The Empire Strikes Back: Byzantium 330-1453 at the Royal Academy

Procuratoria di San Marco/Cameraphoto Arte, Venice

Unknown artist, Incense burner in the shape of a church, 10th - 11th century. Photo: Procuratoria di San Marco/Cameraphoto Arte, Venice

Some civilisations vanish. Others endure, at least at the level of shorthand signifier, conjuring up in a single, highly-charged word vast networks of association — networks, it must be said, often weak on detail, depth or historical accuracy, yet boundlessly rich in the stuff of imaginative sympathy, normative distancing, moral disgust or approbation.

In that sense, Byzantium — the subject of the Royal Academy’s magnificent new exhibition Byzantium 330-1453 — is still very much with us. It never really went away. Contemporaries, both Muslim and western Christian, of the later Eastern Empire had obvious reasons for denouncing a major geopolitical rival as untrustworthy, cruel, effeminate and worldly — while retaining a sly regard for Byzantium’s imperial wealth, splendour and occasional military successes. Later, once republican Rome had again become the measure of all things, at least for reasonably well-educated people in Western Europe and dependent territories, it became possible to despise Byzantium simultaneously as a debased — which is to say, altered — form of classical civilisation, and at the same time, as unalterably despotic, reactionary, God-bothered and doomed. Its thousand-year history was reduced to nothing more than ‘a tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery’, as Gibbon put it, sounding only slightly more enthusiastic about Byzantium than Montesquieu and Voltaire had done previously. And thus it was that, by the time at which Ruskin, Yeats and Cavafy all began to invoke Byzantium within the ambit of their own differently modernist writing, they did so more with reference to what Byzantium meant, that with what it might, at some point, actually have been.

It’s this tension — the ever-widening gap between the historical Byzantium and its literary, artistic and moral cognates — that lends the current Royal Academy exhibition a sharp polemical edge. Without it, the experience might well have added up only to 350 marvellous objects, most rare indeed and a few of them astonishingly beautiful, deployed theatrically across ten rooms, dimly lit, dressed with a light gloss of scholarly commentary and packed, even early in the morning, with far too many visitors — each of them presumably lost in the creation or revision of some inner, highly personal, differently-inflected version of ‘Byzantium’.

Infinite riches in a little room
We’ve been here before. Byzantium 330-1453 is only the latest in a long line of Royal Academy exhibitions in which a vanished culture is conjured up within the main galleries of Burlington House, for the entertainment and edification of cultural enthusiasts, tourists and school-children left aimless by the onset of their Christmas holidays. It’s an exercise that’s part diplomatic initiative, part ersatz exotic holiday for those stranded for miscellaneous reasons in the noncommital grey of the London winter, and part an opportunity to display under the heading of ‘art’ a muliplicity of arefacts made for every other, disparate, emphatically non-art purpose humanly imaginable. The most recent examples of the genre include China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795, Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years 600-1600, and Aztecs.

All these earlier exhibitions, however, for all their ambition and flair, struggled with various basic challenges. In this respect, Byzantium 330-1453 is no different.

As with Aztecs, for instance, many of Byzantium’s most distinctive and spectacular material achievements lie in the field of architecture — yet evoking the cavernous vastness of Hagia Sophia within a gallery is no easier than conjuring up the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, let alone adumbrating the complex ceremonial uses for which these building were constructed and which gave meaning to their monumentality. Presenting icons away from their context, stripped of prayers and lights and liturgy — for all the world as if they were only works of art — chips away at their significance, encouraging stupid category errors. Although the mosaics of Ravenna and elsewhere remain some of the best-preserved and most important legacies of Byzantine visual culture, they don’t exactly travel. And while the organisers of Byzantium 330-1453 have sportingly included a smallish fifth century tomb from Thessaloniki — minus its Christian incumbent, a practice that always seems worryingly tomb-robberish to me, although I suspect I share this reservation with precisely no one else on earth — long after the impact of the cheerfully emphatic painting has faded, one’s left wondering what’s been lost in the missing context. The flattening effect of ‘exhibition’ per se on cultural subject-matter may, in other words, be inevitable, but that’s not quite the same thing as saying it’s ever unproblematic.

