The Glory of Byzantium

"The Glory of Byzantium" at the Met

The 350 works in "The Glory of Byzantium" (at the Metropolitan Museum in New York through July 6) are like the tesserae of a mosaic; whether they form a coherent and affecting image depends on where one stands to look at them.

The people I know who have spent time in what was once Byzantium came away from the Met exhibition disappointed. Those of us who haven’t visited Byzantium were spellbound. As I hastened through the last few rooms of the show just before closing time, a phalanx of guards tailing me, I wanted to hide behind an icon and stay all night.
"The Glory of Byzantium" is devoted to the "Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843-1261." That is the period just after the Iconoclastic crisis, when the "restoration of images" by the Empress Theodora led to a profusion of religious art in the Orthodox world.

The exhibition aims to reveal the variety of Byzantine art, the vast spread of Byzantine culture (into Egypt and Sicily, Spain and Bulgaria), the interaction of Orthodoxy and Islam, and the influence of Byzantium on the Latin West. All that it does relentlessly. What it cannot begin to do is convey the overwhelming, all-encompassing, awe-inspiring effects of Santa Sophia in Ravenna, where one stands in an environment transfigured in gold and colored glass.

Instead, the exhibit offers case after case of objects-jewelry, friezes, ivory reliquaries, crosses of hammered iron-as well as startling figures from mosaics (life-size or larger), and a selection of dozens of gorgeous icons. Byzantine art has long been seen as the contemplative, mystical "Mary" in contrast to the active "Martha" of Western Christian art. Whereas the masters of the latter sought to make their art incarnational through the devices of visual realism (by employing perspective, say, or sculpture in the round), those of Orthodoxy, their hearts inclined to the risen Christ, developed spiritualized images of the Pantocrator and the saints. So runs the conventional wisdom. The Met exhibition complicates this view considerably.
Indeed, the works on display are striking in their realism and worldliness.

As one enters, one comes upon a gallery full of iron processional crosses carried during the Crusades; here and now, in their glass cases, poised as if held aloft by a squadron entering some pagan stronghold, they resemble battle axes; and the warlike aspect of Christianity is suddenly plain to see. A fragment of a wall fresco from the Church of the Dormition in Greece shows Saints Cosmas and Damian with their mother, Saint Theodata, who seems to glance up and out from a space deep inside herself like one of Vermeer’s young girls, her sheer expressiveness overwhelming any symbolic scheme. The play of light and shadow on the face of Saint Andrew, from a mosaic in Serres [see page 3], is rendered with a delicacy and subtlety that seem wonderfully gratuitous (a kind of art for art’s sake), given that the nearest viewer would have stood in the apse fifty feet below; so too, the tiny apostles and angels carved into palm-size ivory reliquaries are remarkably round and solid.

The visual realism of the objects is complemented by their usefulness. Most of the objects, it seems, were made not just to be looked at but to be used in ritual or in everyday life: jewelry to be worn, reliquaries to be carried on the person, icons and amulets to be rubbed and kissed and passed around. The people who used these objects seem to have left something of themselves on them. A copper cross from the Monastery of the Caves at Kiev, for example, has been rubbed so thoroughly in devotion that the rubbing seems part of the design. The images on it of Christ, the Apostles, and Saint Theodore seem pressed into the metal by the kisses of generations of monks, left there by their small acts of love.

The heart of the exhibition is the room full of breathtaking icons. The dozen icons on view here have been brought to New York from the monasteries of Mount Athos, Saint Catherine of Sinai, and Saint John on Patmos, as well as several museums; some of the icons had never left the monasteries before, and those drawn from Mount Athos (so it is said) had never before been seen by women.

In Byzantium, it seems, the heavens are red or gold. For in these icons at least, red and gold are used as ground rather than for decoration. An icon of the Annunciation is almost all gold; in icons of the Transfiguration and the Raising of Lazarus, the sky is crimson. The intensity of the ground gives the scenes high drama.

A portable icon of the Transfiguration is made of thousands of pieces of glass, some less than half a millimeter wide. There are fairly straightforward portraits of Saints Nicholas and George, and an uncommonly passionate Virgin and Child, the Virgin’s head tipped ever so slightly more toward the child than usual. A double-sided icon, scuffed and peeling, combines two themes to powerful effect: a tender Virgin and Child is backed by a blood-red portrait of the military martyr, Saint James the Persian; the two sides reflect the tension in medieval Christianity between maternal devotion and military ardor.

Most intriguing of all is the "Icon with the Heavenly Ladder of John Klimax," from Saint Catherine’s on Mount Sinai [below]. It shows a long line of disciples climbing a ladder pointed diagonally across the icon toward heaven. A clump of angels overlooks them from one side; from the other, demons pull them toward the underworld. The icon is the only known representation of this image, and it makes clear how strange and subject to interpretation are some of the metaphors for Christian perfection-those ladders and stairways and castles that seem impossibly orderly now.

In the icon room, the difference between a devoted monk’s act of looking and a museum-goer’s is stark. Lingering before a single icon for five minutes-a long time by museum standards-one is humbled by the thought that countless monks focused their devotional lives on the icon, gazing at it repeatedly and with deepening attention. In this room, the act of looking seems a profoundly physical act, as if one’s gaze has been fused to countless others gathered into the icon. It is as though the icons have been burnished by the monks’ eyes.

The icon is usable art par excellence, but in "The Glory of Byzantium" one feels the icons floating free, somewhat disconnected from the purposes for which they were made. I suspect that this sense of purpose is what my friends felt missing from the exhibition. In the museum, even with quotations from the Greek Fathers stenciled on the walls, the objects on view seem, at times, little more than what Newman called "the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design." For the defining work of usable holy art is the church building itself, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Byzantium. In Byzantium, whether in a monastery, cathedral, or a village church, the art is not on the walls-it is the walls. If something is gained by seeing a tiled saint on his own and up close in a museum, something is lost because he has been separated from his fellows, and from the cosmic view of life embodied in tile in a Byzantine church. If the tesserae in the mosaic are petros, the rocks on which Christ built his church, in the church the mosaic can be seen as an image of the people gazing upon it. Whereas, in the museum a mosaic, however gorgeous, is just a mosaic. Or so I’m told.

Published in the 1997-05-23 issue: 
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Paul Elie, an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (FSG), is writing a book about the music of Bach in the age of recordings.

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