Friday, November 22, 2013

Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium at the National Gallery

Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collection


National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. October 6, 2013–March 2, 2014

J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, April 9 through August 25, 2014

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The display of Byzantine art on view at the National Gallery of Art is a small wonder. This modestly-sized exhibition details the complex evolution of one of history's most misunderstood civilizations.

In the space of five thematic galleries, Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections evokes the culture and religious life of the realm centered upon the fabled city of Constantinople. This was the Eastern Roman Empire, known to later ages as Byzantium. Drawn exclusively from museums in Greece, many of the exhibit’s 170 paintings, mosaics, sculptures and objects from daily life have never previously travelled to museums in the United States.

Heaven and Earth is a story over one thousand years in the making. It begins in 330 AD with the momentous decision by Constantine I to relocate the capital of his empire from Rome to the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Constantine's choice was the city called Byzantium, located on the Bosporus straits that separate the two continents. With a genius for survival and self-promotion, the Roman ruler encircled the city with impregnable defensive walls and renamed it for himself: Constantinople.

This long enduring citadel withstood many sieges. Clear-sighted strategy - a word much used by the rulers of the Eastern Roman Empire - enabled Byzantium to endure for over a millennium. The walls of Constantinople were only breached by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, with the aid of artillery manned by European mercenaries.

The depressing details of wars and upheavals are kept to a minimum in this profoundly moving exhibition. Upon entering Heaven and Earth, one immediately beholds an imposing wall-sized image of the interior of a Byzantine church. This sets the scene for the Adrianople Cross, striking in both its beauty and simplicity. Dated to the late tenth century, the Adrianople Cross reinforces the central fact of cultural life in Constantinople and the other cities of the Eastern Roman Empire. Byzantine art was Christian art.

The Adrianople Cross

Initially, the attitude of the early Christians toward art was very hostile. Most of the art of Imperial Rome was based upon the gods of classical Greece or the practice of emperor worship. Until Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313, granting legal recognition to Christianity, there was little force behind the opposition to "graven images" among the followers of Jesus. Then, as Christianity was embraced as the official state religion of the Roman Empire, the cult statues of the Greek and Roman deities were targeted by puritanical Christians for destruction.

Head of Artemis
The Heaven and Earth exhibition illustrates this purge of "pagan" art with a severed head of a statue of the goddess Aphrodite, defaced by having a Christian cross chiseled onto its forehead. An exquisite head of the goddess Artemis or Diana, about the size of a child's fist, is almost certainly another victim of Christian violence. It is one of ten fragments from a mid-third century statuette, treated with particular scorn, as there is evidence of scorching on the top of the head.

The third and fourth centuries - the period when Christianity was gaining the upper hand - witnessed a final flourishing of portrait sculpture in the Roman world. The exhibit has an impressive portrait bust, only recently unearthed in 1982 at Chania on the island of Crete. Sculpted in white Phrygian marble from Asia-Minor (modern-day Turkey), this bust shows a young woman with elaborately arranged braids wrapped around her head. According to the exhibit catalog, traces of rose-colored glass paste were found in the indentations made for her irises. This feature would have given an even more lively presence to this vivid work of art.

Unknown Artist, Bust of a Lady
The really remarkable feature of this wonderful portrait bust, however, is that it was one of the last of its kind. Not until the age of the Medici in fifteenth century Florence would sculptors like Donatello attain such an astonishing proficiency in depicting the human form or probing the inner spirit of mankind.

The Bust of a Lady is now dated, after much discussion, to 410. In that year, Visigoth mercenaries, unpaid by the Imperial government, sacked the city of Rome. This event shocked the civilized world and led St. Augustine to write his theological masterpiece, The City of God. St. Augustine urged rich and poor alike to direct their attention to the next world, to the Heavenly City, rather than be concerned with the affairs of this world. His message found a wide-spread audience. As a result, few people, even among the fabulously wealthy Patrician class, cared to have images of themselves preserved for posterity - at a time when the world was coming to an end.

