Striking Gold; the Art World

By Schjeldahl, Peter | The New Yorker, May 17, 2004 | Go to article overview

Striking Gold; the Art World


Schjeldahl, Peter, The New Yorker


"The city was desolate, lying dead, naked, soundless, having neither form nor beauty." This was Constantinople in late May, 1453, when Ottoman armies extinguished the eleven-century dominion of the Byzantine Empire. The writer, a contemporaneous historian named Doukas, recorded the despair of citizens who yearned in vain for aid from the West. To prevent the disaster, two treaties had been made with European powers, subjecting the Orthodox Church to the Pope in Rome in return for promises of military sustenance. The agreements were resisted by many Eastern believers, who had scant taste for ecumenism; and, in the event, no significant help came. Doukas quoted an astonishing sentiment from Constantinople's grand duke, Loukas Notaras: "It would be better to see the turban of the Turks in the center of the City than the Latin mitre." Not for nothing is "byzantine" a byword for counterintuitive complexity in human affairs. It is also the marker of a vast blind spot in common historical knowledge.

The wondrous exhibition "Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)," at the Metropolitan Museum, has taught me a good deal. I have learned that the term "Byzantium" dates from 1557, when a German scholar coined it from the name of Byzantion, the Greek port city that became Constantinople. The point was to emphasize the Hellenic roots of the empire, whose preservation of ancient texts, objects, and philosophical traditions--notably Platonism--might well have struck a Renaissance intellectual as its most important feature. Retroactively expunging "New Rome," by which the seat of empire had known itself, this tendentious rubric inaugurated the afterlife of a civilization that, apart from Orthodox sects, survives largely in alien archives and imaginations. In 1204, Crusaders plundered Constantinople and installed, as emperor, a Flemish count. Even after the triumphal restoration of native rule in 1261--the starting point of this show, the last of three exhibits the Met has devoted to Byzantium--the empire was a routinely abused poor relation of Western domains. The lost fraternal Other of Christian Europe, Byzantium (as we are pleased to style it) is an accusing ghost.

Frescoes, temperas, mosaics, reliefs, marbles, architectural fragments, embroideries, chalices, candelabra, crosses, caskets, reliquaries (one stuffed with what seems like enough little silk-wrapped body parts for the assembly of a new person or two), censers, fans, processional cloths, amulets, a bell, a dagger, books, manuscripts, jewelry, vestments, coins, seals, maps, and, of course, a great many gilded icons--all are presented with theatrical flair, in careful profusion. This is a blockbuster show, which overlays the eponymous "faith and power" of its subject with those of the museum's resources of money, clout, expertise, and scholarship (the bibliography in the doorstop catalogue runs to thirty-four small-print pages). Art being secular urbanity's substitute for religion, the Met is our Hagia Sophia--the great building in Istanbul that, in its time, has flexibly glorified Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Islam.

"Greeks, Cypriots, Serbs, Bulgarians, Romanians, Russians, Wallachians, Moravians, Armenians, Venetians, Genoese, Pisans, Franks, Germans, Seljuks, Mongols, Mamluks, Ottomans, and others" vied for advantage in the tottering empire, according to a fine introductory essay in the catalogue by Helen C. Evans, the Met's curator of medieval art. Multiculturalism was a strength of the Eastern Church, which encouraged the liturgical use of local languages. This fact makes pointed sense of the static, dogmatic forms that we associate with Byzantine culture: they stood against an always potential descent into fragmenting chaos. A vigilant, held-breath tension informs even Byzantine opulence. All that gold and other precious stuff suggest wealth that is sacrificially tied up in supernatural escrow. Art was no mere ornament to the authority of New Rome. …

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