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7-08-2015, 20:02

Visual media

Icons – more or less formulaic likenesses of otherworldly beings, sacred events and scenes – offered the Byzantines access to the holy par excellence, and although reviled as idols by some emperors (see below, pp. 278–84), they became engrained in private piety and collective imprecation. After the Mother of God’s protection of her City of Constantinople in the seventh century, icons representing her were revered and, eventually, panel icons were processed regularly through Constantinople’s public spaces, helping to render them and the City yet more sacred.7 Icons were deemed truer than words in conveying the divine. The sense that their contrasting brightness and shade, yet stable basic forms, could relay sacred happenings and communicate spiritual essentials was strong; it is notable in, for example, late Byzantine art, when directly experiencing the energies and uncreated light of God was the ambition of prominent ascetics.8 Integral to private devotions, ritual routines and theological truths, icons were painted on wood or walls, or portrayed in mosaics, ivory or metalwork, and from the ninth century onwards the beings on them were generally identified by inscriptions.9 Significantly, they were not sharply distinguishable in style from images of emperors, past and present, and an emperor could be shown in the company of Christ or a saint (see below, fig. 33, p. 154). A particularly fine mosaic of Christ graced St Sophia from soon after Michael VIII Palaiologos (1258–82) restored empire to Constantinople (see below, fig. 58, p. 826), while Michael demonstrated the imperial presence at newly regained points through wall-paintings, as at Apollonia, south of the strategic base of Dyrrachium (Durazzo) on the Adriatic coast (see below, fig. 57, p. 800). Michael VIII’s projection of his authority far and wide through visual media belongs to a great tradition, involving coins, seals and the minor arts, reaching back beyond Justinian to the heyday of imperial Rome. The ways in which the emperor and his order were portrayed and idealised are discussed and illustrated in specialised but accessible studies as well as in more general works.10 That beauty and superlative technical expertise should be attributes of imperial power was a tenet of Byzantine thinking until virtually the end. Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (945–59) could claim that ‘all beauty and adornment had been lost to the empire’ for want of due attention to ceremonial. He was in fact taking a sideswipe against his detested former co-emperor, who had manipulated political imagery against him.11 The grand halls for the reception of visitors, the gardens, feasts, exotica and religious rites experienced, and the ‘diplomatic gifts’ presented at court or sent to notables and potentates further afield have enjoyed considerable scholarly attention.12 The Constantinopolitans’ penchant for dignifying workaday or dilapidated buildings with silks and other splendid hangings has also been noted. Wealth in this flexible – and portable – form became the hallmark of the elite. The minor arts and ceremonial could cover for the limitations and condition of structures of brick and stone. This held true not only of the capital but also of citadels in ancient cities and strongholds in outlying regions, which could be reoccupied and refurbished when threats loomed.13 The authorities’ alertness to the impact of sights on outsiders is registered in a text for receiving envoys in the capital: if they came from greater powers, they were to be shown the ‘masses of our men, good order of our weaponry and the height of our walls’.14 In the empire’s later years, mosaicists could still portray in St Sophia the emperor wearing a crown and vestments replete with gemstones. Yet, as Nikephoros Gregoras deplored, his actual crown and vestments were ‘make-believe (phantasia)’, ‘made of gilded leather . . . and decorated with pieces of glass of all colours’. Here again, one art or craft could substitute for another in the imperial kaleidoscope, to keep up appearances. A peculiarly Byzantine blend of faith, self-belief and expectations of ultimate vindication underlay such improvisations.15 The choicest of the visual arts, crafts and architecture were reserved to display imperial majesty, superlative craftsmanship and beautiful artefacts denoting possession of supernatural powers and legitimate authority. Some of the highest-quality imperial silks named their place of manufacture near the Great Palace or the emperor reigning when they were made.16 Such association of extraordinary skills, technical and aesthetic, with hegemony is characteristic of numerous pre-industrial societies,17 and to many Byzantines reverence for the emperor appeared interwoven with service of God, however firmly churchmen drew the line. By and large the imperial authorities and the leading monks and churchmen were, from the mid-ninth century onwards, in alignment as to what was acceptable ‘official’ and religious art. Their command of skills and resources meant that they could set the tone and contents of the more elaborate, public examples of the visual arts. The forms, decorative programmes and ritual significance of ecclesiastical and monastic buildings have received scholarly attention, and the prominence of churches in studies on Byzantine art and architecture is not wholly an accident of survival: the empire was well- (if not over-)stocked with churches and monasteries from at least the time that Justinian was building more churches in Constantinople than strictly pastoral needs warranted.18 But not all buildingswere commissioned by churchmen or the imperial authorities. Private secular architecture after the seventh century is known to us only from occasional mentions in literary sources and from archaeology. Further excavations should shed light on the material facts of life in Byzantine towns and even, eventually, in rural settlements, which have mostly as yet only been identified from field surveys.19 Likewise collation of excavated artefacts with long-studied objets d’art, wall-paintings or even manuscript illuminations is beginning to highlight other kinds of subject-matter in the representational arts, unofficial visual statements which could veer far fromthe ‘party-line’ of court orations, sermons and other literary set pieces. Ceramics can be particularly eloquent in revealing the fancies, fantasies and humour of Byzantines having little or no connection with the imperial-ecclesiastical establishment.

 

 

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