A new type of art came into being, one that stressed the mystical theology of Christians in Syria, Egypt and points further east. The naturalism of depictions of the old gods enjoying the pleasures of Arcadia was rejected in favor of an ascetic treatment of Christian themes. The great British scholar, Sir Steven Runciman, described this eastern influence as the "Aramaic conception of art" in his path-breaking book published in the 1930's, Byzantine Civilization. Runciman remarked:

The triumph of Christianity inevitably meant the furthering of this Aramaic conception of art. Christ could not be depicted as Apollo had been. He was the God that suffered, the Great Judge, the Redeemer. His worshipper ought to feel Him at once in one of these roles; the lines of suffering, of sternness, or divine benevolence should be emphasized on His face. Religion demanded an impressionism unknown in the Greco-Roman world.

This "New Art" was revolutionary and, Runciman goes on to say, "was direct, but was not simple." In another of his books, Byzantine Civilization and Style, published in 1975, Runciman expanded on this theme. The aim of Byzantine art was to put the citizen of the empire "in mystical contact with Christ and the saints whose glances were fixed so searchingly upon him."

Susanna and the Elders
These forces can be seen at work in Susanna and the Elders, an early 5th century fresco. This rare survival of ancient painting comes from a vaulted tomb in Thessaloniki, the second most important city in Byzantium.

The story of Susanna from the Old Testament would be frequently painted by European masters in later centuries. Painters like Rembrandt emphasized the early part of the story, when Susanna is surprised while bathing, as an exercise in painting the nude. Here, Susanna is clad in a type of leather, fur-trimmed coat from the province of Dalmatia in the Balkans. Susanna is praying for God's help against the lecherous elders, who will be judged and punished by the Prophet Daniel. It is an image of piety, chastity and faith.

The "New Art," described by Runciman, extended event to the Imperial coinage. Roman coins in earlier centuries had featured lifelike renderings of the features of the Caesars. These were always depicted in profile. Around the same time that the fresco of Susanna was painted, the position of the Byzantine emperors on their coins was shifted to a frontal vantage point.

Solidus of Theodosius II

We can actually witness the change taking place in a coin from the reign of Theodosius II, dated to around 430. Some of Theodosius' distinctive features are still apparent. The inscription hearkens back to the arrogant bombast of Imperial Rome, far removed from the ineffectual personality of Theodosius II: "Our Lord Theodosius Pious Fortunate Augustus."

As the impressive display of gold coins in the exhibit shows, later depictions of the emperors were entirely stylized, showing archetypes rather than portraits. The gold coinage of Byzantium did have the merit of remained secure, enabling emperors like Justinian I to pay their troops and to build an astonishing range of palaces and churches, the greatest of which was the domed Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

Nothing, not even a well-paid army, could prepare Byzantium for the emergence of Islam. Over the course of the seventh century, following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, Islam gained control of much of the Byzantine Empire, including Egypt, the primary source of its grain supply. The sudden onslaught of the Arab armies was halted only after bitter fighting and the expenditure of vast sums of money on fortresses and weapons at the expense of building new churches and commissioning works of art. But an even worse fate awaited the artistic heritage of Byzantium after the repulse of the Arab invaders.

In 726, Emperor Leo III removed the sacred image of Christ above the main gate of Constantinople. Leo, a soldier from Armenia, shared the aversion to "graven images" of his Muslim enemies. The earlier Byzantine defeats at the hands of the Arabs could be explained as a consequence of failing to properly worship God. According to this view, superstitious Christians had venerated icons - religious paintings, statues or mosaics - rather than worshipping Jesus or the saints depicted on them.