Enough, anyway, of quibbling with the basics of the medium. Let’s move on to quibbling with execution. The Turks exhibition suffered memorably not only from the great shambling unweildiness of its geographical and chronological scope, but also from desire — entirely understandable, for present-day reasons as well as more obviously historical ones — to stress the importance of interactions at the margins between competiting cultures. The result was that, a few rooms in, more cynical visitors had started to speculate amongst themselves whether there was literally anything, produced anywhere either in Europe or Asia over the past two thousand years, that could not have been shoehorned into some sort of relevance. In this, it was not unlike Byzantium 330-1453, which sets out to introduce a civilisation that evolved through more than a thousand years of history, its defining dramas played out across broad swathes of Europe, North Africa and the Near East, exerting influences on cultures and peoples further afield, struggling at once with an often militant Islam and an often adversarial Latin West. Is the story of Byzantium simply too big to tell all at once? Does the need to produce a blockbusting cash-cow nudge the organisers away from the smaller, monographic exhibitions that might work better, coaxing them towards ‘epic’ shows, a great success at the press release phase but inevitably much, much harder to pull off in practice?

As much as I admired Byzantium 330-1453 — it’s probably the best exhibition I’ve seen all year, and certainly one I’ll remember forever — that danger is a real one. Yet at the same time, perhaps paradoxically, all of these exhibitions, The Three Emperors included, risked losing sight of that bigger, press-release-stimulating story amongst a profusion of unfamiliar, sometimes dazzlingly handsome, often highly covetable objects. ‘Oooh, I do like that bowl!’, the casual visitor might well exclaim, imaging said bowl pleasingly ensconced on top of the campaign chest in the drawing room, perhaps filled with seasonally-relevant satsumas — in part because this was a genuine, direct, immediate response to an apparently timeless material excellence, but also because all the alternatives, such as getting to grips with the world-view informing the Qing emperors’ encouragement of an ecumenical ritual culture, or for that matter the nature of the later Eastern Empire’s relationship with an increasingly self-confident and assertive Muscovy, seemed rather too much like hard work, especially six or seven rooms in, with several rooms still remaining, and the exhibition shop bookstall after that.

Object lessons
Happily, the solution to several of these problems, at least in the case of Byzantium 330-1453, lies in the eponymous exhibition catalogue, edited by Robin Cormack and Maria Vassilaki, available here, or (hardback only during the exhibition, but at a discount) here. In recent years it has often seemed as if Royal Academy exhibition catalogues are either an appalling mess or an absolute triumph, with nothing in between. The Byzantium 330-1453 catalogue, while it does nothing to dismiss this perception, at least falls clearly in the ‘triumph’ category. While the text provides what I take to be a perfectly adequate, up-to-date introduction to Byzantine history — an introduction possibly supplemented with Judith Herrin’s helpful, handbag-friendly if sometimes clunkingly edited beginner’s guide to the topic — it’s in the treatment of the individual exhibits that this 493-page, very fully illustrated volume earns its shelf-space. If you want to find out more about that bowl, this is the place to do it.

And this, perhaps, is just as well. Many of the items on display at Byzantium 330-1453 are both relatively small and very intricately worked. Add to this the over-crowded rooms, big rucksacks and bad breath, sharp elbows, frayed tempers, the occasional lapses of logic when it comes to channelling the flow of humanity between one room and the next — all played out in the crepuscular near-obscurity apparently now compulsory for the display of anything visually interesting — and the chance to learn more about these beautiful, enigmatic artefacts from the safety of one’s sofa becomes particularly attractive. So if my first visit to Byzantium 330-1453 seemed overwhelming, subsequent visits — having read through the catalogue in the meantime — gained in focus, historical perspective and conceptual clarity. Or to put it another way, I was able to admire perfectly delightful bowls, quite a few of them, enjoying at the same time some vague grasp of who might have made them, where and why.

On, anyway, to Byzantium 330-1453 itself. The exhibition — a collaboration between the Royal Academy and one of my favourite collections anywhere, the unmissable Benaki Museum in Athens — is curated by Professor Robin Cormack (Courtauld Institute, London), Professor Maria Vassilaki (University of Thessaly at Volos and the Benaki Museum) and Dr Adrian Locke, Acting Head of Exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts. Major sponsors of the exhibition include the J.F. Costopoulos Foundation, the A.G. Leventis Foundation, and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. Some of the loans that the organisers have secured are truly astounding — objects so strange, precious and moving that it’s actually surprising that they are allowed to travel. Particularly generous are the loans from the Benaki Museum in Athens, the Greek national collections, the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C., several Russian collections including the Khanenko Museum of Arts in Kiev — the list could go on.

