Friday 28 November 2008

Constantinople, Constantinople! ..C’est I’empire du monde!

Byzantium 330-1453, Royal Academy, London

Byzantium has two obvious major selling-points as a subject for an exhibition. There’s its artistic heritage – icons usually come to mind here. And there’s the romance of a lost civilisation which came to a dramatic end centuries ago. Cynically, we’re possibly tempted to think that, because this empire didn’t have staying-power, it did have much going for it in the first place. But there is a third selling-point too - which isn’t immediately obvious - and which this exhibition gives us a chance to consider. This might - or might not - be a comfortable experience. So let’s leave it for the moment.

Unknown artist, The Homilies of Monk James Kokkinobaphos, 1100–1150. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, Photo © Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Starting life as a Greek colony in 675 BC, Byzantium had been re-founded in 324 AD by Constantine the Great - who had inherited a Roman Empire in chaos - as a new Rome, a replacement that was in a better strategic position than its predecessor. For over a thousand years, Constantinople - as Byzantium was re-named - would be the capital of the Roman Empire in the east, an empire which, at one period, would stretch from the straits of Gibraltar to the Euphrates. Straddling the Bosphorus, the narrow waterway which separated Europe and Asia, the city would be the largest - and most sophisticated – in Europe. What in this exhibition reflects Byzantine Empire’s beliefs, power, and the wealth which was a natural concomitance of its strength?

‘A figurine of Jonah Cast Up’, from the eastern Mediterranean, originating from the second half of the third century AD, shows a figure with a bemused expression literally vomited out of a powerful yet sinuously thrashing whale, its classical style reflecting the link Byzantine art had with its that of its political predecessor. Old Rome still exerted influence, albeit artistically. But the ‘Diptych Leaf with a Byzantine Empress’ from the sixth century shows that this influence has waned: here, the empress has bulbous features, and Asian-style beading on her robes and headdress. Also in an Asian style is a ‘Silk depicting the Annunciation’, possibly from Syria circa 800, showing a wide-eyed Virgin Mary with similar features to the unknown empress.

Change of a different sort - theological- is shown by the ‘Icon With The Triumph of Orthodoxy’, originating possibly from Constantinople in the second half of the 14th century. This subject matter reflects the Great Schism of 1054 between the Orthodoxy of the Greek East and the Catholicism of the Latin West. Here, the VirginMary &Childare in the centre, surrounded - presumably - by Apostles. The figures engraved onto the bronze arms of a Processional Cross, possibly from the 12th century, also have a minimalist, Asiatic appearance.

The political power of Byzantium is captured on the Troyes Casket (so-named because it is held by Troyes Cathedral), a carved box from the 10th or 11th centuries decorated with figures of energetic emperors riding and hunting. Exhibits from social life provide contrasts between fashion and domesticity. A pair of bracelets, possibly from sixth-century Cyprus, are gold and look (deceptively?) light. A pair of earrings from the seventh century appear simple until your eye is caught by their filigree work. From the kitchen we have a glazed small four lobe bowl with a representation of a bird, from 11th century Constantinople and, from the first half of the 13th century, a glazed bowl with the representation of a dancer from the Paphos area of Cyprus. With skirt whirling, the dancer seems to be in a sort of fearful trance.

Understandably, given the Christian, Orthodox nature of the Empire, much of the Exhibition is given over to icons. Outstanding is the mid-14th century ‘Icon with the Virgin Psychosostria’ from either Thessaloniki or Ohrid. Here a wary Virgin Mary holds a tough yet rather puzzled-looking Christ. This representation is theological light years away from the gentle Jesus meek and mild beloved of some 19th century theologians and hymn writers. But other artistic influences are coming into Byzantine theological art: we see a ‘Commentary on Genesis’ with a drawing of Christ, possibly from Cyprus during the period 1175 -1225. Here, although posed in the usual icon style with hand raised in blessing, Christ is depitted with soft, Western features. However, the impressive sacred and secular artefacts shown in this exhibition have a sting in their collective tail.

And this is where the third selling-point for an exhibition about Byzantium comes in. It makes us think about the causes of political decline - and not just where empires are concerned. Constantinople was almost destined by its geography and history to be the seat of a great empire. And that was - arguably - a contributory factor in its undoing: everyone wanted a share of the political and economic action inherent in the city.  Western crusade in 1204, organised by Venice - its commercial revival - resulted in the city being sacked.

The Venetians inflicted a defeat from which Constantinople never recovered. The Empire underwent a series of defeats at the hand of Muslim enemies, whilst civil wars between rivalemperors reduced Constantinople’s population. By 1400, the city had been reduced to a number of small towns interspersed with orchards and farms, although it still retained the imperial palace and the dwellings of the rich. The triumphant entry in 1453 of Sultan Mehmed II - known as the Conqueror - delivered the final blow to the Empire. Its art had been one of its great glories, yet it was no barometer of the Empire’s political and economic health.

In 1807, Napoleon would exclaim ‘Constantinople, Constantinople! … C’est I’empire du monde!’ It lived in his imagination- and that of others - as an inspiration. It remained the hub of Orthodoxy, helping to keep the Greek and Balkan Slav churches alive and so provided a focus for the underground nationalism that eventually achieved the liberation of Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia from Turkey in the 19th Century. But as a political reality it was dead: arguably, it was the victim of its own success combined with a sort of inertia - some might say fatalism - which accompanied this.

The Byzantine Empire would no longer act as a buffer against Muslim aggression. Only its art would live on in the buildings and liturgy of Orthodoxy. The outward appearances of art and spirituality are not, necessarily, clear indicators of the real state of a nation’s health and strength. A sense of positivity, of the need to survive and thrive, is also indispensible: without it, survival cannot be taken for granted. The end of Empire for Byzantium in 1453 is, perhaps, an uncomfortable episode in history upon which the leaders of threatened - or misled - Western institutions might wish to ponder.

Ends 22 March 2009

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