Leo ordered a campaign of destruction of religious icons. Iconoclasm, as the attack on these images was called, was renewed by subsequent emperors. Most of them came from the Asian provinces of the empire and shared Leo's disregard for religious imagery. Iconoclasm only came to an end a century later, in 843. The almost complete lack of art works from the seventh through ninth centuries in the Heaven and Earth exhibit is proof of the levels of destruction reached during this tragic episode.

The return of icons coincided with later Byzantium's most prosperous and powerful era. The hauntingly beautiful icon, the Virgin Hodegetria, dated to the last quarter of the twelfth century, exemplifies the continuity of the religious sensibility of Byzantine society. This depiction of the Virgin Mary and Jesus was used as a processional icon. Like a battle flag, it was designed to be held aloft for use in the impressive ceremonies of the Orthodox rite, with the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Byzantine emperor often in attendance.


Processional Icon of the Virgin Hodegetria
Hodegetria means "the guide who shows the way." Here the Virgin Mary directs the viewer's gaze to the child Jesus, whose status as redeemer of humankind is emphasized by his mature countenance. Mary's worried expression testifies to her foreknowledge that Jesus will save the world by dying for it. On the back of this icon is another image, the Man of Sorrows, showing the lifeless Jesus, who has paid that ultimate sacrifice.

The Virgin Hodegetria was based on an ancient painting of Mary, the mother of Jesus, supposedly done from life by the Apostle Luke. This image was brought to Constantinople in the fifth century. The many copies of this beloved work, lost during the Turkish conquest of 1453, helped create a misleading idea in Western Europe that Byzantine art was derivative, "static" and lacking in skill and narrative power.

Hostility to Byzantine culture has a long, poisonous pedigree. Giorgio Vasari, the sixteenth century Florentine art historian, bears a major share of the onus for creating false impressions about Byzantine art. In his book, Lives of the Artists (first edition, 1550), Vasari set himself the task of proving that Italian painters, chiefly from Tuscany, had rescued art from the rigor mortis of the Byzantine style. A number of works included in the Heaven and Earth exhibition conclusively refute Vasari's contention.

Fragment of Fresco from Vlatadon Monastery

A small fragment of a fresco from the Vlatadon Monastery in Thessaloniki is especially noteworthy. Painted between 1360 to 1380, a century before Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, this fragment demonstrates the unknown artist's exceptional ability to delineate the characters of the apostles at this sacred event. The moment depicted, the washing of the feet of the apostles by Jesus, is different from Leonardo's painting. But the effect of establishing the individual characters of the apostles is brilliantly handled. The skillful use of contrasting colors for the apostles' garments further underscores the fact that the painter of this scene was a very accomplished artist.

That the artists of Byzantium were masters at evoking the psychological and spiritual complexity of their subjects, human and divine, is clearly established by Icon of the Archangel Michael, painted during the first half of the 14th century. This is an undeniable masterpiece, a superb illustration of the cultural renaissance that took place in the diminished, impoverished realm of the Byzantine emperors as the Ottoman Turks prepared for the final, fatal siege of Constantinople in 1453.

The Heaven and Earth exhibition, which will later be shown at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, establishes beyond doubt the virtuosity of the Byzantine masters. It shows that the art of the Eastern Roman Empire influenced the rising artistic traditions throughout Western Europe during the Middle Ages and also Russia, converted to Christianity by Byzantine missionaries in 988. Yet, there are important differences between Byzantine art and the Tuscan masters who were championed by Vasari. Heaven and Earth enables us to see these points in a new light.

The National Gallery in Washington D.C. is one of the few American museums fortunate to have a work by Giotto di Bondone (c. 1266 - 1337). Kenneth Clark regarded Giotto's cycle of paintings in the Arena Chapel in Padua as "one of the holy places of the world." Giotto's Madonna and Child, painted between 1320 to 1330, is not included in the Heaven and Earth galleries. But it should be studied in detail after viewing the exhibition.

Giotto, Madonna and Child.