Perhaps in compensation for the diminutive scale of some of its constituent artefacts, the exhibition is presented with huge dramatic flair. The entrance vestibule — that octagonal domed space at the centre of the Royal Academy’s first floor — is dominated by a large choros, or hoop-shaped chandelier, of the sort that would once have hung on chains from the dome of a Byzantine church. The rooms that follow on have been subject to similar quasi-ecclesiastical transformations, including an improvised screen and some imaginative contemporary lighting fixtures. The first room of the exhibition proper is dedicated to the history of Byzantium from the accession of Constantine up to the iconoclastic convulsions of the eighth and ninth centuries, the next to life at court, and yet another to the material remains of everyday life amongst the ordinary people of Byzantium. It is only after these that we reach the main focus of the exhibition — Byzantium’s famously rich devotional culture. A long enfilade of galleries, full of icons and processional crosses and culminates in a huge pair of brass doors, dated 1087, taken from a church near Amalfi in Italy but probably commissioned from Constantinople. Turning right, one comes at length, a few more rooms on, to a shrine-like final room containing a number of icons, on loan from the Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai. Here, amongst images apparently installed by black-robed Orthodox clergy, the exhibition ends.

We have passed, in other words, moving through these rooms, from Constantine’s time — a point at which Late Antiquity was still alive and kicking, very much including, inter alia, the heritage of polytheistic religiosity that Julian would briefly but spectacularly reassert — to our own times, or at least to Christian devotional practices that still have enormous meaning for many people all around the world. The continuities are striking. So is the sense of continuing, if sometimes battered and painful progression. If the great polemical thrust of the exhibition is to assert that ‘Byzantium’ ought to mean something more positive than simply the messy decay of classical perfection, whether seen as a bad thing or as an interesting one, it’s at this point that the assertion seems most totally unanswerable.

At the same time, our movement thorough these rooms, progressing from the mundane and secular — ‘secular’ always a relative concept within Byzantine culture — towards the more purely spiritual and eternal, also echoes, albeit in a respectfully non-literal fashion, the underlying logic of traditional Greek Orthodox church architecture. Alternatives, I suppose, would have been a more chronological approach — for certainly, there was development within Byzantine material culture, just as there was development within its military organisation and weaponry, its foreign policy and its political institutions — or a geographically defined one, metropolis versus periphery. Both would have shocked, if only because they’d have shaken us out of those stereotypes of stasis and homogeneity that for so long have been central to what Byzantium ‘means’, in cultural terms.

That the exhibition’s organisers avoided this is, thus, rather exciting, because it demonstrates a remarkable lack of defensiveness. In any event, the strategy they’ve chosen feels right, even if it also renders one’s subsequent exit — for the doors open right into the Royal Academy’s brightly-lit, cluttered, generally quite buzzy shop — rather a shock to the system.

In which austerity is introduced
All of which brings us to the objects on display in Byzantium 330-1453. If I’ve been taking my time in getting around to mentioning them, then there’s a simple enough reason. It would be wrong to say that Byzantium 330-1453 is too much of a good thing — being a greedy girl by nature, I’ve no problem with consuming far more historically resonant, visually stunning, spiritually haunting material than is, strictly speaking, probably altogether wholesome — but then this exhibition is, at all sorts of levels, an overwhelming experience, even on the second or third visit.

This being the case, it’s genuinely difficult to start picking out individual items without lapsing into the production of a laundry-list of treasures, each more wondrous than the one that went before, every one of them garnished with increasingly superlative adjectives. What, then, to do?

Austere times call for self-denying measures. Perhaps surprisingly, I’m going to limit myself to describing the three objects in this exhibition that did most to shake up my existing preconceptions about Byzantium, what it really was and what ought to mean.

Baby talk
The first of these objects is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a work of art. It’s a child’s woollen tunic. Found in Eygpt, where the arid conditions are kind to buried textiles, it dates from some point around the sixth to eighth century. The garment itself is off-white, stained in places. On closer inspection, there’s an intricate pattern woven into the fabric running in strips down the front and around the bottom of the sleeves, woven roundels on the shoulders, and a nice little fringe on the hood.

