• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Byzantine Treasures in Britain: The Middle Period

The road from the achievements of Justinian (527-565) to the drastic actions of Leo III (717-41) was a remarkably short one. Threats came not only from the Arabs who twice besieged Constantinople, but also from the Bulgars who had arrived in the territory that now bears their name. These, when accounted with the disasters of Heraklios’ reign and contrasted with the successes of the Arabs, led the emperor to blame Byzantine misfortunes on idolatry. Accordingly, he banned the veneration of icons, a prohibition that lasted (with one interruption) from AD 730-843, a period known as iconoclasm.

The debate still rages between academics about whether iconoclasm was an independent development or a Muslim-inflected one. Scholars such as C. Wickham fall into the former camp, while others such as J. Herrin stand in the latter. Personally, it’s hard to ignore that Leo was ethnically a Syrian, advised by eastern bishops whose actions must be seen in the context of a puritanism that affected all religions in the Near East in the period.

If iconoclasm formed the ideal ideology behind Byzantium’s retrenchment strategy, however, it was the restoration of images that prompted successful offensives. Eastern territory was recovered by the Macedonian dynasty who consolidated Byzantine power in S. Italy, retook Palestine, Cyprus and Crete from the Arabs, and defeated the Bulgars.

What’s fascinating about this period from an artistic point of view is that the following centuries are the last in which the eastern and western halves of the oikoumene could be said to be artistically coterminous. If Romanesque was the last architectural style to recognisably share the same heritage and characteristics as Byzantine designs, so the tomb silks, ivories and cameos are the last types the West can assimilate as its own before this world of icons, mosaics and frescos are auto-alienated – dismissed as the development of another civilisation – and rejected as static, flat caricatures compared to its own art.

A penultimate point before I divulge the Byzantine treasures in this overcast corner of the globe, Byzantine art is usually assimilated into some generic “Christian art,” a label that obliterates the civilisation’s ultimate achievement: the elevation of its own art into a global idiom. For over a millennium, if an artist wanted to depict anything biblical there was only one acceptable manner, the Byzantine one. In the West, the last obvious example of this attitude is Giotto. By the time El Greco (d. 1614) erupted on the scene, a Byzantine art is produced in the West but not as the Byzantines would have known it – as enshrined in The Painter’s Manual of Dionysius of Fourna.

Finally, I want the items referenced to possess images, yet there are three tomb silks in this period that don’t because you’re not allowed to photo them, so I’ll quickly run through them here. First, an eighth-century silk from the tomb of St Servatius. Now at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester. It was made in Constantinople and depicts either the Dioskouroi (Castor and Pollux) or Romulus and Remus who, according to Malalas, most Byzantines considered the founders of the circus factions.

Secondly, a favourite of mine: St Cuthbert’s tomb silk at Durham Cathedral. Showing a female holding two sceptres despite its ecclesiastical role, it is peppered with pagan themes such a Gaia, her son Okeanos and the fruits of the seasons. If this takes your fancy, it’s worth making a trip to Aachen to see the early eleventh-century “elephant silk.”

Thirdly, the silk of Edward the Confessor’s tomb, now at the V&A. Found in his tomb at Westminster Abbey which was accidentally broken during preparations for the coronation of James II in April 1685, it was give to the V&A by Mrs A. L. Linge in 1944. Thanks to the haphazard nature in which the fragments were collected, ribbons (around the king’s head), gold crosses and silk fragments were lost. The main silk was saved, however, and featured griffins, doves, panthers and falcons in and among roundels. K. Ciggaar believes the cloth was received as a coronation gift as remuneration for services rendered to the emperor.


Triumph of Orthodoxy

Constantinople, 1400

London, British Museum, 1988

Formerly in a Swedish private collection, the central representation shows one of the most renowned icons of Constantinople, the icon of the Theotokos Hodegetria, painted by the evangelist St Luke from life according to tradition. Surrounding the icon are the regent Empress Theodora together with her young son, Michael III, as well as the Patriarch Methodios. Its lower register displays St Theophanes the Confessor and St Theodore the Studite holding an icon of Christ. To their right is a bishop and four further figures, of whom the furthest two are St Theophilaktos the Confessor and St Arsakios. Letters explain that between Theodore the Studite and St Theophilaktos stand the Graptoi (two monastic brothers who suffered a famously traumatic ordeal). And on the extreme left is a martyr saint portrayed as a nun.

