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Art Matters XXXIII: Reflections on various art media

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Sculpture, pt 10d History of Byzantine Medieval Art, Fall to the Ottoman Empire & Importance to West

By Janet Cornacchio

The last discussion on the Eastern Empire and Constantinople concluded with the destruction of the city by the Fourth Crusade.  While the city did survive, in time it inevitably succumbed to the advancing forces of the Ottoman Empire.  Constantinople as a city and Byzantium as an Empire represents 2,200 years of continuous Roman tradition and 1,600 years of Hellenistic civilization.  There were centuries when the Western Roman Empire was in transition to what was to become the Western Europe states and this city was the major repository of much of the knowledge of Ancient Greece and Rome.  Indeed, approximately two-thirds of the ancient manuscripts of the likes of Plato, Ptolemy and Aristotle were sourced from the East.

To review: from the time when Constantine first moved the Roman Empire’s capitol to Constantinople, the Eastern Empire’s borders waxed and waned, through multiple cycles of expansion and contraction—expanding under Justinian in the 6th century, contracting during the first waves of Muslim conquest in the 7th and then expanding again under the Macedonians in the 9th through the mid-11th century.  The Komnenian dynasty recovered much of Constantinople’s wealth and under them, in the 12th century, it became the largest and wealthiest European city, only to be overwhelmed by the onslaught of the Fourth Crusade.  

By 1261, Byzantium recovered, though not as the powerful empire it once was.  It became one of several small rival states in the region and its territories were gradually annexed by the expanding Ottomans.  The city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, its walls unable to withstand the onslaught of the Turks’ enormous cannons (bombards) firing balls a meter in diameter and weighing 400 kg.

The last Byzantine dynasty was that of the Palaiologans  who came to power during the government’s exile from the city of Constantinople while the Crusaders were in control.  Theirs was to be the last and longest-lived dynasty in Byzantine history.  Under their rule the focus of the Empire shifted from their relationship to the Roman Empire to their Greek heritage.  Referring to themselves as Hellenes (ancient Greece), the Palaiologan court in Nicaea on the Anatolian Peninsula saw a flowering of scholarship, art and literature with artists and scholars traveling there from throughout the Byzantine world.  Artists focused on a new subject: landscapes and pastoral scenes and continued to work in mosaics and moved on to detailed cycles of narrative frescoes.  Icons became a favored medium for artistic and spiritual expression and evinced a new appreciation for the purely decorative qualities of painting, which has been characterized as Palaiologan “Mannerism.”  Their descendants can be found in Italy—Montferrat, Genoa and throughout Europe—Bulgaria, Georgia and Serbia.  

Byzantine influence spread in other ways.  In 1212, the city-state of Venice came to control the island of Crete, which had been under Roman and Byzantine control at different times over the centuries.   It was a result of the presence of Venice on the island that the Cretan School evolved.  The school was characterized by a style, which combined both Byzantine and Western art traditions, and they exported large numbers of icons to the West.  The tradition’s most famous artist was El Greco(1541-1614) who is best known as a Spanish Renaissance artist.  El Greco was born in Crete under Venetian rule, worked in Venice, then opened a studio in Rome prior to finally landing in Toledo where he produced his most well known works.

Just as Venice was shaped by its exposure to Byzantium, so too were Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and Russia.  These eastern European nations, Russia in particular, were important as they became the center of the Orthodox Christian religion following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and the Balkans.  The importance of the icon as an art form and an interpretive symbol continued under Ottoman rule.  Byzantium icons and other smaller scale art continued, serving as a unifying factor for the Orthodox Church and the former Empire.  The art traditions of the Byzantium Empire, especially those of icon painting and church architecture continued in Greece, Cyprus and the other Eastern Orthodox countries and are often so strictly observed that even today they follow the conventions of their 6th century antecedents.      

The greatest exception to this conservative understanding of art conventions was the Cretan School mentioned above, which was open to Western European trends and was more readily recognized in the West in turn.  The Republic of Venice and the Kingdom of Sicily both had close ties to the Byzantine Empire and were originally in Byzantine possession, gradually winning independence as the Empire’s control waned.

Furthermore, perhaps the subtlest and greatest source of Eastern European knowledge and artistic forms resulted from the Crusades.  From 1096 through 1291, multiple waves of knights and yeoman traveled across Europe by land and sea and, for a short period, had Crusader states in Antioch, Edessa, Tripoli, and Jerusalem.  The increase in trade, improved transportation and resultant increase in wealth were very important to the development of the West.  The returning Crusaders brought back knowledge and many physical artifacts that supported the wisdom they’d gained and ultimately led to the Renaissance, Age of Exploration and beyond.

For some entertaining insights on the Crusades’ influences, read or watch the Brother Cadfael stories.  It’s a great way to gain a relatively accurate perspective on that time in England, and in many ways circles back to how important and influential the Eastern Empire was in the development of the West in a time when its culture was in transition.  That transition was reflected in the evolution of Western art, which is the focus of this series of columns.

Next time, a break from art history for a bit and then a return to explore how art evolved in the Medieval period in Western Europe.  

Lastly, some great works of Medieval art are on display at the MFA.  For another source of research and study, check out Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library in Washington, DC.  It is a center for study and exhibition of Byzantine history and art and more, as well as having gardens and landscape areas.  I studied under some of its researchers.  Remember, if we don’t understand from whence we’ve come, how can we understand who we are now and where we would like to be in the future?

Janet Cornacchio is an artist member of Front Street Art Gallery, President of Scituate Arts Association and a Realtor. You can contact her at jcornacch@aol.com