From the historian’s point of view, this is, I suppose, evidence of the very high standard of Byzantine textile production, also obvious elsewhere in the exhibition, in altar frontals, hangings and so forth. But from the point of view of the mother of a small child, this little garment is distressing, in the way that a child’s lost garment, minus the child, is always mildly distressing — redolent, somehow, of all the ordinary things one does with a young child, like trying to keep the child tidy and warm and safe. Thus it was that a glance at this tunic propelled me, at some hypothalamic, maternal level, back more than twelve hundred years, into a kind of fictive, sentimental intimacy with a world of real people, who had to think about children’s clothes as well as emperors, heresies, liturgies, iconographic schema, invasions, hegemony and all the rest.

So far, so banal. The ordinariness of other people is, by definition, the sort of thing that only comes as an encouraging relevation to the sort of commentators who regard their own personal ordinariness as a matter for warm, frequent and only faintly hysterical self-congratulation. Yet while there are plenty of things in this exhibition that were made for, and used by, ‘ordinary people’ — those absolutely delightful ceramics, for instance, or gold necklaces and earrings that any sane woman would be more than delighted to wear today, just in case anyone’s trying to pick out a birthday present for me — it was this little tunic that stayed in my mind as I walked through those rooms.

Eventually, in fact, that grubby tunic’s empty pathos began to inform a host of very different objects here, such as Argelos Akotantos’ icon with the Virgin Kardiotissa and Child, a very graceful and tender image of the Virgin and her Son, dating from the fifteenth century, in which the Virgin is depicted holding her Son close to her chest, pressing her cheek against his soft chin, as he reaches up to tug on her veil. The gesture overflows with love. It could neither be more gentle nor more heartfelt. Yet the Virgin’s eyes, looking out into our world and yet not quite meeting our variously searching gazes, are solemn, preoccupied, resigned. Does she know that the day will come when all she will have left of this beloved Son of hers, here on earth, will be some empty garments — as well, of course, as the gift of salvation for all mankind? And if so, it is any surprise that there’s a heaviness in her face, as she considers this knowledge — something to do with loss and self-sacrifice — rather than just some sort of callous, shallow elation?

If icons have, in recent years, become an accepted feature of Anglican worship — and indeed, our present Archbishop of Canterbury has written two books on the subject, which is evidently dear to his heart — this is perhaps because they provide the immediate, practical, accessible conduit between the realms of substance and spirit that Britain’s religion of the Word sometimes seems to require, whether as complement or adjunct. If, however, at this exhibition, I found myself thinking rather differently about the Incarnation than I’d done hitherto — well, this perhaps had less to do with Orthodox theological pronouncements on the topic, or even Anglican ones, than on that old, stained, distressing little tunic.

Through a glass, darkly
The second item I want to mention is a smallish, glass bowl, only slightly too large to cup in two hands. The glass is either obsidian-black or a sort of saturated aubergine, depending on the light, with gilt and painted decoration, all held in a silver-gilt ring with ornate handles. It was apparently made in Constantinople during the tenth century. It now belongs in the Basilica di San Marco in Venice.

These facts, anyway, are what I gather from the catalogue. If I’d seen this bowl in some museum or treasury, unlabelled, and had attempted to identify it, the right answer might have eluded me, not just for the first of several guesses, but possibly forever. At first, the shape, the quality of the workmanship and — most importantly — the obviously ‘classical’ scenes round the sides would have suggested that it was late Roman — although I suppose, in some sense, this is exactly what its makers would have thought, too. Or maybe, because it’s very opulent, perhaps slightly over-ornate, yet so proud of its classical resonances, I’d have placed it somewhere in the Italian renaissance.

But the longer one looks at this bowl, the odder it seems. For one thing, there’s what appears to be writing along the inside of the rim of the bowl and also, apparently, around the base — but the writing looks suspiciously like an Arabic script, and indeed, the catalogue describes this writing as ‘pseudo-Kufic’ — which is to say, simulating an old form of Arabic, used for early copies of the Qur’an. And as for those ‘classical’ scenes — well, at first glance they look like scenes from Greek or Roman mythology, with ‘cameos’ interspersed — but what myths are being portrayed, what heroes celebrated?

