Issue Number: 100
How should we react to a feast of Byzantine artefacts? This autumn’s Royal Academy show offers a unique opportunity to appreciate the art of the period, and we asked Judith Herrin, Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King’s College London, to give her first impressions of some of the objects visitors will see.
Herrin’s love affair with Byzantium began with an image from Ravenna, Italy, that she found in a magazine, aged sixteen or seventeen. ‘It was a reproduction of the mosaic head of the Empress Theodora, and something about the brilliant colours and the sadness of the face caught my attention - she is so majestic, yet so mysterious. Then I discovered that she and Emperor Justinian had never been to Ravenna and I began to wonder why their mosaics were there.’
This spirit of enquiry took the young Judith and her mother on a trip that proved to be a profound influence on her life. ‘We drove from Milan, in a tiny rented Fiat Cinquecento, going "phut phut phut" in the summer heat. I remember passing Pomposa Abbey, its Romanesque tower catching the setting sun. Next day, we reached Ravenna. I thought it was wonderful: still a small Roman city, yet with these major churches within its walls. I didn’t realise then that the Gothic invaders, under Theodoric, had made it their capital. At the time, I just had this blinding impression of a great sequence of buildings decorated in extraordinary styles, with marble façades and domes. But it was the mosaics that were really astonishing. They offered a view into another world.’
Herrin hopes that visitors to the RA will share a little of her own sense of revelation. ‘Just being amazed at the objects on show - the gold, the quality of the enamel in the inlay, the great skill of the jewellers and die cutters - is a normal reaction. But I hope that visitors will also think about the traditions that lie behind these skills.’
Unknown artist, Wall mosaic with head of an angel, late eleventh century. Tesserea on stucco, 31.6 x 24.6 cm. Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Objets d'Art. Photo RMN-M/Beck-Coppola, Paris
Certainly, Herrin - whose book is a very accessible introduction to the history of the period - hasn’t lost her ability to be inspired, as her reactions on these pages show. To begin, we show her a mosaic fragment of an angel’s head (right): ‘There is such skill in the setting of these stones. Close up it looks crude, the colour on the cheek obvious, but it was meant to be seen at a distance. That’s why the outline is so forceful. It’s magnificent.'
Icon of the Archangel Michael, Constantinople, twelfth century. Silver gilt on wood, gold cloisonné enamel, precious stones, 46.5 x 35 x 2.7 cm. Basilica di San Marco, Venice, Tresoro, inv. no. 16. Photo per gentile concessione della Procuratoria di San Marco/Cameraphoto Arte, Venice
'The workmanship here is extraordinary. This is the Archangel Michael, holding a sword and orb to show what a powerful figure he is. The enamelling of the hair and the halo are striking features. There is great detailing on the weapons and costumes of the soldier saints on either side, and their faces are individually portrayed.'
Perfume brazier in the form of a domed building, Constantinople or Italy, end of the twelfth century. Silver, partially gilded, embossed and perforated, 36 x 30 cm. Basilica di San Marco, Venice, Tesoro, inv. no. 109. Photo per gentile concessione della Procuratoria di San Marco/Cameraphoto Arte, Venice
'Many-domed churches are a feature of Byzantine architecture, and here is an incense burner made to look like one. There’s a hinged door on one side to put the incense in and the holes in the domes would release all those heavenly fragrances.'
Angelos, Icon of St Theodore Tero slaying the dragon, 1425-1450. Wood, 122.8 x 70 cm, The Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens.
'St Theodore the Tiro slaying a dragon - a common task for soldier saints. This one is associated with Euchaita in northern Turkey, where he is said to have performed many miracles. The hand of God guides his sword in this dramatic icon, painted by the celebrated Cretan artist Angelos, at a time when Byzantine artists were just beginning to sign their work.'
Unknown artist, The Riha Paten (Paten with the Communion of the Apostles), 565-578. Silver with gilding and niello, Diameter 35 cm, Byzantine Collection, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC.
'This silver plate is extraordinary, not only because it is so large and has gilded decoration, but because it tells a story. Notice how Christ is shown twice; he administers the sacrament to six apostles on his left, then he turns to the six on his right.'
Unknown artist, The Homilies of Monk James Kokkinobaphos, 1100–1150. Manuscript, 22.8 x 18 x 7 cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, Ms. Gr.1208, fol. 3v. Photo © Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris
'A page from a celebrated manuscript of illustrated sermons, Homilies on the Virgin Mary, here is Christ transfigured in the mandorla, the Virgin and Apostles below. But it’s also a chance to see another glorious church, with domes similar to the ones on the incense burner. We are looking into the church, but seeing the exterior as well. These wonderful patterns and colours would reflect what church decoration was like at that time.'
Unknown artist, Mosaic icon of Saint Stephen, c. 1108–1113. Tesserae on stucco, 218 x 118 x 7 cm. National Conservation Area St. Sophia of Kiev
'Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is always shown as a deacon of the church. Here he is shown swinging a censer on its chains and, it has been suggested, holding the Sacrament, covered by a cloth. This fragment was salvaged from the
Cathedral of St Michael of the Golden Domes in Kiev, which was destroyed in 1934. We are very privileged to be able to have such a good look at it.’
Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, by Judith Herrin (Penguin, £10.99)