Sailing Through Byzantium
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PAUL SOLMAN: At New York’s Metropolitan Museum, “The Glory of Byzantium.” This was an empire that endured for a thousand plus years: from 313, when the Greek town of Byzantium was renamed Constantinople, until the Turks invaded in 1453. In the ninth century, Byzantium began expanding north as far as the Danube River, east all the way to the Caucasus, south to Crete and even Syria.
This was the eastern version of the vast Holy Roman Empire, safe from barbarians overrunning Rome to the West, “holy” in that emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the state religion. From the outset Byzantine art and music were sacred: heaven on earth. The show begins in the 800′s, a time when religious images, or icons, flourished in Byzantium, after a century and a half of being banned. This period of image banning is mocked in this manuscript, which portrays icons being whitewashed by fanatics, just as Christ was tortured with vinegar by a soldier. It’s one of nearly 350 items assembled by the Met from a staggering 117 collections.
Some icons, from remote monasteries, have never been seen before by women. Many are the most famous examples of their kind. The Byzantine Empire was powerful. It was stable. It it was rich, so rich, in fact, that its art and artifacts infiltrated and influenced cultures far beyond its borders: to Kiev in the North, Egypt in the South, even Rome, itself, in the Latin West.
We asked Harvard Professor Ioli Kalavrezou, an expert on Byzantine art, to help us understand it.
PAUL SOLMAN: What is this stuff here?
IOLI KALAVREZOU, Harvard University: It is actually very precious material that has come here together probably for the first time under one roof.
PAUL SOLMAN: Is it loot? Booty?
IOLI KALAVREZOU: Some of it is loot. Some of it is loot because it was brought to the West by the crusaders. Some of it comes also from within the empire of Byzantium, obviously, and they were really specialized in finding the best ways of using enamel with pearls or gold with pearls or ivory with gold and so on, so it is the most splendid representation of what was once courtly art. And most of it you will see has to do with some kind of either religious prayer of an individual to a saint, and we can see him represented on it. Or it is a gift that was given for the same kind of pious act to a church or a monastery.
We have one of Moses, and there is a little donor that you can see right at the feet which is a very small figure in relation to the saint. So when you see someone at the bottom, you know that he’s not as important as the person or the figure at the top. But still that he’s represented on it really does matter for the individual who made this gift.
PAUL SOLMAN: Is this a road to salvation if you’re the donor?
IOLI KALAVREZOU: Yes, this is one thing that will help you. And most of this art has something of that, trying to connect mankind in their way to reach spirituality. And that we can see, for example, in that wonderful icon of the ladder, where you have the various monks trying to climb the 30 steps that a monk has to achieve by moving on step by step to reach heaven. And they fall down, and they fall down, and you see the devil is also putting all kinds of things on them and pulling them down, but the pit is visible actually that could swallow them at the bottom. So this is the lowest level. The highest level is Christ, who is up there greeting those who are arriving, and you understand immediately what that means.
PAUL SOLMAN: Behind you is a mosaic, and mosaics are like a really important part of Byzantine art, right?
IOLI KALAVREZOU: Mosaics were part of this wealth of religious splendor that you would create because the cubes are placed to so not be all even and flat but to have a different sort of degree of an angle to–onto which the light would shine. You have always individual cubes reflecting light all around you.
So you come in and wherever you stand, you have this divine light. A saint like this would have been on the walls, slightly in the upper parts, very much like the climbing ladder. But here you have it within the building. You, yourself, are at the bottom; as you enter, you have these images, the saints, the intercessors that rise upwards to the image of Christ, who is on top, who is actually looking down upon you to receive you in His world. And the virgin often in the apse will be like the intercessor to that too.
PAUL SOLMAN: What about the image of the virgin and a roof garden behind her and a house?
IOLI KALAVREZOU: This garden does have pairs of birds and pairs of trees that are, you know, couples, which do hint to the time of spring, and it is the 25th of March that it takes place. So all of that is brought together with the moment of the incarnation that takes place that day, and it is visible on this particular icon I think for the first time ever because on her chest you see in very slight sort of grayish white a mandola with the Christ child as a baby right in front of her.
The fourth century is a period where you do have much more of sort of the human aspect of things coming into religious images. The virgin starts to become more of a mother, a more tender figure than before. This is another piece of those 12th century art. If you look closely, you’ll see that her eyes are not looking at the child at all, but they’re turning away, and she has a very sorrowful face because she knows the future. And the future is shown in the back with that portrait of Christ dead on the cross. And to depict someone dead in a vertical way is quite unusual and very powerful, I think.
PAUL SOLMAN: This is in some sense a continuation of classical art, though, right?
IOLI KALAVREZOU: Well, in many ways it is a Christian version of what was the Hellenistic, Roman antique world, so we do have wonderful statuesque figures that you can see of saints that are very much draped in their togas, and then the other classical aspect is the subject matter that still remains from the classical world, mythology, large box, an ivory box, has a number of scenes where we have gods; we have the sacrifice of Iphigenia represented. We have Pegasus, the winged horse.
PAUL SOLMAN: What about the casket with the little images of Adam and Eve? What’s that about?
IOLI KALAVREZOU: They represent Adam and Eve as they have to leave Paradise. You have Adam really sad having to do something about his life, and then you see him in the next panels -suffering in the sense of having to work so hard. And the little figure there of wealth, telling them, well, if you work hard, this might help, you know, for your future.
PAUL SOLMAN: And that’s Plutus.
IOLI KALAVREZOU: Plutus, yes.
PAUL SOLMAN: Who’s come down to us as the god of the Plutocrat, the rich.
IOLI KALAVREZOU: Yes.
PAUL SOLMAN: The rich rulers.
IOLI KALAVREZOU: Yes. But there it is. This is probably 11th century, you know. It’s very nice to see it spelled out clearly. Here it is. Look.
PAUL SOLMAN: You hear about abstraction asserting itself in Byzantine art as opposed to the classical predecessor.
IOLI KALAVREZOU: Yes. There are some manuscripts that show that very well. We have a circle of dancing women depicted as if they were the rays of the sun sort of flattened out all around. And they’re dressed in beautiful robes, contemporary, 11th century long dresses, with long sleeves, you know, and big hats. So this is a perfect nice circle. It looks like a wreath, but when you look at it actually there are these dancing figures, so it’s just one aspect of abstraction. Another one is in a wonderful plate from a slightly later period, where we have a couple sitting together, and we have a fantastic abstraction of the rim of the plate becoming almost like a space out of which the figures bring out their feet, which is something that is so totally different from the religious images that we have.
PAUL SOLMAN: What would you have a viewer, an audience, take away from an exhibit like this?
IOLI KALAVREZOU: For me, Byzantine art has been always perceived as an art that was rather static, didn’t have much to offer, through the centuries did not have any changes almost to it. I think the show shows us that actually those artists were very creative, were of very high standards, produced beautiful objects that retained what was a classical tradition; that made it possible for people to live in a world where they can imagine the spiritual and the everyday one being connected in their lives. When I came here with my class in April, everyone was so enthusiastic, they said, ‘Why did they tell us that Byzantine art was nothing special to look at? Are we happy to have taken your course so we can see all these things.’ You know, it was an eye opener to art historians especially who have been taught sort of not to look at Byzantine art before
PAUL SOLMAN: Ioli Kalavrezou, thanks very much.
IOLI KALAVREZOU: My pleasure.