Justinian, Theodora, and the Golden Age
THE FIRST GOLDEN AGE of Byzantium coincided with the reign of Justinian and his consort Theodora, one of the few married couples in history to set their seal on an era. And if this age, more than most, is marked by the almost living personalities of its leading figures, is it altogether fanciful to suppose that this is partly so because their features are so familiar? For fourteen centuries the mosaic portraits of Justinian and Theodora have faced each other across the apse of S. Vitale at Ravenna, and there they both, in a sense, still live, separated from the modern world in time alone, in that indirect yet almost intimate relationship with the viewer of today that characterizes the appearance of the Sovereign on the balcony at Buckingham Palace to the crowd at the gates. Justinian, with his blunt, uncompromising rather swarthy features and thinning hair; Theodora, svelte, intense and self-possessed-- few portraits, even including Holbein's Henry the Eighth, the very embodiment of a new and vulgar England--so successfully project the personalities of their subjects across the centuries.
The civilization of sixth-century Byzantium was, above all, Christian, and since neither before nor since has so complete an amalgam of European and Oriental traditions been possible, its art has a transcendental quality that alone fully expresses the material catholicity of the Christian heritage. Within little more than a century, although Byzantine relations with Western Europe were not completely severed, the new nations in process of formation there had little or nothing to contribute, while in the East, Syria and Egypt were lost to Islam, and so the great centres of Alexandria and Antioch ceased to play any distinctive role. In the half century or so that is spanned by the