ARTYFACTS: Byzantium - Royal Academy

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Byzantium - Royal Academy

Sometimes study and the examination of historical artifacts has the opposite effect from that you expected. So it was with this show. I visited Istanbul recently and loved walking around the 1,500 year old city walls and entering St Sophia, the greatest church on earth for 1000 years, it's vast cisterns and position as gateway between east and west, north and south. The architectural remains are stunning as are the Ottoman mosques that bejewel the city today, inspired by St Sophia.

However, Byzantium (a term only used from the 16th century on) seems like a world that seems dulled by its obsessions with Emperors and Christ. The art here is nowhere near as impressive as that of say, the comparable period in China or India, or even of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, that went before (they did of course see themselves as Romans, but in a debased and Christian form).

The first room, dealing with Constantine, has a standard, even unremarkable Roman mosaic, a primitively painted tomb, part of a sarcophagus, a bronze head and some other bits and pieces. Nothing here is either original or remarkable.

Room two, Justinian again presents ivory, silver and gold, but nothing of outstanding beauty. the craftsmanship is admirable, but craft it remains. The most impressive aspect of the room are the backlit images of 19th century engravings of St Sophia.

Icons are said to be the crowning artistic achievement of the Byzantine empire but the fixed and literally wooden nature of the imagery, with their rounded eyes and limited subject matter becomes repetitive to the modern eye. Indeed the Ptolemaic mummy cases from Egypt, from which icon painting is supposed to have evolved is, on the whole, a superior art form, full of personality and life. Icons are images of death. Life denying, not life affirming. I was really looking forward to the icons from St Catherine's monastery in Sinai, but again the works, apart from one, are relatively dull and at times formulaic.

Byzantium is of profound historic interest as a the continuation of the Roman Empire and a bulwark against Islamic expansion into Europe. But in terms of art it is a long 1,200 years of jewel encrusted, repetitive and iconic banality. With Byzantium, mathematics and science effectively stopped in the west, but flourished in China and India. With Byzantium, art fossilised into a formulaic pattern, whereas it blossomed in the east.

Much of its intellectual effort was taken up with administration and even the faking of Christian history (Helena's visit to the Holy Land, reliquaries and so on). This is the detritus from a decadent and lazy culture of adoration to Christ and King. Luckily it did result in the creation of outposts, where Greek works did survive, ultimately translated and passed onto the West by the Arabs.

Voltaire was right, 'A worthless repertory of declamations and miracles'.


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