Byzantium in the Big Apple

“Oh, what gorgeous icons,” whispers a woman in a green suit to a friend.

The two stand rapt before the jewel-encrusted “Virgin of Hodegetria,” one of more than 350 objects that make up the current exhibition “Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)” on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City until July 4.

Gorgeous indeed are the icons, but the elegance does not stop at these painted panels with golden backgrounds and silver revetments, or frames. Also included are fresco fragments, illuminated books, sacred liturgical vessels, textiles and mosaics. And not to be missed, two sakkos, embroidered chasuable-like vestments, one sent by the Vatican, that cause the jaw to drop in astonishment. It is, according to museum director Philippe de Montebello, “the first major museum exhibition to concentrate solely on the Palaiologan period.”

But a bit of background is in order: We Latin-rite Catholics — indeed the bulk of the educated public — still remain in a cloud of unknowing about the whole “Byzantine thing.” Who were the Byzantines? What was Byzantium? And where does this Palaiologan revival or renaissance fit in?

One would like to think that there is not a graduate who sat in social studies who does not recall 330 A.D. Constantine, the emperor who converted to Christianity, moved the capital of the empire from Rome to a city at the easternmost tip of Europe, at a point that brushes Asia Minor. He named his capital Constantinople or New Rome. Near the new capital was an older Greek colony called Byzantion.

Very much later, in 1557, a German scholar, Hieronymus Wolf, adopted the term Byzantine to refer to the people who lived in Constantinople and, by extension, to refer to the imperial court, along with the rites and ceremonies of the Church that were so intimately linked to the court. The art that was produced here was very much a Christian art and dedicated to the service of the Church.

Religious Revival

The successors of Constantine lived in Constantinople uninterrupted until 1206, a fateful year when crusaders from the West, diverted from their principal objective of the recovery of Jerusalem, turned instead to Constantinople attacking and pillaging the Queen City on the Bosporus. Thus commenced an inter-regnum of 55 years in which Constantinople was ruled by a Latin emperor. Yet in the year 1261 the Byzantines returned triumphantly to their city as Michael VIII Palaiologus processed inside the venerable walls bearing the icon of the Virgin of Hodegetria (“she who shows the way”).

From this date until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, there occurred a brilliant artistic and cultural revival under the Palaiologan dynasty. Although the empire was greatly reduced in territory and political power, its artistic production was protean. The icons from this period surpass in sheer quantity those from any other period of Byzantine history.

This was also a period where the Byzantine style impacted the nascent artistic movement in the West, “the Renaissance.” In fact a cross-fertilization process was occurring as borrowings took place on both sides.

One of the themes of the exhibition traces the influence of Byzantium on surrounding cultural centers as far distant as Novgorod in Russia and Flanders in Northern Europe. For example, “Icon of the Virgin and Child” by the Venetian Giovanni Bellini, on display in the current exhibition, is unmistakably Italianate — yet it bears the Byzantine impress. The Virgin is dressed in Byzantine garb, her blue veil or maphorion covers her half-length. Her oval face, broad cheeks and narrow nose represent Bellini's homage to the Byzantine style.

“The Holy Face of Laon,” a 13th-century icon of Slavic origin, captures a Byzantine devotion to the face of Christ. In the Byzantine account, Our Lord wiped his face on a towel (Mandylion), causing his image to be miraculously affixed. In the West, this earlier Byzantine tradition became the veil of Veronica. Viewers of The Passion of the Christ will recall Mel Gibson's treatment of Veronica and her cloth. Many, however, will be unaware that the origin of the cult of the Holy Face harks back to a Byzantine devotion and was happily exported to the West.

Faith on the Floor

Amplifying this theme of interchange between Byzantium and the West, a fascinating essay in the catalog explains that the earliest fresco cycle of the life of St. Francis is not in Assisi or in Europe — but, in fact, in the Constantinople church known as Kalanderhane Camii. Both the Franciscan and Dominican orders were active in the East, and the monks served often as intermediaries as works of art changed hands. For both Francis and Dominic, art was a vital medium in which the truths of the faith were communicated. In the present exhibition, the art connoisseur will be dazzled, but the simple believer will be rewarded, too, by the catechetical import of each art object.

It's ironic that many in the art world who are drawn to Byzantine iconography are not religious. Yet the style of painting — the apparent inflexibility of the forms, the suppression of background, the lack of shadowing, the severity, if you will — causes them to see in Byzantine painting a type of proto-modernism or abstractionism. Byzantine art is cool. Yet, according to Archbishop Damianos of the Holy Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai, writing in the catalog, the purpose of the icon is not “to caress the eyes.” Rather, the purpose is, in the first instance, “to teach” something. After that, the one contemplating the icon will be led to higher realities or “a mystical” level.

“Byzantium: Faith and Power” proceeds in an ecumenical spirit. The art-historical method in evidence seeks to show the interplay between East and West, between Rome and Constantinople. This spirit accords with that encouraged by Pope John Paul II, who has continually expressed his admiration for the East in any number of documents.

Catholic museum-goers will catch this same enthusiasm of the Slav Pope upon viewing this remarkable exhibition.

Jim Sullivan writes from Fairfield, Connecticut.