And then we come to the question of where this bowl was made, and where it ended up. For obvious circumstantial reasons, I assume that it was part of the priceless mountain of treasure brought home by the Venetians after the sack of Constantinople in the course of the Fourth Crusade. Venice, of course, had grown up in the shadow of Byzantium — the faith that built Torcello was by no means looking to that derelict metropolis somewhere to the near south-west for guidance or inspiration, any more than for protection or supervision — but Venice also played a central part in destroying Byzantium. Even today, much of what is most beautiful in Venice could hardly have happened without Byzantium. Yet had Venice not destroyed and pillaged and plundered as she did, would she, or for that matter western civilisation in general, be what they are now? For in truth, it was amidst the monstrous, unforgivable barbarism of that assault — Christians raping and slaughtering Christians, burning Christian texts and images, profaning hallowed Christian spaces — that a new sort of contact was forged between the classical world and the world of medieval western Europe. And anyone who loves Venice now, will someday have to make some sort of accommodation with the means by which those ends were achieved.

In any event this little bowl, more than slightly frivolous in its ornamentation, bejeweled and bijou, is very much part of that painful, paradoxical narrative. People of my own generation, scrabbling around for something interesting to say about the oddly sterile age in which we came to maturity, sometimes like to claim postmodernism as the distinctive period style of the 1980s. But if we peer into this little bowl, thinking the right sort of thoughts, what is it that we see? Only a culture in which it’s okay to ‘reference’ not only the style of Late Antiquity — free, of course, from excessive worry about whatever potential meanings that style might once have expressed — but also the exotic scripts of a competitor civilisation, no-one in either case pausing to complain that those classicised figures are not enacting ‘real’ myths, or that those pseudo-Kufic inscriptions are not conveying ‘real’ meaning. Then, of course, the Venetians turn up, appropriate the whole lot, and carry it out of a smouldering, blood-sodden, corpse-filled city, back to the ships.

A terrifying vision? Very much so. Looking into this little bowl, it is best to turn away quickly, if only because the face one sees in the glass looks, perhaps, just a little more familiar than one might wish.

Circular arguments
The third and last I object want to discuss is, rather perversely, one of the first objects the visitor encounters on the way into Byzantium 330-1453. Jonah Cast Up is a smallish white marble sculpture, now owned by the Cleveland Museum of Art. It dates from the second half of the third century, which is to say, only slightly more distant from the crucifixion of Christ than our own age is from the murder of Louis XVI.

The scuplture shows Jonah in the midst of being vomited up from the belly of the fish that had previously swallowed him, three days and three nights before. Jonah’s hands are raised, a gesture perhaps reflecting his prayer just prior to this point: ‘Out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.’ The gesture, though, also allows Jonah’s hands to reach up towards and indeed meet the marvellously quirky, raised tail of the fish, so that the two forms together create something approaching a squashed sort of circle. Would it be going too far to see in this an emblem of the way in which Christ’s sacrifice — for of course Jonah’s emtombment in the fish prefigures Christ’s death and resurrection — will break the perpetual human cycle of sin, contrition and yet more sin?

Quite possibly. Either way, it’s a memorable sculpture. The fish, an exotic confection, has the ears of a pig, the face and paws of a rather ungainly dog, and funny little wings, while Jonah, bearded and muscular, seems remarkably composed, given his trying circumstances. For some reason, the sculpture comes complete with a light covering of dirt from the Turkish archaeological site on which it was discovered, along with Jonah Beneath the Gourd Tree, and two other sculptures not included in the exhibition. Apparently all the figures may once have decorated a fountain, its water long since stilled, the flowers and birds nearby all long since dead.

Jonah Cast Up surprised me because it doesn’t look ‘Byzantine’, at least in the ordinary, conversational meaning of that adjective. It isn’t, in other words, studded with jewels or precious metal. It isn’t conspicuously elaborate, cluttered or over-complicated. It isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, a triumph of costly materials and meticulous workmanship over simple, strong design, and I doubt whether it ever would have done much to keep a drowsy emperor awake. It is, however, an elegant link between the visual language of classical antiquity and the iconographic possibilities offered by Christian scripture and tradition.

