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Byzantine Constantinople

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The Art of Constantinople

Book Cover with Byzantine Icon of the Crucifixion,1000 (ivory); before 1085 (setting) metmuseum


(τέχνη). The Greek term techne had a broad range of meanings, including mental dexterity, linguistic ability, and trickery as well as the skills of rulers and physicians. It therefore implied something closer to craft and denied a privileged role to the work of art and to its creator. Art was understood not as completing nature, as in Aristotle, nor as possessing value independent of nature, as in the modern view, but as nature: art reproduced reality, including those aspects of it that were normally invisible (John of Damascus, ed. Kotter, Schriften 3:126.2–3). Despite centuries of theorizing about the relationship of the image to its prototype, not until the 15th C. (Manuel Chrysoloras) was a practical distinction drawn between the image and that which it represented. Equally, written accounts of works of art rarely distinguish the material of which they were made: differentiations between the principal genres and materials are usually to be found only in inventories where they served quite other purposes than aesthetic appreciation or even evaluation as stimuli to religious faith. But descriptions of mosaic and wall painting (see Monumental Painting), the two main types of monumental decoration in Byz., largely ignore the contribution of the medium to the work's final effect, emphasizing instead the lifelike quality of the image and its impact upon the beholder. Where the medium can be discerned at all, reports on icons, ecclesiastical silverenamels, and textiles—some of the most frequently noted categories of portable works—stress function rather than form, message rather than materials.

Literature provides our primary means of access to the Byz. response to that which we call art and confirms the view that the purposes of representational art took precedence over its nature and materials. The effects of art—the magnificence of a building and its decoration, the glittering splendor of a piece of metalwork—all but efface other considerations. The purpose of architecture is to magnify the builder and often, as described in the Vita Basilii, to show that he has recovered the glory of the past. Such an approach links imperial founders, ktetors of lesser rank, and church builders. The significant aspect of a structure lies in what it says about its patron: it shows that an emperor has restored (often “from the ground up”) what had crumbled, be it the fabric of a building, the reputation of a city, or the strength of right belief.

On the one hand, what was ancient, when it survived, was prized for its own sake; on the other, its restoration was a Christian's duty and a credit to him. Since an icon was understood to function by virtue of perfect correspondence to its subject, panels were frequently “made anew” (Skyl. 384.21–24) and portraits in mosaics and MSS often remade. Lacking autonomous value as art, frescoes were overpainted with subjects sometimes quite different from the originals. Nonetheless, both the means by which pictures were produced and their iconography demonstrate the respect for authority and tradition (Mansi 13:252C) and the emphasis on orthodoxy of thought and behavior, apparent in other aspects of Byz. culture. Many works can be shown to have a more or less close dependence upon earlier examples, due in some cases to direct derivation but more often to the employment of a conventional and ubiquitous visual vocabulary. This lexicon included individual figures and poses, gestures and backgrounds preserved either in model-books (see Models and Model-Books) or, more likely, in the memory of craftsmen. Such elements were used or modified, and their syntactical relationships adjusted, according to context.

Thoroughly pragmatic, artists borrowed established forms, much as builders used spolia, and usually invented only when an exemplar was not at hand. How faithfully older forms were transmitted depended upon opportunities for access to models and the purpose, training, and native ability of the artist. This approach to artistic production was reinforced by socially sanctioned notions of decorum, of what was appropriate to a particular type of commission. Although there were variations in the size of a ktetor's investment, church programs of decoration conformed to highly developed ideas of what was fitting. Works in other favored media, above all textiles, Book Illustration, and metalwork, display similar homogeneity. While the same genres characterized Islamic art, the latter exhibited neither the Byz. emphasis on sacred decoration nor the resultant body of canonical subject matter. The overriding Byz. concern with an established and limited iconographical corpus likewise distinguishes it from the medieval West: most of the “profane” subjects—the virtues and vices, the liberal arts, the representation of trades and crafts—are largely missing from Byz. art.

