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Prologue: the two worlds of Christendom

[From, Byzantine East & Latin West: Two Worlds in Middle Ages and Renaissance, Harper Torch books, New York 1966]


Unlike the Byzantine service to literature, which in many respects may appear to have been mainly a holding operation from antiquity, the Byzantine contribution to art was essentially original and attained a degree of expressiveness that has rarely been equalled. Byzantine art, in particular its painting, has been much in vogue recently, especially because of its relatively abstract character as well as richness of colour. We shall have to limit our remarks here to the more important aspects of Byzantine art, concentrating especially on Italy where its influence was greatest.

It is no exaggeration to say that Italy, from the sixth to the thirteenth century, was an artistic province of Byzantium. In its many monuments of painting and mosaics can be seen the distinctive traits of Byzantine art -its power, mysticism, colour and line-qualities which sought to represent to the viewer something more than the appearance of nature, rather to evoke emotions expressing the reality of the other world.

We may begin with the Byzantine mosaics at Ravenna, especially the portraits of the Emperor Justinian, his consort Theodora, and the imperial court. The refulgent cubes (tessera) of coloured glass and stone, set at various angles, reflect the light in such a way as to suggest the celestial richness of the court of God's vicar on earth. In these mosaics and also the wall paintings of the Ravenna churches, in some of those of Rome throughout the various medieval centuries (of the artist Cavallini for instance), and in the Norman cathedral of Monreale in Sicily with the imposing figure of the Byzantine Pantocrator in the apse, the tradition of the East is clearly apparent. Further north, in Venice, which was almost a Byzantine city as Diehl puts it (or 'another Byzantium' as Bessarion declared in the fifteenth century),(72) the mosaics of St. Mark's cathedral -the building itself almost an exact replica of the church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople- also belong to the artistic sphere of Byzantium. Modelled evidently after St. Mark's is the dome structure of the church of Saint Front in Perigeux, France, while still further to the north, in Charlemagne's capital of Aachen, Germany, Charlemagne's palace chapel was modelled after San Vitale in Ravenna, itself an imitation of the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople. Also to be found at Aachen are bronze doors and other specimens of Byzantine or Byzantine-inspired workmanship.(73)

While looking with admiration at the great monuments of Byzantine art, the medieval westerner prized even more the smaller but precious works of the Byzantine craftsmen. Some ivory carvings sent as gifts to western princes or prelates still remain, and the French monastery of St. Denis possessed textiles ornamented with figures of eastern type. Along with their creations the Byzantine craftsmen themselves not infrequently moved to the West and they, probably even more than the products of their art, seem to have been responsible for suggesting new ideas and methods to local western artists. Thus in the seventh century when the Greek monk and later Archbishop of Canterbury Theodore of Tarsus came to Britain, his entourage may have included easterners expert in the technique of sculpture. Similarly, the painted figures of the Evangelists in the Lindisfarne gospels were modelled basically on Byzantine or Italo-Byzantine originals and we know of the Byzantine style in Northumbria and Mercia, and in the tenth and eleventh centuries in Wessex.(74) At Monte Cassino in southern Italy, in the eleventh century, under the aegis of the Abbot Desiderius, Byzantine art objects -bronze doors among them- were purchased in Constantinople and sent to adorn the great abbey.(75) And later, during the twelfth century, the interior of the great French monastery church of Cluny was decorated by frescoes in so Byzantine a style that they may even have been done by a native Greek.(76)

We must touch, lastly, on the difficult problem of Byzantine influence on the art of the Italian Renaissance. Α few scholars believe that even the beginnings of realism in western painting, usually connected with the name of the Italian Giotto (as the Italian sources put it Giotto freed himself from 'la maniera greca', meaning the Byzantine style), should rather be attributed to the inspiration of Byzantine art.(77) Whether this be true or whether it was, as seems more likely, the result of a parallel though independent development of Italian and Byzantine art reverting back in each case to ancient Hellenistic models, there is no doubt that in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries a good deal of Byzantine painting was becoming more interested in showing emotion, more personal and individualized -in short more realistic and humanized. We may cite as evidence of these qualities the Byzantine masterpieces at the monastery of the Chora (Kariye Camii) in Constantinople, in the churches of Milesevo, Sopocani, and Gracanica in Yugoslavia, to a lesser extent in the churches of Mistra (near Sparta), and the very recently uncovered paintings at St. Nicholas Orfanos and in other churches of Thessalonika. Certain similar characteristics are to be found in Italy in the works of the Florentine artist Cimabue, the Sienese Duccio, and in certain other Italian Trecento painters.