This shouldn’t, of course, be much of a surprise. True, I remember being shocked, the first time I visited the basilica of Sant’Agnese fuori le mura in Rome and the accompanying church of Santa Costanza, at this extravagant three-dimensional collision between what I had previously, for some reason, assumed to be totally distinct, even contrasting categories — which is to say, pagan antiquity versus Christianity — the vanished classical world versus the one we still, however unconsciously or critically, continue to inhabit. But in the years that followed, the liminal quality of paleo-Christian culture has at least become more familiar to me, if no less affecting.

Yes, there’s still something terribly exciting about imaging Christ, not as that faintly soppy-looking bearded chap, wearing a table-cloth and patting infants on the head, who presided over the children’s Bibles of my extreme youth, but rather as this, or this, or even this — just as I’ve always found the prospect of the Eucharist celebrated in a catacomb, the early Christians’ communal meal shared out amongst a small group of trusted friends, the living as well as the dead, much more inspiring than all the worldly grandeur and too-carefully calibrated effects of St Peter’s basilica. Others, of course, would disagree — but then that’s almost the point, isn’t it? The astonishing multiplicity of its imaginative byproducts has always struck me as one of Christianity’s more encouraging features. And of course there are days when one needs the God of Benjamin Britten even more than the God of J.S. Bach, the God of Albi’s cathedral just as much as the God of Montepulchiano’s San Biagio. We shall return to a different version of this point in due course.

Of God, gourds and Gibbon
First, though, let’s get out of the way the other reason why Jonah Cast Up made such an impression. The story of Jonah has long been more or less my favourite part of the Old Testament — a story that speaks particularly clearly to me. The part of the narrative where Jonah ends up in the belly of that fish is, I suppose, reasonably well known, even amongst the sort of people who pride themselves on not knowing much about religion. What happens next, though, is more obscure. Having discovered, fairly spectacularly, that he cannot run away from God’s purpose, Jonah carries out his mission, and tells the people of Nineveh — a shockingly unholy bunch, and incidentally also Jonah’s people’s traditional enemies — that God is about to smite them for their wickedness.

The Hebrew prophets have been foretelling the destruction of Nineveh for a very long time indeed, very consistently. Jonah, it must be said, is rather looking forward to the smiting part of the story. Much to his horror, however, the people of Nineveh in fact repent and turn to God, and so God decides — for the moment, anyway — not to smite them.

Jonah, at this point, becomes extremely annoyed, leading to what is, by any standard, one of the most touchingly amusing moments the Old Testament offers. In the face of Jonah’s temper tantrum, He speaks to Jonah as an affectionate parent would speak to a very cross toddler: ‘Jonah, doest thou well to be angry?’

Jonah, in authentic cross toddler fashion, storms off to sulk on a hillside above Nineveh (just across the Tigris from the present-day city of Mosul, Iraq.) His fortunes improve, briefly, when God arranges for a gourd-vine to grow up over him, to shield him from the sun. The next day, however, God sends a worm to blight the gourd. Jonah, once more exposed to the heat of the day, has another tantrum, deciding that it is better to die than to live. What happens next is worth quoting in full:

And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.

Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:

And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

And there the Book of Jonah ends. It’s a good message, not just for those of us who are often vastly annoyed when God gets things wrong, or even for those of us who’re quick to treat our unearned gourd vines as a matter of natural right, but — more to the point, here — for those of us have strong views about how history ‘ought’ to proceed, and who become cross when it takes an unexpected, unwelcome turn.

In the course of their long history, the people of Byzantium must often have reflected on all these things. They would have known, as Jonah did not, that the ‘exceeding great city’ of Ninevah would, eventually, vanish from the face of the earth — obliterated with such definitive thoroughness that, until the archaeological investigations of the mid nineteenth century, its location provided scope for speculation. To the extent that the name ‘Nineveh’ remained recognisable, it did so as a byword for a great imperial centre that, despite moments of repentance, had ultimately been reduced to ‘a desolation’. What they made of this fact is another question. What is clear, however, is that — challenged as they were at various times by cultures of other faiths and habits, forced into unwelcome accommodations, eventually sacked and conquered — the Book of Jonah probably tells us more about how the people of the Eastern Empire understood their own history than does anything written by Montesquieu, Gibbon or Voltaire, or for that matter Ruskin, Yeats or Cavafy. And for this reason, amongst so many others, I was glad to stand and look at the little statue of Jonah Cast Up, to admire its time-encrusted patina and its timeless formal brilliance, to wonder about the people who made and admired it, and to reflect on all these things.

