‘Heaven and Earth:’ Icons loaned by Greece
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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