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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.

Classical influence, evidently based on the artist’s familiarity with ancient statuary, is much more obvious in a 10th-century portrait in tempera and gold of a seated St. Matthew. Painted for a parchment codex of the four gospels, the evangelist is portrayed in a pensive moment, in three-quarter view, while at work on his gospel. The lustrous, nonspatial gold background is there; the perspective for lectern, table, and footstool is skewed; and the portrait retains distinctly Byzantine traits in the schematic rendering of anatomical forms such as the hands. But here again, the man wears the drapery rather than vice versa, and the smallness of the head in proportion to the figure as a whole makes him more monumental, as with the mosaic Sun figure. And the evangelist’s foreshortened right shoulder is given the projection we also encountered in the Hellenistic mosaic. 

A possible example in this same vein is the central, very white recumbent figure of Christ’s dead body in an extremely elaborate (and extremely expensive) liturgical textile, or epitaphios, which was embroidered with polychromatic silk thread and gold and silver wire on a linen substrate. A Thessalonica workshop produced the tapestry, which is six-and-a-half feet long and over two feet wide, around 1300. Though hardly classical, the central Christ figure is also modeled more volumetrically than is typical of Byzantine art, with the linear treatment of the exposed torso calling to mind ancient Greek vase painting.

A portable Macedonian icon from the late 12th century, with the Virgin Hodegetria on one side and the dead Christ portrayed as the Man of Sorrows on the other, hews much more closely to the Byzantine norm than the codex and tapestry portraits. The figures on the two-sided icon, painted in tempera on wood, do not project from the picture plane. But the furrowed brow of the Virgin, frontally posed with the Christ child in her arm, and looking off to her side rather than at us, is full of foreboding. The rendering of the haloed Man of Sorrows is strikingly linear, especially in the patternized hair and beard. He appears with his upper arms at his side, head tilted sideways and down to his chest. The end of Christ’s agony is powerfully portrayed here, and the inscription on the cross behind him—“The King of Glory”—deepens the pathos. 

The pose, notes the National Gallery’s Susan M. Arensberg, is deliberately composite: The figure may be read as upright, still on the cross or being taken down from it, or recumbent for lamentation and burial. “Many icons after iconoclasm have a heightened emotional tenor,” Arensberg adds. “This emphasis comes out of changes in the liturgy and is found in sermons and hymns of the time.”

The frontal, static, unemotional portrayal of holy figures persisted. A painted St. Athanasius icon from Macedonia, dating to around 1400, thus conforms to his iconographic type: bald, pear-shaped head with a halo; thick, gray patternized beard reminiscent of the guilloche ornament in the Sun mosaic; forehead and cheeks modeled with schematic bulbous protuberances; and bishop’s vestments. He holds a gospel in one hand and makes the sign of blessing with the other. By this time such strict conventionalism coexisted with a greater pictorial complexity and naturalism that only emerged in later Byzantine art. In the Icon of the Hospitality of Abraham, probably painted in Constantinople around the same time as the Athanasius icon, remarkably animated figures of the patriarch and his spouse serve three angel-like strangers, Old Testament antitypes of the Trinity, in a symmetrical composition including an elaborate table setting and an urban background in the familiar skewed perspective. 

The art of Byzantium was, of course, a point of departure rather than a destination for Renaissance art. Michelangelo opted for the aesthetic ideal that gave us the Dying Gaul. And even before he was born, the Florentine Desiderio da Settignano produced the National Gallery’s enchanting bust of a little boy with rotund features, which brilliantly manifests the classical idea of sculptural presence. It dates to the 1450s, right around the time Constantinople fell.

Catesby Leigh is a critic in Washington.

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