In the view of the critics Charles Diehl and especially the more recent authority Andre Grabar, it was Italian painting, through the Byzantine influence exerted on Duccio and Giotto that derived the greater benefit from the renewed contact of the Byzantines with paintings in the Hellenistic spirit. For despite their superb creations the Byzantine artists inspired by the realistic aesthetic of the Hellenistic models remained in the minority. And during the course of the fourteenth century, when their Italian contemporaries were advancing to the freer art forms, which were to become characteristic of the Italian Renaissance, Byzantine painting in general reverted to the more conventional Byzantine forms. Nevertheless, despite this reversion to the older, more traditional methods (a phenomenon perhaps attributable, according to Grabar, to Byzantine mistrust of anything connected with the Latins), some paintings were produced during this period which equal or surpass in brilliance and decorativeness the best works of the earlier Byzantine epochs. What is particularly striking is that scenes in these fourteenth century paintings display almost a new type of experimental boldness which, in the elongated, attenuated figures and the extraordinary colouring used, seems in certain respects to anticipate the style of Εl Greco.(78)

These two developments in Byzantine painting, then, both a part of the remarkable Palaeologan Renaissance of the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries (remarkable because a Renaissance in both art and letters could occur while the Empire itself was collapsing on every side), have been termed by art historians the Macedonian and Cretan schools of painting. Macedonian refers in general to the shorter-lived, more realistic art of the end of the thirteenth and first decades of the fourteenth century radiating primarily from the centre Thessalonika. The so-called Cretan refers to the reversion to (or in some cases continuation of) the more traditional modes of painting, found especially at Mt. Athos or on Crete itself, and extending through the sixteenth century and even later. Because of a growing awareness today of the complexity of Byzantine painting in this period, however, such a distinction between the two schools seems too rigid and is indeed often difficult to make clear in the paintings that have survived. It may therefore be better, as some scholars are now doing, to scrap the use of these particular terms which were originally coined a half century ago by the French art historian Millet.(79)

Sometimes overlooked even by art historians is the presence of Greek painters in Italy after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 -men who continued to produce works in the more or less traditional Byzantine manner until as late as the seventeenth century. Their paintings, often referred to as belonging to the Cretan school, are admittedly not of primary importance. But they are frequently of quality, especially those produced by the group of painters living in the Greek community of Venice.

It is the opinion of Modern Greek art historians as well as certain western critics that the celebrated Εl Greco, born Domenikos Theotokopoulos on the Venetian-held island of Crete some four or five decades after the fall of Constantinople, may be termed, from certain viewpoints, one of the last of the 'Byzantine' painters.(80) Εl Greco studied for four years in Venice and later adopted as his permanent residence the Castilian city of Toledo. But despite the undeniable influence of these two centers on the formation of his technic and style, he never seems to have forgotten his Byzantine heritage. Indeed a remarkable document very recently discovered seems to indicate that he lived in Crete until the age of 25, not merely until 18 as was previously believed.(81) The point is that this greatest of all Greek painters may have been more deeply influenced in his early years by the Cretan-Byzantine style of his native island than most western scholars have been willing to admit. Ιn that period painters were apprenticed rather early, so that by the age of 25 'Maestro' Εl Greco should already have had some ten years experience in the Byzantine style.

