A New Exhibition Uncovers the Secrets of Byzantium

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The Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko Museum of Arts, Kiev

One of the many early Christian treasures from thousand year Empire on display in London.

When Slavic ambassadors visited Constantinople (formerly Byzantium) in the 10th century, they were so awed by the city that they later wrote that they "knew not whether we were in Heaven or Earth." During their stay, these visitors would have seen mechanical golden songbirds on the boughs of jeweled trees and a hydraulic throne that lifted the Emperor 30 ft. above his subjects. Today, the relics of the Byzantine Empire — which for more than 1,000 years stretched from its capital (now called Istanbul) into the eastern Mediterranean, Russia, the Middle East and beyond — continue to dazzle. Running through March 2009, a major exhibit at London's Royal Academy of Arts showcases some of the era's finest works. Yet it also attempts to peel back the artifice that has long made the Byzantine Empire so obscure, and to show that beneath the splendor existed a culture with obsessions, ambitions and insecurities not so different from our own.

"Byzantium 330-1453," a display of some 300 artifacts spanning the history of the empire, includes none of the ornate machinery described by ancient writers, or the glorious mosaics that still glitter from the domed ceilings of Eastern Europe's Orthodox churches. On display, instead, are fragments and everyday objects: Psalters, Bibles, chalices, icons, crucifixes, spoons, cups, coins and jewelry. It requires effort to appreciate the significance of such items. But with a bit of imagination, we can use them to help us understand the lives of our enigmatic predecessors.

The Byzantine Empire's air of inscrutability was used not to keep people out but to draw them in — crucial for a realm whose authority required awe and loyalty from its disparate subjects. The altars of Byzantine churches, for example, were hidden by huge screens decorated with icons of saints and martyrs that, while huge and impressive, are also as inexpressive as a child's doll. Without realistic human features or vivid detail through which to tell their stories, these icons demand that viewers use imagination to grasp the lives of the dead. The icons' elusiveness, in other words, allows for a stronger spiritual connection.

If the detail of Byzantine art can sometimes seem rudimentary, it's not because the empire was uncultivated or primitive. For many years considered by Western intellectuals to be pompous and decadent — Voltaire called it a "worthless repertory of declamations and miracles" — the Byzantine Empire is now seen by historians as a crucial bridge connecting antiquity to the Renaissance, as the keeper of the sacred flame of classical learning through the so-called Dark Ages. It was also a melting pot of influences. Byzantines, who were devout Christians, considered themselves the inheritors of the Roman Empire, despite the fact that they spoke Greek. Their knowledge, exemplified by the advanced engineering and spectacular architecture of their capital on the Bosphorus, made them the envy of the world. But that progress also made them vulnerable.

This awareness is evident in an intriguing 5th century wooden sculpture at the Royal Academy, in which citizens defend a walled city from an encircling horde. The piece is ostensibly a portrait of Constantinople's strength. But the citizens' vertiginous perch also means they have further to fall; as the fear on their faces shows, their position is more precarious than that of the invaders below. Over the centuries, Constantinople faced attacks from Goths, Persians, Bulgars, Russians, Papal crusaders and Arabs — and from the Turks, who eventually overran the city after the brutal siege of 1453. And while its people were experts at using soft power — Constantinople managed cordial relations with Muslim neighbors throughout most of its history — they also knew the terror of being a target. It was the price, familiar to many in the post-9/11 world, of living in a wealthy metropolis.

Robin Cormack, one of the exhibition's curators, sees the wooden sculpture as crucial to understanding the Byzantines' obsession with ceremony and mystery, which he believes were efforts to offset a low-rumbling sense of insecurity. Byzantine figures and icons seem crudely rendered to us now because the artists carefully chose to make them generic and timeless. "If you give a figure a [personalized] resemblance," Cormack explains, "it becomes ephemeral, like its model."

In two poems about Byzantium, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats seemed drawn to the city's stylized art because it provided a release from the restraints of his own frailties. Yeats longed to exchange the "fury and mire of human veins" for the "changeless metal" of the city's mechanical golden birds, whose beauty he felt to be permanent. There is historical evidence that the Byzantines, too, revered artifice while denigrating the human flesh: self-castration was a popular means of purification, and mutilation a prevalent form of punishment — one Emperor even wore a gold nose as a result.

When it comes to human endeavor, of course, there is no such thing as permanence — something the exhibition poignantly illustrates. Even under the care of the world's best curators, the paint on some of the icons has begun to chip. Cormack says an embossed icon of St. Michael and several ivories from St. Mark's Basilica in Venice are so fragile they will probably never be allowed to travel again. Even Yeats' beloved mechanical nightingales are long gone; we know of them only through accounts from their time.

In this era of shifting global power, it is impossible to visit "Byzantium 330-1453" and not ponder how empires expand and recede across centuries, leaving future generations to pick through their remains. There will come a time, no doubt, when people will stare in puzzled wonder at the silicon chip or the desktop icon. The Byzantines' efforts to hide their own fragility ultimately remind us never to forget our own.

(Click here for a photo essay on the Byzantium exhibit.)