The Clephane Horn

S. Italy, C11th

London, British Museum, 1914

An ivory horn (AKA oliphant) fashioned from an elephant tusk and carved with stiff-leaved acanthus, contiguous roundels, fantastical creatures and running vegetal scrolls, Walter Scott claimed it had been used for sounding the alarm from the battlements of Carslogie Castle (near Cupar in Fife) where it had lain since the Middle Ages. Its earlier history, however, was much more Mediterranean-centred, having most likely been carved in southern Italy for Byzantine overlords given it contains scenes from the hippodrome at Constantinople. Perhaps the most famous oliphant of all was that which belonged to Roland who refused to sound it until too late at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass (788) in the Song of Roland. If you take a shining to this one, feel free to catch a train north to York Minster where a similar object, the Horn of Ulph lies.

Gold and enamel reliquary-cross

Constantinople, C11th

London, British Museum, 1965

Rather excitingly excavated on the site of the Great Palace, the gold and cloisonné enamel pendent shows the Theotokos standing on a suppedaneum in an attitude of prayer. To her right on the transverse arm of the cross is a bust of St Basil the Great, to the left is St Gregory Thaumaturgus, each flanked by Greek abbreviations to identify them. The enamel is senkschmelz (literally “sunk melt”) and depicts Mary in her typical garb of blue chiton and maphorion, as well as scarlet shoes. If you like the style, head to Venice to see the votive crown of Leo VI at the Treasury of San Marco.


St Luke and beginning of Acts of the Apostles

Constantinople, mid C10th

London, British Library (MS28815), 1871

St Luke stands writing on a long scroll that’s unrolling off his desk. The hand of God appears to instruct the evangelist. Luke holds a pen-case with spare reed pens. The manuscript once formed a complete NT (with BL Egerton 3145) in more than 370 folios. Probably used for processions and the symbolic sections of liturgies, the cover is repousse work and in the centre lies a Deesis framed by four panels. One pattern contains the four evangelists with Peter and Paul. The other is unusual in that it shows the overthrow of the heretics Nestorius and Noetus (brownie points if you know who he is: for the rest of you, Noetus was the first to teach Patripassian doctrines) with inscriptions.

Ivory covers of Queen Melisende’s Psalter

Jerusalem, C12th

British Library

The ivory covers of the psalter show six scenes from the life of David accompanied by virtues and vices on the front. And, on the back, six works of charity carried out by a figure in imperial dress (one emperor or perhaps members of a dynasty?), followed by the phrases of Matthew 25.35-6 (“I was hungry… thirsty… homeless… naked… sick… in prison”). Small pieces of turquoise, ruby and jet were used to decorate the panels.


Theotokos Ivory Statue

Constantinople, late C10th

London, V&A, 1884

In a toss-up between this and the Borradaile Triptych, I chose this because it the only surviving free-standing Byzantine sculpture in the round. Several details have been lost thanks to over-polishing and the head of Christ is a later restoration. However, in the main it’s survived intact. Thin and elegant from the front (though not so much from behind), both figures are elongated in different areas: with the Mother of God’s legs extending to supermodel lengths and Christ’s torso clearly exaggerated.

Beresford Hope Cross

Eastern Med. C9th

London, V&A, 1886

Silver-gilt reliquary cross, hinged to open. On front is a depiction of Christ crucified between half-figures of the Theotokos and St John the Evangelist; above are the sun and a moon, and below is Adam’s skull. Somewhat bungled Geek inscriptions in thin gold strip on the edge approximate to the abbreviation for Jesus Christ and Christ’s words from the cross: “… Behold thy son… Behold thy mother!” (John 19.26-7). On the back is the Theotokos in orant pose standing on a suppedaneum. At the end of the cruciform enamel are saints: John the Baptist above, Peter to the left, Andrew to the right and Paul below.


Rossette Casket

Constantinople, C12th

Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, 1904

Wooden casket covered with bone plaques, in the centre of the the lid a griffin and lion confront one another with similar themes (including bears) on the casket’s main body. Though this is a fairly dull example of a casket, they are important as a type because their mythological turn is supposed to chart the ups and downs of iconoclasm when persecution compelled ivory carvers to seek forms that weren’t religious models. Some types became successful enough to be copied. For example, the expulsion from Eden on the doors of Pisa Cathedral seem to have been directly lifted from the Byzantine casket that now lies in the Museo Oliveriano at Pesaro.

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