Bits of Byzantium

As a schoolboy I was obsessed with the Byzantine Empire, and its astounding capital city of Constantinople. I loved the poems by W.B. Yeats in which the artefacts of Byzantium were celebrated.

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the star-lit golden bough.

Then in the 1970s I had the chance to live and work in the "city of cities" in its modern guise as Turkish Istanbul. I spent much time seeking out any relics that had survived of the Byzantine world, a world that the Ottomans did their best to erase as soon as they'd taken the city in 1453.

Ask anyone to free-associate around the word “Byzantine” and you will probably hear of devious minds, convoluted bureaucracy and domed buildings. With a little more knowledge, the list would extend to eunuchs, chariot racing, the worship of icons, pictorial mosaics and the heights of design and artifice in ivory, hammered gold and gold enamelling. You might even hear of eating with forks and the invention of Greek fire. This fragmented knowledge is a result of the destruction that happened in 1453, which led to the whole of Byzantium's incredibly elaborate and commanding culture, a thousand years of civilisation, being reduced to a scattered catalogue of museum objects and collector's bits and pieces. But the upside is that these objets de vertu are steeped in information about the world from which they came.

Designers working in the Byzantine Empire combined a global vision with highly intricate hand-skills, even when making the smallest decorative, household or liturgical objects. Their products demonstrate how domestic, political and religous ideas interpenetrated each other. Look (for example) at the use of ivory to fashion luxury domestic objects such as this one.

  Ivory comb from Byzantine Alexandria, 6th C AD

Combs like this, from Byzantine Egypt, were fine-toothed enough to cope with many an outbreak of nits, but would have more high-minded carvings in their middle sections, showing perhaps mythological sea creatures or, as in this case, personifications of Rome on one side (the side you see) and Constantinople on the other. When this particular comb was made Imperial propaganda rested on the idea that Byzantium was the flip-side of Rome, making one of the twin political forces of the Mediterranean world. It's true that at this point Rome was in a spiral of decline, while Byzantium was in the ascendant. But the older capital’s prestige remained as an essential reference-point for its sister city’s growing potency, prestige and wealth.

More overtly political ivories make the same point. Carved diptychs (paired panels, hinged so the two sides would stand upright) were regularly issued in Constantinople and Rome to mark the appointment of consuls. The enthroned consul was usually shown flanked, as here, by the avatars of Rome and Constantinople.

One wing of a consular diptych in ivory. Italian. Early 5th C AD.

For a term of one year these consuls had the job of stage-managing public ceremonies and entertainments, which to us would make them functionaries, but in that world it gave them enormous political power, since ceremony and spectacle were at the heart of imperial politics, and vice-versa. On this example the newly-appointed consul oversees a stadium stag hunt (clearly showing parallels with modern bull-fighting), but it might easily have shown a chariot race, or a team of slaves pouring out sackfuls of coin as a consular hand-out to the Hippodrome crowd.

If races, gladiators and games overlapped with politics, so did religion. Religious art in Byzantium concentrated on representating Christ and the Virgin Mary, and in particular on the scene of the Annunciation. The Byzantines’ fondness for this subject (which is no less than the moment of the conception of Christianity itself) seems thematically linked to the Emperor Constantine I’s conception and nurturing of the new Christian empire, which began when he de-criminalised Christian worship in 313 AD.

These icons are the most sacred of all Christian Byzantine artefacts and are in modern eyes the most recognisable class of Byzantine product. Today the word “iconic” is draped over anything that is publicly cherished, but to the Byzantines icons were special in a completely different sense from a Rolling Stones album-cover, or Damien Hirst’s pickled shark. Most importantly they were not simply works of art but sacred objects, in much the same way that relics were sacred. They were invested with the identity of God, or of an important saint. Any pious person who meditated on an icon intensely enough could, it was believed, establish a hot line of communication to the divine. To own such an icon was virtually to possess a free pass to heaven.

  14th C double sided icon. Virgin Psychosostria and Annunciation.

The Virgin Psychosostria (Saviour of Souls) was the most mystically powerful of the icons, and it is the subject of one side of this double-sided example. It is based on an icon that was kept in Constantinople (and is now lost) which was believed to have been painted by the evangelist St Luke, and to have many kinds of miraculous power. This power was considered transferable, by God’s creative generosity, from the original to its copies, giving these icons an aura that is almost impossible to understand on the page or in a museum. Seeing them out of their religious context you are left looking “merely” at a painting, and one which is not by our standards crowd-pleasingly beautiful. But that is not the proper standard on which to judge them. It is not how Byzantines saw them.

  Gold solidus of Michael III (842-67) with Empress Theodora.

In Byzantium, the Christian God eventually took over the works of Mammon as well. Gold and silver coins were issued throughout the history of the empire from 335, when Constantine I still ruled, until the end in 1453. These coins show just how carefully a Byzantine ruler managed his image for they did not just represent money, they were an assertion of his imperial authority. It was Justinian the Great, in the sixth century, who first rejected the coins’ traditional profile portrait, and after that the gold solidus always showed emperors and empresses boldly confronting their people face-on, as if to command their obeisance. A century after that, religion was introduced into Byzantine economics, when the obverse side of the coin began to display pictures of Christ, the virgin, a powerful saint, or (in times of iconoclasm when sacred images were proscribed) the cross. Each coin effectively asserted that the imperial bank was backed by divine guarantees.

The bank's currency was in use throughout the Mediterranean and Northern Europe, so that the solidus (known outside the empire as a bezant) was comparable in its reliability and ubiquity to the British pound or American dollar at their own zeniths. But Byzantine coin was even more durable than these modern counterparts, maintaining a rocklike stability for 700 years until at last, in the 11th century, the now beleaguered and impoverished Byzantine mints were forced to debase the gold standard with increasing increments of silver. Eventually gold was abandoned completely and  the solidus was replaced by a silver denomination, the stavraton.

  One-eighth silver stavraton of Constantine XI in silver.

The final issues of these coins, like the one illustrated here, have special poignancy. They were minted by the last of the emperors, Constantine XI, while the city was undergoing the terminal Ottoman siege. Constantine needed them to pay the Western mercenaries who still remained in defence of the city. The coins' debased metal, and their hasty rough and ready design under siege conditons, are all too evident, and their period of currency was pathetically short. Soon after their issue Turkish cannon battered holes in the great walls, and the Ottoman army poured through. The Turks at once set about raping and massacring the population while systematically looting the churches, treasuries and private houses. And since all the finest things had become concentrated in the Imperial city, the Ottomans had vast quantities of the most precious treasure at their disposal. Dispose of it they did. They burned churches and palaces. They re-purposed the sacred Patriarchal robes as horse-coats and even dog-coats. They made bonfires of books and icons and dined off the sacred vessels.

Although the Byzantine "empire" had long since shrunk to the proportions of a mini-state, it felt in its mind and habits that it was still imperial. It can therefore be said that no empire has fallen with more sudden destruction of all its most precious things — thousands of sacred relics in their jeweled reliquaries, scores of churches decorated by great mosaicists and icon-painters, and hundreds of palaces and households stuffed with treasures and jewelery fashioned by the supreme craftsmen that Yeats called “the golden smithies of the Emperor”. All that we have left of this cornucopia of wonders are scattered bits in museums and private collections around the world: the remnants of one of history's greatest and most elaborate civilisations.

Posted on February 11th, 2020


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