Decay and Glory: Back to Byzantium

New York Times
March 26 2004

Decay and Glory: Back to Byzantium

N 1440, Canon Fursy de Bruille arrived in Cambrai, France, with an
icon of the Virgin and Child he had received in Rome, which he had
been told was a holy relic painted by St. Luke. The image shows Jesus
squirming in his mother’s arms. Mother and child, doleful and shy,
turn slightly toward us, as if they are watching or waiting for
something. Many artists copied the picture. The canon gave it to the
Cathedral of Cambrai, where thousands of pilgrims saw it.

Modern historians are not sure who painted the Cambrai Madonna or
where, but it conforms to a type, the Virgin of Tenderness, an
invention of the late Byzantine era. The canon had returned home with
a contemporary picture, which looked as if it had the glorious
authority of antiquity. Because the Byzantine empire by then was
politically and militarily a wreck, nearly expired, St. Luke seemed
not just a more desirable creator for the icon but almost a more
plausible one, too. But as “Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)”
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art reminds us, artistic decline does
not necessarily accompany political decay.

The show, vast and humblingly beautiful, is the sort of exhibition
that could have been done only by a great museum, maybe only the Met
these days, when it has pulled out all the stops. More than the usual
abundance of glittery objects and a feat of cultural diplomacy, it
alters how we read history. Most exhibitions celebrate what we
already believe. This one rewrites a past most of us barely know.

It is the climax to what has become a virtual Met franchise, the
third installment – call it “Byzantium III: The Empire Strikes Back”
– in a cycle. Helen C. Evans, the curator, also organized “The Glory
of Byzantium” in 1997, a survey of the years 843 to 1261. She has
again teamed with Mahrukh Tarapor, the museum’s associate director
for exhibitions, to cajole and wrangle loans from nearly 30
countries, a far-flung horde of icons, ivories, textiles, mosaics,
manuscripts and drawings.

I suspect that even the Met wasn’t sure that this late period of
imperial history would be worth a show until “The Glory of Byzantium”
turned out to be such a success, and then a sequel seemed obligatory.
It is full of amazing exotica. An illustrated Gospels from Khizan, in
Greater Armenia, painted in 1455, a mélange of Islamic and Armenian
motifs in wild colors, looks almost like a modern cartoon, with wavy
motion lines and weirdly liquid bodies. Christ descends into hell to
free Adam and Eve wearing robes resembling blue and purple pantaloons
with bright yellow boots – a Khizan warrior, trampling the Devil and
pushing darkness away.

In “War and Peace” Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, dying on the battlefield
at Austerlitz, notices the icon that his sister, the pious Princess
Maria, hung around his neck on a gold chain and wishes he could see
in it what his sister did. “How happy and calm I should be if I could
now say: `Lord, have mercy on me!’ ” he says. “But to whom should I
say that?”

If, like Bolkonsky, we are not Eastern Orthodox believers, we may
still settle for awe, the earthly pleasure of aesthetic spectacle
linked with historical enlightenment. This show is neither about
early Byzantine history after the settlement of the new capital of
the Roman Empire in Constantinople (the Met’s “Age of Spirituality”
in 1977, the first Byzantine installment, was that), nor does it
cover the apex of Byzantine authority during the Middle Ages, when
the empire dominated Christianity.

It surveys the tottering regime after the Byzantine general Michael
VIII Palaiologos reclaimed Constantinople in 1261 from the Crusaders
who had taken it over in 1204. His successors, surrounded by
increasingly hostile powers, held onto the capital as a tenuous
leader among disparate states in the Byzantine sphere, until the
Ottoman Turks took over once and for all in 1453.

They did no more damage than the Crusaders, who, as Edward Gibbon
wrote in “Decline and Fall,” “trampled underfoot the most venerable
objects.” But Ottomans erased various monuments of the former
imperial city. Melchior Lorck, a Danish draftsman, produced a
meticulous prospect of the Ottoman capital in 1559, which is in the
show: Hagia Sophia had now become the city’s great mosque; the
Byzantine Church of the Holy Apostles, founded by Constantine in the
fourth century, had been torn down to make way for the tomb of Mehmet
the Conqueror.

Ms. Evans has contrived a terminus for the show, 1557. That is when a
German scholar, Hieronymus Wolf, came up with the word Byzantium,
derived from the name of an ancient Greek town, Byzantion, near which
Constantinople was founded, to describe what had then become a
phenomenon of history, a lost empire of Hellenic origins based on the
Bosphorus, the past of Yeats’s future dreams.

