator

The Power and the Glory

Article excerpt

In Vasari's Lives of the Artists, Byzantine art figures merely as a bad example. It was Cimabue of Florence, he wrote, who first `swept away' the manner of the Greek artists he encountered, `making the draperies, the vestments, and everything else a little more lively and more natural and soft'. And, of course, both mentally and actually, Cimabue has long figured as the starting point of Western art - year 0, Room One of the art gallery. But it is to what came before, the Greek manner so despised by Vasari, that The Glory of Byzantium, a huge and magnificent exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, is devoted. It is in every way an eye opener.

Byzantine art is obscure to us - compared with, say, the art of the Renaissance, or the Western Middle Ages - for two reasons. First, because it - and the civilisation which created it - was swept to the four winds by the sack of Constantinople in 1204, and subsequently even more thoroughly by the fall of the city to the Turks in 1453.

But the Byzantine Empire had been the most civilised power in Europe or Western Asia for close to a millennium. It reached what John Julius Norwich dubbed the apogee during the first part of the period covered by the exhibition - subtitled `Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, AD 843-1261' - in the second, the irreversible decline had set in. In those centuries, visitors from East and West were cowered by the grandeur of Byzantium. Aspiring despots from Sicily to Russia did their best to imitate the churches and palaces of Constantinople. The second half of the show is devoted to the Byzantine penumbra of Armenia, Georgia, Kievan Rus, Bulgaria, Italy, even including a reliquary from distant, northern Canterbury.

But since then, for almost as long, its territories have been ruled by enemies from the Latin West or Muslim East, and its buildings and artefacts ruthlessly destroyed, or recycled. This despoliation still continues today in Turkey and elsewhere, as is made clear in William Dalrymple's new book From the Holy Mountain - which forms an ideal complement to this exhibition.

As a result, although there are remnants of Byzantine art dotted all around Eastern Europe, and the Eastern Mediterranean, there are few places where it remains as an intact ensemble - icons, architecture, sacred vessels, mosaics, lamps, liturgy, incense all together. Those where it does - Mount Athos, for example, and the Holy Monastery of St Catherine in Sinai tend to be inaccessible.

Indeed, the biggest problem for an exhibition of Byzantine art is that the gesamtkunstwerk of a complete church or monastery, even where it still survives, can scarcely be transported to an art gallery. There are, however, examples of every category including architectural fragments decorated with beautiful patterns like rippling water - Byzantine architecture was a matter of surfaces as well as spaces, dubbed by Ruskin `the encrusted style'.

Full-scale mosaics are on display, most spectacularly from the lth-century Mykhailivs'kyi Zolotoverkhyi Monastery in Kiev, vandalistically demolished in 1934 (one wonders whether Stalin, the product of a Georgian seminary, had a special animus against ecclesiastical architecture).

This exhibition is drawn from hither and thither, wherever fragments of Byzantine splendour have fetched up. Tenth- and 11th-century chalices and pattens made of sardonyx, gold, pearls, and cloisonne enamel come from the Treasury of St Mark's in Venice, where they were taken as booty from the Fourth Crusade, a crown inscribed with the image and name of the Emperor Constantine Monomachus (104250) was ploughed up in a field in Slovakia, a piece of silk woven with golden eagles on a blue ground was wrapped around the relics of St Germanus in Auxerre, and so on. …

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