Giotto's Madonna and Child clearly shows the influence of the Virgin Hodegetria tradition. In Giotto's work, however, the religious symbolism is entirely different. The Virgin Mary is not pointing to a "boy-man" who will die on the cross to redeem humankind. Here the infant Jesus, clearly a child, reaches for a carnation in his mother's hand and, in a particularly touching gesture, wraps his little hand around Mary's finger. With these humanistic details, Giotto sought to establish an appreciation of God's loving presence in our daily lives. In the work of later Italian masters, Luca della Robbia and Raphael especially, this Madonna and Child theme would assume a dominating, almost obsessive, presence.

The Heaven and Earth exhibit includes a Byzantine "Madonna and Child" that serves as a perfect point of comparison with the National Gallery's Giotto. Painted perhaps a decade after Giotto's Madonna and Child, this icon displays many similarities. Jesus, more clearly a child than in the twelfth century Virgin Hodegetria, reaches up to touch his mother's face. Mary clasps Jesus in her hands in one of the most tender evocations of maternal love in any artistic tradition, East or West.

Icon of the Virgin and Child, Church Feasts, and Saints
For all that it shares with Giotto's painting, Icon of the Virgin and Child, Church Feasts, and Saints is a tour de force of Byzantine art. The vital concept of Byzantine art, of the transcendent importance of the human soul, is powerfully expressed here. The mortal body perishes, as do human empires. Mary's all-encompassing love will not save Jesus from death on the cross. But the human soul is imperishable and this poignant work of art from the mid-fourteenth century positively radiates such spiritual reassurance.

So too does Byzantine art as a whole. Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections is a magnificent reminder that, though the Eastern Roman Empire was destroyed amid fire and sword in 1453, the art and spirituality of Byzantium endures.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Images Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Introductory Image: Icon of the Archangel Michael, first half 14th century. Egg tempera and gold on wood, overall: 110 x 80 cm (43 5/16 x 31 1/2 in.) Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens

The Adrianople Cross, late 10th-early 11th century. Silver, iron core, partial gilding, and niello, overall: 51 x 30 cm (20 1/16 x 11 13/16 in.) Benaki Museum, Athens ©Benaki Museum, Athens, 2013

Head of Artemis, mid-3rd century or later. Marble, height: 12.1 cm (4 3/4 in.) Archaeological Museum of Ancient Corinth

Unknown Artist, Bust of a lady, c. 410. White Phrygian (Dokimion) marble, overall size: 56 × 34 cm (22 1/16 × 13 3/8 in.) Chania Archaeological Museum

Susanna and the Elders, early 5th century. Fresco, overall 170 × 127 × 5 cm (66 15/16 × 50 × 1 15/16 in.) Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki

Solidus of Theodosius II, 408 – 450. Gold, diameter: 2 cm (13/16 in.) Numismatic Museum, Athens

Processional icon of the Virgin Hodegetria (front) and the Man of Sorrows (back), last quarter of 12th century. Tempera and silver on wood, overall size: 115 × 77.5 × 3.5 cm (45 1/4 × 30 1/2 × 1 3/8 in.) Byzantine Museum, Kastoria

Fragment of a wall painting of the washing of the feet, 1360-1380. Fresco, overall: 92 × 78 × 6 cm (36 1/4 × 30 11/16 × 2 3/8 in.) Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki

Giotto, Italian, probably 1266 – 1337. Madonna and Child, probably 1320/1330. Tempera on panel overall: 85.5 x 62 cm (33 11/16 x 24 7/16 in.) framed: 128.3 x 72.1 x 5.1 cm (50 1/2 x 28 3/8 x 2 in.) Samuel H. Kress Collection 1939.1.256

Icon of the Virgin and Child, Church Feasts, and Saints, mid-14th century. Egg tempera and gold on wood, stucco, gold glass (verre églomisé) overall: 42 × 30 × 1 cm (16 9/16 × 11 13/16 × 3/8 in.) Benaki Museum, Athens ©Benaki Museum, Athens, 2013

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