Treasures Of Byzantium 330-1453 At The Royal Academy Of Arts

By Graham Spicer | 22 October 2008
An image of a man with wings holding a sword

Unknown artist, Enamel icon with Archangel Michael. Courtesy of Procuratoria di San Marco, Venezia.

Exhibition Review – Graham Spicer visits Byzantium 330-1453, running at the Royal Academy of Arts, London from October 25 2008 – March 22 2009.

Byzantium 330-1453 is a hugely ambitious new exhibition examining the art of the oft-misunderstood Byzantine Empire. The first major display of its kind in the UK since 1958, it looks likely that it will never be repeated. Many of the objects on loan are simply too old and fragile to travel again.

The story starts in 330 AD when the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great dedicated the city of Constantinople, which was to replace Rome as the capital of a new, Christian Empire, now known as the Byzantine Empire.

Prior to Constantine, Christianity had been illegal throughout the Roman Empire, and early Christian art often took the form of encrypted messages in traditional classical forms. The exhibition gives fascinating examples of how pagan art metamorphosed into a new Christian tradition.

A scene showing two men at a table with groups of men either side.

Unknown artist, The Riha paten, 565-578. © Byzantine Collection, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.

By the time of the sixth-century Emperor Justinian, Christianity was firmly entrenched as the official state religion, and a distinctly Byzantine art flourished. Justinian embarked upon a great programme of church building, with many of the fine objects that filled them on display.

After Justinian’s reign, a great era came to an end. Slavs were to overrun the Balkans, Lombards captured Italy, Persians invaded from the east and Islam emerged as a growing regional rival. This crisis-laden atmosphere led to a growth of devotional icons.

This was dramatically interrupted during the iconoclastic period, when in 730 an edict was passed pronouncing icons as sacrilegious. Theological debates raged for decades with iconoclasm ending in 843, after which there was a further explosion of Byzantine artistic creativity.

Many of Byzantium’s greatest splendours were to be found in Constantinople’s Great Palace and we are shown a remarkable collection of psalters, ivory diptychs, crystal, silver, gold, and jewelled and enamel objects.

An image of a man in white clothing on a gold background

Unknown artist, Mosaic icon of Saint Stephen, c. 1108-1113. Coutesy of National Conservation Area, St. Sophia of Kiev

Several of the most beautiful were taken during the conquest of Constantinople by western crusaders in 1204. Many ended up in Venice, with six pieces on loan from the Church of San Marco.

We are also shown objects from wider Byzantine society, with some particularly striking examples of jewellery and ceramics, before moving onto an examination of objects used in Byzantine churches.

To enter a Byzantine church was to enter ‘heaven on earth’ where you could take a glimpse of paradise. Here we see processional crosses, mosaics, glittering micromosaics, ancient reliquaries and beautiful icons. These include the impressive golden icon of St Theodore slaying a dragon by the master Cretan icon painter Angelos Akotantos and other particularly fine examples from the Icon Gallery in Ohrid, Macedonia.

An image of a cross with Jesus nailed to it.

Att. to Giunta Pisano. Double sided processional cross, Christ crucified, 1250. Courtest of Museo Nazionale di San Matteo, Pisa.

The exhibition also raises the question of how Byzantine art influenced western artists, and if it was a stimulus to the Renaissance. Many pieces made in Constantinople were indeed taken to the Latin west, either as a result of the sack of the city by the crusaders, or through western patrons commissioning work from Byzantium. The west certainly had an appetite for Byzantine art and it is clear that it influenced the Renaissance – though by how much is still debated.

Likewise, how did Byzantine art influence its neighbouring societies? Through examples from Bulgaria, Serbia, Georgia, Kiev, Moscow, Egypt, Armenia and the Muslim world, the exhibition stresses the similarities between the art of Byzantium and its neighbours.

The final room is devoted to works from the Monastery of St Catherine in Sinai. Founded by Justinian in around 550 on the spot where Moses is said to have witnessed the burning bush, this ancient site escaped the tides of iconoclastic destruction. Some of the oldest and finest of all Byzantine icons are found there, cared for by the monks who remain there to this day.

An image of a gold and silver church with etchings of people on.

Unknown artist, Incense burner in the shape of a church, 10th-11th century. Courtesy of Procuratoria di San Marco, Venice.

Unfortunately these have not yet been cleared for loan, and life-sized prints of these golden-hued and deeply affecting works currently stand in their place.

As an art exhibition, Byzantium 330-1453 is a triumph. Few could fail to be impressed by the exquisite and often dazzling images and craftsmanship on display. Yet the history and context of these items is somewhat brushed over.

Little is said about either the start or the end of the Byzantine Empire – what exactly was the far-reaching significance of the end of empire in 1453, for example? We also learn little about the physical nature or organisation of the empire, the structure of its churches, the personalities of its emperors, or the horror of the Latin conquest of the city in 1204.

Of course, as an art exhibition, perhaps this is asking too much of the curators, who have packed in some 340 exquisite works from museums and churches across the world. To provide detailed interpretation on all of these could detract from the overwhelming feeling of physical beauty and opulence.

A paper with writing on and an image of Jesus on the cross with a soldier at his feet. Another man is holding a stick next to a vase.

Unknown artist, The Khludov psalter, 857-865. Courtesy of The State Historical Museum, Moscow, Russian Federation, GIM 86795 Khlud. 129, fol. 67r. © The State Historical Museum

However, with minimal interpretation, many of the items, particularly some of the magnificent icons, seem sadly lacking in meaning or deeper emotional impact.

One only has to walk across London to Bayswater and step into the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Sophia, for example, and you will experience a much greater impact from the icons, mosaics and devotional objects there. These have a direct connection with the art on display. For, although the Byzantine Empire is long gone, its religion – Orthodox Christianity – lives on, largely unchanged.

I would therefore urge those planning to see Byzantium 330-1453 to arm themselves with some background knowledge before visiting. Judith Herrin’s excellent book Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire is a fitting introduction to the subject.

It will surely add to your enjoyment of this admirable exhibition, a remarkable collection of artefacts from one of history’s greatest and least understood societies. Its triumph is to bring them to a wider audience and to give them the honour and prominent place in the history of art they deserve.

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