‘Heaven and Earth:’ Icons loaned by Greece

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY ROLAND FLAMINI

To­day, “icon­o­clasm” has come to mean op­po­si­tion to tra­di­tional in­sti­tu­tions or be­liefs, but its his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance is more spe­cific. It re­ferred to a con­vic­tion among some Chris­tians in the sev­enth cen­tury that de­vo­tion to im­ages of Christ, Mary and the saints amounted to idol­a­try.

Bas­ing their ar­gu­ment on the sec­ond com­mand­ment given to Moses about not cre­at­ing and pay­ing ho­mage to any “graven im­age,” the icon­o­clasts (im­age break­ers) en­forced a strict ban on re­li­gious im­ages in the Chris­tian church for 128 years — from 717 to 845.

But sup­port­ers of icons coun­tered that bar­ring im­ages amounted to a de­nial of the cen­tral Chris­tian be­lief of Christ’s in­car­na­tion and life on Earth. Even­tu­ally they won the day, and the ban against cre­at­ing re­li­gious im­ages was lifted.

But here’s the thing. At the time, the icon­o­clasm de­bate mat­tered more in the East, where the Byzan­tine Em­pire, with Con­stantino­ple as its cap­i­tal, was the center of cul­ture, learn­ing and artis­tic ex­pres­sion in the known world for al­most a mil­len­nium. In the West, mean­while, the Ro­man Em­pire had col­lapsed, to be fol­lowed by the Dark Ages, a pe­riod of bar­barism and wide­spread il­lit­er­acy.

A new ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Gallery of Art, “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzan­tium from Greek Col­lec­tions,” is in a way a celebration of the vic­tory of the pro-icon move­ment and the in­spi­ra­tion it gave to art of the Western Re­nais­sance.

Lift­ing the ban on re­li­gious im­agery in Byzan­tium can be said to have opened the way for the cre­ation of many ma­jor works in Western art. The icon­o­clast ar­gu­ment could well have gone the other way. Even to­day some Protes­tant churches still ban re­li­gious im­agery, as does the Is­lamic re­li­gion.

The ex­hi­bi­tion, which brings to­gether an ar­ray of icons, mo­saics, manuscripts, ceram­ics and other ar­ti­facts span­ning some eight cen­turies, is a first for the Na­tional Gallery, which had never be­fore cov­ered the sub­ject. But in 2010 the Greek gov­ern­ment, des­per­ate to show that there was more to Greece than a fis­cal de­ba­cle, of­fered to loan Wash­ing­ton an en­tire ex­hi­bi­tion from the trea­sures of its mu­se­ums, con­vents and other in­sti­tu­tions.

“For Greece, cul­ture is one of our most valu­able as­sets,” Greek cul­ture min­is­ter Panos Pana­giotopolous wrote in an email from Athens. The min­is­ter had just re­turned home from Wash­ing­ton, where he was to have at­tended the show’s of­fi­cial open­ing ear­lier this month — but had been locked out of the Na­tional Gallery by the par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down with­out even see­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion in place. The fact that this ex­er­cise in cul­tural diplo­macy went some­what awry, how­ever, in no way de­tracts from its unique­ness and dis­tin­guished qual­ity.

Con­stantino­ple, founded in 324 by Em­peror Con­stan­tine, re­garded it­self as the new Rome, and its cit­i­zens as the new Ro­mans. It was the new im­pe­rial hub that adopted many of Rome’s ad­min­is­tra­tive and ju­di­cial prac­tices. Byzan­tium re­garded it­self as the heir to an­cient Greek learn­ing and lit­er­a­ture. But more than any­thing else, the Byzan­tine cul­ture was the Chris­tian re­li­gion, and that had a pro­found in­flu­ence on its vis­ual arts.

The ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes a num­ber of his­toric icons, re­li­gious im­ages painted on wood and the artis­tic form most closely as­so­ci­ated with Byzan­tium. The style is one-di­men­sional, with lit­tle shad­ing, vividly col­ored against a usu­ally gold back­ground to ac­cen­tu­ate the im­por­tance of the sub­ject.

Among the most in­ter­est­ing pieces is a dou­ble-sided icon from the 12th cen­tury show­ing, on one side, the Vir­gin Hodege­taria (“She who points the way”). She is not the serene im­age of Western masterworks, but a frown­ing, sor­row­ful mother point­ing sig­nif­i­cantly to her son. The im­age is a copy of a much ven­er­ated ear­lier ver­sion said to have been painted from life by St. Luke and brought to Con­stantino­ple in the fifth cen­tury. Cu­ri­ously, the Child Je­sus on the Vir­gin’s lap has the face of a young man.

The other side of the dou­ble-faced icon is an early rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the fig­ure of the dead Christ, not with arms spread on the cross, but laid out for burial with the arms at the side. The face re­flects suf­fer­ing and the head is in­clined to one side, a pos­ture copied through the ages by Western artists.

The ex­hi­bi­tion also show­cases some stun­ning mo­saics — the other quintessen­tially Byzan­tine art form — such as one ex­am­ple from the 12th cen­tury show­ing the apos­tle An­drew against a well-pre­served, typ­i­cal glit­ter­ing gold back­ground.

“Heaven and Earth” of­fers re­minders that what sur­vives of an­cient Greek texts is known mainly from copies made for Byzan­tine schol­ars: Among the col­lec­tion of manuscripts is an an­no­tated copy of Homer’s Iliad used in a school. Also in­cluded is the most lav­ishly il­lus­trated copy known of the “Ro­mance of Alexan­der,” a best-sell­ing, highly fic­tion­al­ized ac­count of Alexan­der the Great’s mil­i­tary cam­paigns and adventures that was trans­lated into nu­mer­ous lan­guages. The mouth­wa­ter­ing jew­elry on dis­play tes­ti­fies to the so­phis­ti­cated taste of the Byzan­tine rich, who ac­tu­ally used forks (also on show) to eat — long be­fore such uten­sils were used in the West.

In con­trast to Western art, there are no old mas­ters’ names here to set pulses rac­ing. The icons — and for that mat­ter the mo­saics also — are the cre­ative ef­fort of anony­mous artists, of­ten monks. But it is largely through their work that mod­ern Greece in­her­its the glory that was Byzan­tium — a her­itage kept alive through the Greek Or­tho­dox Church.

“The hor­i­zon­tal line of Greek­ness run­ning through the Byzan­tine cul­ture is ab­so­lutely ob­vi­ous in the ex­hi­bi­tion,” said Mr. Pana­giotopou­los. “Many el­e­ments of Byzan­tium were trans­ferred to the West and con­sti­tuted fun­da­men­tal pil­lars of Western cul­ture.” WHAT:


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