The exploitation of older models was a phenomenon common to the visual arts and literature. Just as the 10th-C. historian Leo the Deacon was content to use descriptions of battles taken from Agathias writing four centuries earlier, so the 14th-C. mosaics of the Chora monastery, for example, quote details from the 10th-C. Joshua Roll. Such “antiques” were valued both for their age and their potential as models. As descriptions were interchangeable in texts, so were details of physiognomy, clothing, and setting in art: identity often depended as much on inscriptions as on formal variation. The benign and constant cannibalism of earlier work largely undercuts the notion of successive renaissances that have been imposed on particular periods. The supposition that painters of the 6th, 10th, and early 14th C. were more interested in antiquity than those of other times attributes to them an unusual motivation when, in fact, the use of ancient types was a form of economy on their part. The more frequent appearance of “classicizing” elements in certain eras is merely because of the fact that these were periods of cultural revival producing more works of high quality.

While particular instances of copying may reflect an act of choice on the part of a patron, this attitude was culturally determined. Overt examples of the political supervision of artistic production are few, but social control was compelling and depended on the various functions assigned to the work of art. Basil the Great (PG 32:229A) regarded images, like the lives of saints, as inspirations to virtue. More concretely, for Gregory of Nyssa (PG 46:737D) they had the value of “silent writing.” This didactic role was expanded in the 8th and 9th C. For the patriarch Nikephoros I the educative power of icons exceeded that of words, while Photios saw representations of martyrdom as more vivid than writing (L. Brubaker, Word and Image 5 [1989] 23f). Independent of such theoretical statements, art provided a vehicle for the expression of supplications and gratitude to God (Sophronios, PG 87.3:3388C). Icons were a means of access to the divine and responsible, Psellos's mother believed (An.Komn. 2:34.8–10), for human success. As materially rich creations, works of art were considered proper gifts at holy sites (Piacenza pilgrim) and, as the will of Eustathios Boilas and the diataxis of Michael Attaleiates make clear, to churches and monasteries.

Other types of document, notably the ekphrasis, emphasize the presence of Christ, his mother, and his saints, in their images. This sort of “realism” differs from that which allowed actuality to obtrude into representations of agriculture, navigation, and the like, and to invest biblical and hagiographical events with details that the artist's contemporaries could recognize. Since all attention was paid to the immediate significance of a scene, no attempt was made to present the past as such (see History Painting). Constantine I, for instance, was sometimes given the features of the reigning monarch, and incidents of the Old Testament were employed for their value as prefigurations of current events.

Despite such constants, developments in both style and subject matter are evident over the centuries, particularly in monumental painting, which, to a much greater extent than in the West, was the dominant visual medium. Such changes are in part to be explained by church doctrine: the Second Council of Nicaea had defined the manner of representation as the domain of the artist. Before this time, art displayed the iconographical and formal diversity characteristic of late antiquity and its far-flung cities. Lively scenes drawing on the everyday world distinguish both imperial imagery (Barberini ivory) and Christian themes (Rossano Gospels). A more rigorous definition of acceptable subject matter and its modes of presentation emerged from the search for authoritative, ancient statements concerning the validity of images both before and during Iconoclasm. To a degree this debate was responsible for the evolution of an attitude, akin to encyclopedism, toward the artistic heritage that was at once selective and prescriptive. In the service of dogmatic clarity, art of the 10th and early 11th C. exhibits a formal austerity based on the principles of frontality and symmetry.

These features have been seen as reducing the monumentality attributed to the painting of the “Macedonian Renaissance” but they are symptoms not causes. Rather, the late 11th- and 12th-C. desire to express more complex Christological ideas and more affective expressions of emotion widened the range of art, in the creation of which the number of identifiable and named artists increased greatly. But territorial losses and the fall of Constantinople to the Latins in 1204 brought to a close four centuries in which the artistic hegemony of the capital had been recognized and emulated beyond the confines of the empire. Already in the 12th C. both Latin and Turkic elements can be found in Byz. art; this trickle became a spate in and after the late 13th C. Even before the Civil War of 1341–47 cut short a brief Palaiologan revival, the sponsorship of works of art had passed into the hands of local magnates, both lay and ecclesiastical; the final 150 years display a range of representational quality and manners at odds with the splendor and uniformity that had characterized 9th–12th-C. production and on which the reputation of Byz. art has long been based. Only very recently has the appropriateness of modern standards such as aesthetic autonomy and independence of its ideological well-springs been questioned (R. Nelson, Art History 12 [1989] 144–57). The recovery of and sympathy for the context in which this body of production came into being is now seen as a more direct route to the understanding of Byz. art. Anthony Cutler

  Kazhdan, Alexander, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. oxfordreference