'Byzantium" at the Royal Academy
‘Byzantium’ at the Royal Academy
By Marcus Tanner
03 November 2008 Serbian and Macedonian treasures form a significant part of the display at this magnificent exhibition, covering a thousand years of history.
Every so often, a major exhibition in London rises well above the ordinary, which is the case with the widely praised and recently opened exhibition “Byzantium” at the Royal Academy in London.
From the moment you enter the dark and mysterious first hall, dominated by a vast church chandelier, you feel as if you have crossed the portals of an ancient Orthodox cathedral, an impression maintained as you progress through the series of halls in which treasures glow in their cabinets in soothing semi-darkness.
It’s a tall order, to try to compress an idea of an empire that lasted for more than a thousand years into a half-dozen rooms located in central London but the Academy has done a superb job. Eschewing the complexity of the political, social and dynastic turmoil that gripped an empire that constantly shifted shape over the centuries, the Academy has concentrated on art and culture.
Primarily, of course, this means religious art, and religious culture, because although Constantine founded the city in the 330s as the “new Rome”, (mainly because it was strategically better positioned than Rome), Byzantium, as it also became known, shed the Latin language and pagan traditions of the old Rome and assumed a thoroughly Greek and Christian persona.
For that reason, “Byzantium” mainly comprises icons, church chandeliers, church bells, reliquaries, covers for service books for use in church services and other religious items. To anyone such as myself, who might have feared this would be repetitive, the diversity of objects came as a revelation; Byzantine artists clearly compensated for their narrow range of Christian themes by making imaginative use of materials.
Glowing icons of egg and tempura jostle for space beside jewel-encrusted, beaten-silver book covers, perfume holders and incense braziers fashioned out of metal into the shapes of cathedrals and churches, and bone and ivory caskets with gospel and saints stories carved on the sides.
While the emphasis on the empire’s culture is unashamedly and correctly religious, the exhibitors have not forgotten the fact that when they were not surging in and out of the great church of the Holy Wisdom to see the Patriarch and the Emperor presiding over magnificent liturgies, the people of Constantinople/Byzantium lived and died, married, conducted business, made love and ate and drank.
In one chamber, as a result, the visitor leaves the semi-ecclesiastical darkness of the other halls and plunges into bright light to find a display of domestic artefacts: glazed plates with designs that might have been made yesterday, some very trendy looking spoons, children’s sandals and hoods and a charming scent bottle, shaped like a fish. How little basic design ideas have changed in a thousand years!
The provenance of the items comes as a highly effective reminder of the vastness of this empire at its high point. Many artefacts come from as far away as Egypt, for example. Balkan visitors will be struck by the number of items hailing from Serbia and Macedonia. Clearly, the curators of the Royal Academy conveyed their enthusiasm to counterparts in Belgrade and Skopje, because the National Museum and Museum of Applied Arts in Belgrade and the Icon Gallery in Ohrid are exceedingly well represented. The Pec Patriarchate loaned one of the most eye-catching items of all, a beautifully carved 15th-century bell.
The Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans in 1453 but its religious expression, the Orthodox Church, lives on, and the church’s broadly anti-Western mindset continues to set agendas in the Balkans, vis-a-vis both Turkey and the West. However, as the exhibition notes, the Byzantine Empire was not the static, inward-looking, hermetically sealed entity that some imagine. The last chambers explore the extent to which the Latin West, the Byzantine Empire the Ottoman Muslims all borrowed from - and influenced - one another extensively in the arts.
At the same time, the exhibition does not forget that the sack of Constantinople in the 1200s by Western so-called crusaders was a formative experience, cementing feelings of distrust on the part of the Orthodox world for the Catholic West that have never entirely faded. In short, this exhibition is far more than a display of beautiful objects, though it is certainly that as well. Not to be missed.
Byzantium runs until 22 March 2009 at the Royal Academy. Price £12.00