Magazine article The Spectator

Forgotten Wonders

Magazine article The Spectator

Forgotten Wonders

Article excerpt

Byzantium 330-1454 Royal Academy, until 22 March 2009 Supported by the J.F. Costopoulos Foundation, the A.G. Leventis Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation

In his excellent book Portrait Painters, written more than half-a-century ago but still full of wisdom and stimulating observations, Allan Gwynne-Jones includes a note on the character of English art. He has been discussing the great glories of the medieval school of manuscript illumination in Britain, often forgotten when an assessment is made of our contribution to the visual arts. Yet between 1000 and 1300 the English school was the finest in Europe without a doubt.

Gwynne-Jones writes: 'In order to understand English art one must study its source.

English art is Byzantine in root, the Byzantine tradition having found its way to Durham and thence to Winchester by way of Ireland.

It is a very austere tradition. But the English genius is exuberant rather than austere, intimate rather than generalised; and so, when the noble tree of Byzantine art is transplanted to England, it not only bursts into a richer and more varied leaf but is soon twined round with honeysuckle, and haunted by many birds and beasts; and the hieratic quality we find persisting right through this greatest period of English art is always combined with an intense naturalism -- one that not only extends to birds and beasts and flowers, but in which angels and, still more, devils and monsters, are rendered with an equal intensity of conviction.' For anyone interested in the art of this country, no other justification is necessary for a trip to the Royal Academy to see its current blockbuster. Of course, Byzantine art deserves to be studied for its own sake, extensively and in depth, though I'm not sure that an exhibition of this sort is the way to achieve it. There is so much essential art that cannot be transported -- the architecture, the murals, the mosaics -- that a museum show can only ever tell part of the story. And it is very much a partial testament that is now retailed at the RA.

The visitor is greeted by a massive chandelier in cast copper alloy, hanging from the ceiling of the central hall. It dates from the 13th or 14th century and is a wonderfully intricate object, which no doubt looks magnificent in its proper setting, in the dome of a church. In the RA, and competing with the newly-restored gold niches of the hall's own resident worthies, it looks less impressive than it should. It doesn't make a good beginning to the exhibition, but it does highlight the main problem of context. This is always the challenge facing exhibition curators: to encourage the objects to speak to us though they have been removed from their natural habitat, and to convey their meaning and relevance without simply looking exotic. To my mind, Byzantium is only a qualified success.

You see the effect on visitors -- what I call 'Museum Glaze', that blank, slightly stunned look assumed after drifting past too many works of art that have insufficiently moved them. Sometimes even professionals have difficulty in maintaining a keen enthusiasm and quickened perceptions over the acreage of exhibits that modern blockbusters cover, so how can those with only a general interest be expected to take it all in? Luckily, there are objects of such fine workmanship and artistry on display that the size of this show (and it exceeds 320 items) is frequently forgotten in wonder.

The adjective Byzantine has come to mean extremely complicated or inflexible, and is often linked with another lovely word -- machinations. …

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