This conceit of a late date allows Ms. Evans to sneak in not only
Lorck’s drawings, but also a Persian miniature painting from 1557, of
Sokollu Mehmed, an Ottoman grand vizier, a convert from Eastern
Orthodoxy, in his plumed turban receiving a defeated Hungarian
commander. Byzantine and other cultures mingled long after the fall
of Constantinople.

Art during the late Byzantine era still served what Priscilla Soucek,
an art historian writing in the catalog for “The Glory of Byzantium,”
called “the politics of bedazzlement.” Demonstrating the big and the
small of the bedazzlement initiative were huge icons and miniature
mosaics. Late Byzantine icons had a new depth of pathos: meatier
figures, almost ballooning, advertising grandeur. Miniature mosaics,
hand-size devotional objects, were the era’s gems, sublime
achievements of the Middle Ages, which spoke to unbroken traditions
of refinement.

Manuscripts and paintings in the show, like the ones of Khizan and
Sokollu Mehmed, meanwhile proved the continuing reach of Byzantine
aesthetics, even beyond where we might have thought to look. The last
room of the exhibition, pure magnificence, is a virtual museum of
great Northern Renaissance paintings indebted to icons.

Now Byzantine icons look both ancient and modern. A “Man of Sorrows”
(from Moscow), black and hypnotic, brings to mind late Picasso.
Westerners rediscovered Byzantine painting a century ago. Painters
were inspired, and art critics dreamed up connections. Roger Fry, the
critic, said Cézanne and Gauguin looked Byzantine. Clive Bell wrote
that modern artists “shook hands across the ages with the Byzantine
primitives and with every vital movement that has struggled into
existence since the arts began.”

Abstraction, absent religious conviction, is our instant access route
to these icons, which are, however, fascinating for how they resist
21st-century Western eyes. Billowing robes and sinuous silhouettes
against gold backgrounds form patterns on flat surfaces with luminous
colors. But formal design and repetition, modern attributes, had
other meanings to the Byzantines.

Repetition reinforced a belief that each image, no matter where it
was, in Constantinople or Crete or Cambrai, faithfully represented
the same reality. This reality was not depicted by the image but
contained by it: icons held the “presence” of Christ or the Virgin or
the saints, as if in a kind of limbo, waiting to be activated by the
fervor of the faithful.

That is what mother and child in the Cambrai Madonna are waiting for.
They are waiting for us.

Icons stare out with sometimes disconcerting intimacy, questioning
our certitude about their incarnation. Their formality – what we can
see as proto-modern – is an expression of taxis: the Byzantine belief
that through poise and harmony of design “it was possible for human
beings,” as the historian Peter Brown has put it, “to create little
pools of order in this world which would bring to earth a touch of
the true, inviolable `glory’ of heaven.”

Mr. Brown has also written that Byzantine painting is “a courtly art
in that, at the center, stands a court thought of as a clear mirror
of the court of heaven.”

“But just because that center is, itself, a mirror,” he continues,
“so the glory caught in its reflecting surface can also be caught
faithfully in innumerable smaller mirrors. And in this world of
infinite reflections, what you see is what takes you to the threshold
of what you `fervently long’ to get. Great or small, at
Constantinople or in a distant village, there is always a glory
beyond the glory that you see.”

One of the grand icons in the show is from Novgorod, a metaphor of
reflected glory, painted around 1475. It shows three tiered scenes of
the legend of the siege of the city in 1170 by the army of Suzdal. On
the top, Novgorod’s revered icon of the Virgin Orans is transported
to the state’s fortress before the invaders come. In the middle,
Suzdal soldiers shoot the icon with arrows. At the bottom, avenging
Novgorodians, through the intercession of the tearful Virgin,
awakened from her iconic slumber, thwart their enemies with help from
the Archangel Michael and Russian saints.

The Virgin’s icon, depicted within the icon of the siege, brings
about the return of order, glory within glory, the work itself an
allegory of hoped-for glory, painted when Novgorod was besieged by
Moscow. Although the Ottomans owned Constantinople by then, the
crumbled Byzantine empire clearly endured in faraway places, as a

>From Novgorod back to Cambrai: mirrored reflections return us to
where we started and where the show ends, with more distant memories
of Byzantine glory. Around 1490, Gerard David, the Renaissance
master, painted a tiny version of the Virgin and Child,
heart-stoppingly beautiful. David’s sources included other Western
painters who also looked at icons like the one in Cambrai, so that
his painting was an evocation of an evocation of an icon, with its
gold background, a touch outmoded in David’s day, purposefully
conjuring up the idea of an ancient relic.

The Virgin is downcast, the child wide-eyed and expectant. The image
is all silence and poise. It is framed as a pendant to be worn around
the neck, like Bolkonsky’s icon. You don’t have to be a true believer
to find heaven in it.