Italy, then, the prime area of Byzantine artistic influence, owed much to Byzantium: not only the models from which many Italian artists worked, not only the bronze doors, gorgeous fabrics, enamels and richly illuminated manuscripts which were brought to the West, but, of more underlying importance, the symbolic pattern of church decoration and even the iconographical schemes for some of the more important religious motifs. Thus, it may be said that all through the medieval period, from the sixth century probably even to the beginning of the Renaissance in the fourteenth, Byzantine art profoundly influenced that of Italy and, through Italy, many areas of western Europe.


72. - Ch. Diehl, Une République patricienne: Venise (Paris, 1928). D. Geanakoplos, Greek Scholars in Venice, 35. On the Pantocrator see now C. Capizzi, Pantocrator (title in Greek, article in Italian) (Rome, 1964) 302-29.

73. - The Byzantine monuments of Torcello, Venice's original settlement, date back to the seventh century, and esp. the twelfth. Also see Tschan, St. Bern ward of Hildesbeim, II, 142, 168-69, and 200, n. 6.

74. - Talbot Rice, Byzantine Art, 250-52; Runciman, Byzantine Civilization, 238. Also Talbot Rice, English Art, 22, 133-35, 250.

75. - Bloch, 'Montecassino, Byzantium and the West', 194. It is believed that the mosaics in the Baptistery of Florence were decorated by Byzantine or Βyzantinetrained craftsmen in the thirteenth century. Cf. J. Beckwith's recent The Art of Constantinople (London, 1961) 137.

76. - The church of Cluny was begun in 1089 and dedicated in 1131. See J. Gay, 'L'abbaye de Cluny et Byzance au début du XIIe siècle', Échos d'Orient, ΧΧΧ (1931) 84-90. Also J. Leclercq, 'Spiritualité et culture a Cluny', Spiritualita Cluniacense (Todi, 1960) 101 ff.

77. - See, Schweinfurth, 'Die Bedeutung der byzantinischen Kunst fur die Stilbildung der Renaissance', in Die Antike, ΙΧ (1933) 2. Also cf. the old work of R. Byron and Τ. Rice, The Birth of Western Painting (London, 1930) and C. Diehl, Manuel de l'art byzantin, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1925-26) 743-44. Also see next notes.

78. - Α. Grabar, Byzantine Painting (Geneva, 1953) 45-46. Diehl, op. cit., 743-44. Cf. V. Lazarev, 'Duccio and Thirteenth Century Greek Icons', Burlington Magazine, LIX (1931) 159. See also bibl. below, Chaps. 4-5.

79. - There is a growing literature on this complex problem, the terms of which, Macedonian and Cretan, were first used in G. Millet, Recherches sur l'iconographie de l'Évangile ... d'après les monuments de Mistra, Macédoine, et du Mont-Athos (Paris 1916) who based his distinction entirely on iconographical considerations. D. Talbot Rice believes the two terms should be avoided, an opinion he expressed to me personally in Athens in 1964. He thinks the term Cretan in particular is used much too loosely to refer to (1) 'half-Italian' icons (2) wall paintings in Crete (3) paintings on Mt. Athos, which are much unlike those of Crete, though referred to as Cretan. See now Talbot Rice, Art of the Byzantine Era (New York, 1963) 219ff: Cf. also the views of Α. Xyngopoulos, Historical Sketch of Religious Painting after the Conquest (in Greek) (Athens, 1957) 1-12, and esp. his Τhessalonique et la Peinture Macédonienne (Athens, 1955), and M. Chatzidakes, 'Rapport entre la peinture de la Macédoine et la Crete au XIVe sièle', Hellenika (1954) esp. 138 f.; another recent work of Talbot Rice, the Art of Byzantium (New York,1959) 334-37, and the old work of Byron, The Byzantine Achievement, 216-19.

80. - Talbot Rice, Byzantine Art, 256, and his Art of the Byzantine Era, 232. R. Byron, The Byzantine Achievement (London, 1929) 38, 218; F. Rutter, review in Burlington Magazine, ΙΧ (1932) 274; J. Willumsen, La Jeunesse du Peintre El Greco (Paris, 1927) 161ff., etc.

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