To each his own Byzantium
Critics, even wise ones, can be strangely unrealistic in what they expect of exhibitions. Certainly Byzantium 330-1453 will not, in itself, convey to the distracted, mildly claustrophobic novice all that he or she ought to know about Byzantium, any more than it will satisfy the sort of learned expert who has expended thoughtful decades exploring not only obvious destinations like Ravenna, Venice and Istanbul, but the more far-flung hinterlands of the Eastern Empire as well — and who, accordingly, remains only too aware of how much more there is to be known. It is not an exhibition that sets out to explain, as some apparently feel it ought to have done, why Byzantium looks, at least to some critics, like a ‘civilisation we long ago outgrew’, any more than it’s an exhibition that’s in any way timid or self-critical about its heavy burden of religious content. For Byzantium 330-1453 is by no means an apologetic exhibition, at least not in the sense of sounding shrill or defensive. If there’s a battle being waged against Montesquieu, Voltaire and Gibbon, or against those who replied to them, then it’s one taken onto the enemy’s territory, prosecuted with with calm, self-confidence and more than a little subtlety.

It’s probably inevitable that civilisations, once they are seen to be something safely in the past, are recycled into cyphers. What else, after all, can be done with the fruits of so many hundreds of thousands of discrete individual lives, lived out across so many centuries and in so many different places, unfathomable in the sheer fact of their diversity? Human nature insists that order be made of this — but intellectual honesty insists that there’s always something more than a little arbitrary, contingent and self-serving in the ‘order’ that results. And then, of course, there’s the issue of laziness. Specialists, enthusiasts and pedants apart, who else can be bothered to go rifling about in the fullness of dead people’s shadowy complexity, worrying out their secrets, intuiting their moods, embracing their paradoxes? Inevitably, the ‘Byzantium’ each of us takes away from Byzantium 330-1453 will say more about each of us than it does about Byzantium. Those are the limitations within which the organisers of Byzantium 330-1453 necessarily work.

And indeed, in the course of walking through the ten rooms of Byzantium 330-1453, it was possible to catch a glimpse of the Byzantiums that other visitors were creating for themselves — the Byzantiums they would take home with them and carry around thereafter. One middle-aged woman, for instance, festooned with quite a lot of apparently handmade jewelry, spent more than half an hour in front of the cases of jewelry, sketching away like mad. A scruffy-looking student regaled his rather more attractively scruffy female companion with facts about the firing of ceramics. A Greek academic lectured two colleagues in front of Gentile Bellini’s Cardinal Bessarion and Two Members of the Scuola della Carita in Prayer with the Bessarion Reliquary, first in wildly exciteable, thoroughly melodious modern Greek to her female colleague, and then in English, more slowly and simply, almost in baby-talk, to her male colleague. Near a ninth century slab of carved marble from Euboea in Greece, a frail old man was telling his friend how much he loved Torcello, at which point I accidentally caught his eye — I had been thinking exactly the same thing, probably for exactly the same reason — and then had to flee in embarrassment. Finally, there was a very young man — ordinary, sane-looking, exactly the last person one would have expected to do such a thing — who stood crying, literally with tears running down both cheeks, in front of one of the icons. Everyone ignored him, except the gallery attendant, a young woman whose headscarf proclaimed her to be a Muslim, who could hardly take her eyes off him.

The organisers, I’ve no doubt, wished to make various assertions about Byzantium, pitched at different levels. Of these, perhaps the most spectacular is reflected in the decision, mentioned above, to end the sequence of rooms with icons borrowed from the monastery of St Catherine in Sinai, where — as is also the case at Mount Athos, Patmos and elsewhere — they are still venerated in rituals that would be familiar to the men who made them.

What this does, more than anything else, is to show up the exhibition title as, at best, an evasion. Byzantium 330-1453? Byzantium 330-present would be more like it. There’s a claim being made here — not just a negative one about the irrelevance of words like ‘decadence’ to this story, either — but in fact a positive one, about the resilience of a strand of civilisation that continues unbroken, if often strained and now somewhat attenuated, from Late Antiquity to the present. All this, of course, can be seen as pan-nationalistic Greek claim, or as an Orthodox one, or as an ecumenical Christian one, just as much as a purely scholarly conclusion. Ultimately, though, however one frames it, it’s a compelling one. This is a magnificent exhibition, of which the Royal Academy ought to be very proud. Yet its tone of polemical seriousness is by no means irrelevant to its manifest success.

