The power of faith

The Journal News, NY
March 21 2004

The power of faith

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Byzantium: Faith and Power
(1261-1557),” which opens Tuesday and runs through July 4, is nothing
short of magnificent – more than 350 golden icons, embroidered
textiles, filigree metal works, jeweled mosaics, illuminated
manuscripts and liturgical objects that convey the majesty of the
Greek Orthodox religion and the Byzantine world. They conjure an age
when empire was resurgent and faith, imperial in its expressivity.

Faith – and its ability to inspire the most soaring of visions, the
most rarified of craftsmanship – is the underpinning of this exhibit.
But there is a distinctly secular aspect as well. Like the Met’s
recent, brilliant “Manet/Velaquez” show, “Byzantium” is about the
tumult of history and the way it can lead to an astonishing artistic

Located where the Bosporus strait joins Europe and Asia in what is
now Istanbul, Turkey, Byzantium was destined to be a cultural melting
pot. In 330, Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to
embrace Christianity, shifted the empire’s capital (and focus) to the
site, establishing the new city of Constantinople. This empire of the
east – called the “empire of the Romans” and perhaps known more
commonly today as the Byzantine Empire – fell to the knights of the
Fourth Crusade, and the authority of the West, in 1204; was restored
in 1261; and then fell again in 1453, this time to the Islamic
Ottoman Turks. (In 1557, the German scholar Hieronymus Wolf
identified the conquered state as “Byzantium,” after Byzantion, an
ancient-Greek town near Constantinople.)

The exhibit’s story begins with the restoration in 1261, under
Byzantine general Michael VIII Palaiologos.

“The people who lived between 1261 and 1557 in Constantinople in the
Byzantine world called themselves Romans and saw themselves as heirs
of the Rome ruled by Augustus and Caesar,” exhibit organizer Helen C.
Evans says on the accompanying audio guide. “And so while Byzantium
is what we are celebrating, if you had gone to Constantinople in
1300, 1400, they would have told you they were Romans.”

And like the ancient Romans, they spoke Greek and considered
ancient-Greek culture to be part of their own.

“Byzantium,” then, is also the tale of a cultural revival that
embraced ancient Greece and Western Europe’s Renaissance in a visual
style that was physically muscular, emotionally accessible and
poignantly human.

When we think of Byzantine art, especially the early work, we may
think of formal, almost stiff, icons of Jesus, his mother, Mary, and
the saints and angels, painted in gold and jewel-like colors.

But the icons here – some 40 of which are from the Holy Monastery of
St. Catherine in Sinai, Egypt, considered to be the world’s greatest
repository of icons – are anything but stilted. This is evident in
one of the first works you encounter, a two-sided icon from the
second half of the 14th century that depicts a Madonna and Child
surrounded by scenes from the life of Jesus on one side and from the
Crucifixion on the other. The scenes are cleverly arranged to
juxtapose Jesus’ humanity with his divinity, so that his baptism in
the Jordan is situated above his raising Lazarus from the dead.

But concentrate on the central image and note the unusual way in
which the artist has portrayed the baby Jesus – with his head thrown
back at an almost-impossible angle so that he can nuzzle his mother’s
face while adjusting her veil with his chubby arms.

On the audio guide, Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek
Orthodox Church in America, explains the theological import: “He’s a
baby, yet he’s the one who places the top of this special vestment on
the head of his mother, because he is God.”

“But,” Met director Philippe de Montebello continues, “the tilting
can also be read in human, emotional terms, as the infant swooning
with love for his mother.”

The exquisiteness of this two-sided icon reminds us that for all the
influence of Michelangelo, Caravaggio and other Western artists, our
image of Jesus has also been informed by the East. You could draw a
straight line from the sixth-century icon “Christ Pantokrator” –
perhaps the most famous work at St. Catherine’s Monastery – through
the many later reinterpretations in the exhibit to recent movie
Christs. In each case, there is the same lean, dark, ascetic look,
punctuated by large, haunted eyes.

