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East to West

The Byzantine bridge from the classical to the modern world.

Feb 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 20 • By CATESBY LEIGH
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The place to begin a visit to this important exhibition is with a sculptural work it doesn’t include: the Dying Gaul, on loan to the gallery from the Capitoline Museum in Rome. This fallen warrior’s powerful presence results from a masterful integration of spatial design with the complex structure of the human body. He represents the best of the Hellenistic period inaugurated by the conquests of Alexander the Great.

‘Icon of the Hospitality of Abraham’ (late 14th century)

‘Icon of the Hospitality of Abraham’ (late 14th century)

Benaki Museum, Athens

“Heaven and Earth” shows what followed. It spans the entire period from Constantinople’s establishment as the new capital of the Roman Empire by Constantine I in 330 a.d. until its fall to the Ottomans in 1453. It displays not just Byzantine icons and illustrated manuscripts but also architectural fragments, coinage, jewelry, ceramics, and even dining forks. It also includes late antique art that helps us better understand the stylistic transformation that shaped Byzantine culture.

Two mosaics encapsulate this transformation. A portion of a third-century floor mosaic from Sparta exhibits a portrait bust of the Sun, dramatically personified with his head, from which an aureole and rays emanate, turned upward to provide a three-quarter view. The massive shoulder, draped and foreshortened, projects on a bold diagonal into the picture plane and serves to focus our gaze on the finely proportioned head. This dynamic figure, whose monumentality is informed by the sculptural ideal the Dying Gaul epitomizes, is ornamentally framed with a braided guilloche motif whose polychromy gives it perceptual relief.

Created in Asia Minor a thousand years later, the exceptionally large (three-and-a-half by two feet) portable mosaic icon of the Virgin Episkepsis holding the Christ child in her arm also shows the figures in three-quarter view. Christ gazes up at his mother and she looks out at us, but the two show no emotion. They are modeled in light and shade to a degree; more so the folds of their vestments, which are replete with golden highlights. But they are nonetheless flattened into the picture plane and Byzantine sacred art’s familiar gold background, symbolizing a realm beyond time and space. Rather than projecting into our perceptual space, like the Sun figure, mother and child are ensconced in another world.

The Byzantines called themselves and their unwieldy empire “Roman,” but they spoke Greek and played an invaluable role in transmitting masterworks of ancient Greek literature to the modern world. Their art developed as a distinctly Christian alternative to the classicism they regarded as intrinsically pagan. Amidst the inexorable decline of Hellenistic artistic standards in late antiquity, the sculptural presence of the classical figure was supplanted by the icon’s pictorial transcendence, while countless vaulted ceilings of Byzantine churches became the celestial domain of Christ Pantocrator, the Theotokos or Mother of God, saints, prophets, and angels—all arrayed in hieratic splendor in fresco or mosaic.

But there was a paradox to the Byzantine focus on transcendence. Icons could be portable or static, employed in personal devotions or liturgical processions, but it was precisely the iconic presence of a holy personage that was widely believed to ward off evil (or subdue the enemy in battle). Endless theological disputation culminated in the iconoclastic conflict of the eighth and ninth centuries. Though it was supported by more than one emperor, scholars have questioned iconoclasm’s impact and severity. There’s no doubt that the veneration of images remained a defining trait of religious life within the empire.

Conventional and hieratic though it was, there was stylistic variety in Byzantine sacred art, and classicism was a major factor. A wall mosaic fragment from a Macedonian church showing the gray-haired and -bearded Saint Andrew in side view (ca. 1100) makes a stronger impression of physical presence than the Virgin Episkepsis. The saint bends in humility as he strides forward, hands extended, to receive communion from his savior. His drapery is elaborately designed to give us a volumetric sense of the body underneath—a vestigial classical trait that accompanies the saint’s decidedly unclassical anatomical construction.

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