Byzantine Treasures in Britain: Late Byzantium
In 1440, Canon Fursy de Bruille arrived in Cambrai with an icon of the Virgin & Child he had received in Rome. Purchased in the belief it had been painted by St. Luke, it’s clearly an Eleusa (Virgin of Tenderness), a type famous in Byzantium. The canon donated the image to the cathedral where thousands of pilgrims venerated it and several artists copied it. In fact, produced in Siena it serves as the perfect bridge between Byzantine and Italian traditions that had once been co-extensive.
Yet when historians examine the final centuries of Byzantine art there’s still an explicit tendency to treat items like Cambrai’s Madonna as if they’re shocks to a system in decline; a miniature version of the once dominant historiographical model that Byzantium miraculously produced civilisational achievements in a milieu of permanent decline.
This model of a decrepit magician pulling tricks out of his arse (despite his skill rather than because of it) would have been unrecognisable to contemporary Romans. Until the final decades few would have thought they were working within the context of a predestined terminus. And, more importantly, almost all Byzantines saw any temporal losses as something that could only be rectified by recovering the true Orthodox faith; a spiritual reconquista in which art took centre-stage.
Indeed, Byzantines have had the last laugh. Without much PR (in the Anglosphere, only Andrew Graham-Dixon’s “Art of Eternity” has done much to rehabilitate its art in the last few decades), icons have generally profited (in a way the subject en bloc hasn’t) from the decolonisation narrative. Now it is admissible to claim that many pieces bring to mind late Picasso. Roger Fry, for instance, said Cézanne and Gauguin looked “Byzantine.” Clive Bell, too, wrote that modern artists ''shook hands across the ages with the Byzantines.”
For moderns, the real barrier is not aesthetic, however, but epistemological. A faith absent robs icons of their purpose. Viewers can, of course, appreciate billowing robes and sinuous silhouettes against gold backgrounds and luminous colours to an extent. But formal flatness and repetition ultimately deflate western expectations of what art should be.
These expectations would have been completely alien to the Byzantine mindset. Repetition meant images – no matter where their location – faithfully represented the same (heavenly) reality. This reality is not something that requires “accuracy” in the sense of western draughtsmanship but a spiritual acuity, a depth that captures the presence of biblical figures. The gold, like amber at a museum, freezes the faith as if in a kind of limbo, waiting to be reanimated by the electric fervour of the faithful. It aims at stilling the mind before sending it – fully prepared – hurtling towards the glory beyond the glory available to the senses.
Enough evangelisation, it is time for the final instalment of Byzantine treasures in Britain. Ideally, I’d stretch this out to contemporary icons – Byzantium is no dead civilisation – but to hold tight to its historical unit, I’ll cover the conventional 1204-1453.
St John the Baptist Icon
Constantinople, early C14th
London, British Museum, 1986
Formerly the property of a Greek family who left Anatolia for Switzerland in 1921, St John the Baptist (usually prodromos, the “forerunner” in the Byzantine world) is emaciated, unkempt and disheveled. Its dating is tentative and based mainly on a close likeness with mosaics and frescos in the parekklesion of the church of St Mary Pammakaristos (Fetiye Camii).
Christ as the Ancient of Days
Cambridge University Library
Written by the scribe Michael Mantylides for Kyr Georgios Mougdouphes and acquired by John Moore, Bishop of Ely, c. 1697, the image displayed on the recto of the St Luke gospel shows Christ as an old man with grey hair and beard. Identified by the inscription as the “Ancient of Days,” following a vision of God in Daniel 7.9ff, in the four corners are the four beasts of Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 1:10), identified by commentators (following Apocalypse 4.6-10) as the four evangelists: Matthew (Man), John (Eagle), Mark (Lion) and Luke (calf).
Lower Kingswood, Surrey, Church of the Wisdom of God
Brought from Constantinople c.1861 by Dr E. H. Freshfield and placed in the church in 1902, its main face has a cruciform monogram of Greek letters which can be read as “Elenis” (of Helena). Dr Freshfield was told that it came from the church of St Nicholas of the English, the chapel of the English Varangian Guard. In reality, it appears to have come from a fourteenth-century funerary chapel associated with the monastery of the Prodromos in Petra. The Anglican church (previously called Hagia Sophia) deserves an article of its own so I’ll reserve further comment on this little slice of Byzantium deep in the folds of Surrey for another occasion.
Gold and enamel pendent reliquary
London, British Museum, 1926
An eighteenth-century Georgian inscription suggests that this gold and cloisonné enamel box once contained a fragment of the True Cross which belonged to St Kethevan, a Georgian queen martyred by Shah Abbas I in 1624. The base is enameled with a half-figure of St George in military costume and surrounding him is an inscription that says “[The wearer] prays that you will be his fiery defender in battles.” Round the edge of the reliquary runs another inscription that reads “Anointed with your blood and myrrh.” The hinged rectangular flap is covered with the figure of St Demetrius.
Miniature Mosaic of the Annunciation
Constantinople, early C14th
London, V&A, 1859
The mosaic shows the moment of the announcement by the angel Gabriel to Mary (Luke 1.26-38), celebrated on 25th March. The archangel holds one hand up in a gesture of speech and in the other holds a scepter tipped with an ornate cross motif that’s probably the origin of the fleur-de-lys emblem. Mary holds a distaff (alluding to the apocryphal gospels in which she has an upbringing in the Temple at Jerusalem, where she would spin and weave the priest’s vestments). To my eye, what’s unusual is Mary’s shrinking timidity as if what’s captured is the exact instance in which Gabriel appeared.
Icon of Peter
London, British Museum, 1983
Discovered in a London restorer’s studio, the St Peter lay under layers of whitewash and varnish on the back of a seventeenth-century icon of Christ, from which it has now been separated. The Greek text on the scroll is from 1 Peter 2:11: “Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul.” Such a text would be suitable for a monastery setting and it’s possible the icon featured on an iconostasis.
St John the Baptist Icon
London, Society of Antiquaries
Presented to the society by its Fellow G. McN. Rushforth shortly before his death in 1938, it’d been bought in Milan in the early twentieth century. Dressed in his usual sheepskin (melote) and himation. His right hand blesses and his left hand holds a scroll that reads “Repent ye: for the kingdom of god is at hand” (Matthew 3.2 and 4.17). He is also shown winged like an angel, as the messenger sent to earth to prepare the way for Christ (Malachi 3.1; Matthew 10.10; Mark 1.2; Luke 7.27). This type (a winged John), however, did not boast any sort of antiquity. In fact, it does not extend further back than the thirteenth century.
Portrait Medal of John VIII
London, British Museum, 1907
The obverse of this lead medal by Pisanello shows John VIII, his image surrounded by the Greek legend “John, Emperor [Basileus] and Autocrator of the Romans, the Palaologus.” The reverse shows an equestrian portrait of the emperor dressed for the hunt and praying at a shrine. Probably inspired by the medallion of Justinian and the medals of Constantine and Heraclius in the collection of the Duc de Berry, the Marquis of Ferrara (host of the famous council) commissioned it in order to revive antique practice.
Icon of the Ascension
London, V&A, 1940
Christ occupies a circular mandorla held aloft by angels above the Mother of God orans in the middle, escorted by angels and apostles. A dodekaorton icon, originally belonging to a set of twelve decorating the frieze on top of the iconostasis beam of the templon, its iconography is emphatically late Byzantine; a style that took off in Crete after the fall of Constantinople.