Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Monuments of Magnificence

TLS November 28 2008

from Alexander Murray's review of Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts (until March 22):

This strong concept of state was expressed in the Emperor's status. Constantine's move had exposed the imperial office to theocratic traditions older and stronger than anything comparable in the West, traditions which saw a ruler as quasi-divine. These traditions were now to be reflected in the Emperor's cult and court, and included such embellishments as those singing birds made of gold, which Liudprand of Cremona saw on a visit in 949-50, and which would inspire W. B. Yeats in "Sailing to Byzantium". 


Consider the ubiquitous Byzantine image of Christos Pantocrator, "Ruler of All". Is he really human, or superhuman? The same man surely could not also have undergone torture and death, like a criminal. This tension left its mark on many artefacts, among them the early crucifixes . . . . Even then, a crucifixion image had to show next to it the resurrection, to give reassurance that Christ was still God incarnate. And that reassurance not withstanding, Christ on the cross was for a long time still not shown as dead. He has his eyes open and his head straight, unlike that of a man dying or dead (as in item 129, from c600-50, possibly Egyptian). Only in the early eighth century, and then only intermittently, does the notion of God who died and suffered become digestible, so that his eyes appear closed or his head droops, as in a crucifix from late tenth-century Constantinople . . . . In the thirteenth century, finally, but only at the innovative Western end of the Byzantine cultural zone, Christ's suffering is fully confronted, as here in a two-sided processional cross from Pisa. 

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