Christ as Pantokrator – the left hand clasping the Gospels in
authority, the right raised in blessing – is an unbroken tradition,
says exhibit organizer Evans, the Met’s curator for Byzantine art.
One of the great strengths of her show is the way she traces other
such motifs. These include the Mandylion, or holy cloth, imprinted
with the face of Jesus.

According to legend, the sickly Armenian king Abgar of Edessa asked
the painter Ananias to go to Jesus and create a portrait, which would
cure the king of his illness. Though Ananias was unable to capture
the divine image, Jesus wiped his face on a towel (“mandyl” in
Arabic) that left a miraculous imprint for the distraught Abgar.
(This is strikingly similar to the Roman Catholic tale of Veronica
wiping Jesus’ face on the way to Calvary with her veil, which
retained the impression of his suffering features.)

Among the variations on this theme in the exhibit are “The Holy Face
of Laon,” a 13th-century painting of the Mandylion that is a
cherished icon of the Cathedral of Laon in France, and El Greco’s
“Escutcheon With the Veil of Saint Veronica” (circa 1579-late 1590s).
While the El Greco painting – originally part of the high altar of
Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo, Spain – is clearly a Baroque
work, right down to the flourish of Jesus’ handlebar mustache, it is
a reminder that El Greco first trained as an icon painter in his
native Crete.

If “Byzantium” illustrates how the East influenced the West, it also
demonstrates how ancient Greece inspired the late-Byzantine empire.
This is never more touchingly revealed than in the motif of the “Man
of Sorrows,” in which the wounds of Jesus’ Crucifixion are displayed
on his hands and nude torso. In a stunningly elaborate
late-13th/early-14th-century mosaic icon, Jesus’ body crumples in
anguish. The furrowed features and bowed head give way to hunched
shoulders supported by a broad but skeletal chest.

This “sense of a physical presence…of plasticity, of
three-dimensional modeling,” exhibit organizer Evans says, “was a
continuous inheritance of the Byzantine world from its classical

As the exhibit illustrates, the Byzantine world would in turn inspire
such Renaissance artists as Colyn de Coter and Jean Colombe to depict
the Man of Sorrows in all his rippling, blood-stained agony –
although these paintings seem almost sedate compared to “The Passion
of the Christ’s” visceral verisimilitude.

The sheer physicality and weighty pathos of the Man of Sorrows is
echoed in the epitaphios, an innovative textile portraying Jesus’
body laid out for burial that is used in Orthodox churches on Good
Friday and Holy Saturday. There are several examples of the
epitaphios in “Byzantium.” The contrast between the textured
embroidery and the pallid nudity of the dead Jesus is uniquely

These are must-sees, along with two examples of the sakkos, a
sumptuous vestment, on loan from the Kremlin and the Vatican.

Not every work in “Byzantium” is specifically religious in theme.
Tucked into one corner in a display case is a
mid-to-late-14th-century illuminated manuscript of “The Alexander
Romance,” the legendary story of Alexander the Great, which was the
secular best seller in the Byzantine world. The page on view – as
bold in its jeweled colors as the Macedonian king was in his conquest
of the Persian Empire – recounts how the admiring Queen Kondake
commissioned an artist to make a secret portrait of Alexander,
perhaps in the hope of giving it to the famously mercurial conqueror,
whom she also feared. The Byzantine world, it seems, knew a thing or
two about celebrity-gazing and currying favor.

But even Alexander, that purveyor of classical culture and its
pantheon of gods, must yield here to a world of tender Madonnas,
androgynous archangels and martyred saints – rendered in glorious
reds and greens. And at the center of it all, the Man of Sorrows
turned triumphant Pantokrator.

At a time when religion is once again an impassioned issue in our
culture, “Byzantium: Faith and Power” holds up a gilded,
not-so-distant mirror.