Which Byzantium, then, did I finally carry away with me, out of all those on offer? Mine, I suppose, was formed mostly out of the usual stuff: incidental anxieties of the credit crunch, ambient geo-political weirdness, seasonable bouts of vague religious doubt, coupled of course with that apparently ineradicable craving for things that are not only lovely and strange, but old and meaningful as well. And so it was that the Byzantium I found turned out — hey, presto! — to be a place where enduring beauty was forged indifferently amid circumstances tranquil or alarming, where faith proved tougher than any of the various assaults upon it, and where, if one knew where to look, the continuities always persisted, as reassuring in their stability as the figures on some Byzantine mosaic, smiling out impassively in the face of each successive, showy convulsion. Byzantium, in other words, may have ended — its capital transformed, its relics scattered, its name the stuff now of fancy, sentiment or perjorative dismissal — but nothing of real importance has been lost.


Filed under art, culture, religion

2 responses to “The Empire Strikes Back: Byzantium 330-1453 at the Royal Academy

  1. A superb review and which does justice to a fine exhibition.

    A couple of thoughts:
    When I saw the list of sponsors, which you included: the J.F. Costopoulos Foundation, the A.G. Leventis Foundation, and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, I thought “that’s some financial and political clout.” And as you put it:
    “Some of the loans that the organisers have secured are truly astounding — objects so strange, precious and moving that it’s actually surprising that they are allowed to travel. Particularly generous are the loans from the Benaki Museum in Athens, the Greek national collections, the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C., several Russian collections including the Khanenko Museum of Arts in Kiev — the list could go on.”

    I would add the Monastery of St Catherine in the Sinai (which you mention elsewhere in your posting).

    My second thought concerned the sacking of Constantinople by the Venetians. I mentioned to my host who invited me to the exhibition, that this “Crusade” implausibly decided that the key to liberating the Holy Land from Moslem was to smash up Byzantium and loot the place.

    However, the sad truth was that nearly all the jewelry seemed to have come from the Venetian pillaging. For example, pieces dated later tended to have more jewels ripped out. This exhibition made me realise that to more than “some extent,” it was the “pirates” who saved these pieces for posterity. That’s another point you made well.

    While writing this another thought comes to mind. The history books of my childhood could be summed up on this topic as “Venetian crusade bad,” but “good effect of fall of Byzantium to Mahomet II: the Italian Renaissance.”

    To what extent has the desire to pillory the Venetians for attacking a Christian outpost, arguably weakening it fatally, deflected attention from what this exhibition indicates (without apparently explicitly claiming): that the fourth Crusade is the actual start of the Renaissance? Perhaps I am making a point that is blindingly obvious to the experts, but this exhibition was a right eye-opener, for me at least.

  2. Thanks, Antoine, for your generous comments.

    Perhaps because I’m by no means an expert on the topic either, the Byzantium exhibition seemed to me to throw up some fascinating paradoxes of the sort that you describe. Personally, I’ve long had some problems with the whole notion of the Renaissance, if only because it implies that somehow the influence of the classical world died out completely during the so-called Dark Ages and had to be rekindled — which was, more or less, told by the history books of my own childhood. Whereas, from what I understand now, it seems more likely that aspects of classical civilisation were very much present both in the Eastern Empire and in some of the areas under Islamic rule, both of which were in continuing contact with the Latin West, which in any event had never really forgotten its classical heritage. Clearly, something happened during the Renaissance — in terms of scholarship, in terms of art and architecture — but personally I think that the notion of re-discovery simply fit some sort of nineteenth century, quasi-scientific, progressive model of historical change better than e.g. talking about the Renaissance as simply a fairly arbitrary, almost accidental shift in style and taste, for which the Fourth Crusade and subsequent fall of Byzantium provided a surprising and in some ways embarassingly discreditable kick-start.

    Anyone fascinated by my even earlier and less well-formed thoughts on this admittedly fascinating topic might want to read this.