Seduced by Byzantium

I’ve just started reading the first volume of John Julius Norwich’s history of Byzantium, largely prompted by having booked our tickets to visit (in January!) the Royal Academy’s new exhibition, Byzantium 330-1453.

Norwich’s opening sentences capture something of the magic of Byzantium, of why it is easy to be held in its thrall:

In the beginning was the word – surely one of the most magically resonant place-names in all history. Even if its Empire had never existed, even had there been no W. B. Yeats to celebrate it, even had it remained what it was at the outset – a modest Greek settlement at the furthest extremity of the European continent, without pretensions or ambitions – Byzantium would surely have impressed itself upon our minds and memories by the music of its name alone, conjuring up those same visions that it evokes today: visions of gold and malachite and porphyry, of stately and solemn ceremonial, of brocades heavy with rubies and emeralds, of sumptuous mosaics dimly glowing through halls cloudy with incense.

Now, in my head, I know I’m supposed to disapprove of Byzantium and much of its expression of Christianity. The whole concept of a “Christian empire” ought to be an oxymoron; it represents a millennium-long confusion of church and state; it is the political expression of the theology of glory. And I probably deserve to get thrown off the Jacques Ellul Facebook group for writing this post.

However, this is one of those times when my head is overruled by my heart. I fell in love with Byzantium a decade ago, watching John Romer’s magnificent TV series about the city and its empire, and no amount of four-square Lutheran cross-theology or two-kingdoms teaching, or Ellulian Christian anarchy, can quite cure me of it.

So when I read with dismay – and I am dismayed – of how easily Constantine was able to seduce the church’s bishops with the magnificence of his appearance and the generosity of his gifts at the Council of Nicaea and his subsequent twentieth anniversary celebrations, at the same time I have to admit I’ve probably been seduced in just the same way they were.

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10 Responses to Seduced by Byzantium

  1. I don’t know John. I share your affection for that period of history. I take it with a grain of salt, it had its problems. But I do appreciate the art, the chapels, and even many of the rituals, it bequeathed to later generations. I am much more appreciative of this than anything that came out of Geneva during the reformation. So I look forward to a review from you on the Royal Academy’s exhibition.

  2. John H says:

    Bror: I agree (though I’m also appreciative of some things to have come out of Geneva – or at least the Genevan Psalter).

    I may have overstated the extent to which Byzantium is a guilty pleasure for me. And I’m certainly not dismissing the positive things that came out of Byzantine Christianity and the wider traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy. (Little things like the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition…) My point – in so far as it deserves to be dignified with the term “point” 😉 – was focused more specifically on the imperial aspects of it.

  3. John D says:

    I don’t think Athanasius, Hilary, Chrysostom, or Ambrose were seduced by the imperial splendor of Byzantium.

  4. Chris Jones says:

    John D beat me to it … but I will add to his list the names of Maximos Confessor, Popes Martin and Agatho, John Damascene, Theodore the Studite and all who faced down the imperium over both Monotheletism and Iconoclasm.

    That is not to say that the Byzantine “symphony” was without its problems. But despite that, it is precisely its “expression of Christianity” as you put it — in iconography, in music, in hymnody, in the theology of the Fathers, and most of all in the lives of its saints — that is the chief glory of Byzantium.

    Go back to whoever told you that you were “supposed to” disapprove of Byzantine Christianity (Gibbon, I suspect) and tell him to put a sock in it.

  5. John H says:

    Chris, John: quite so! I realise that my reference to its “expression of Christianity” – my finger hovered over the delete key more than once with those words highlighted – was not the best way of putting it, though I deliberately didn’t say “Eastern Orthodoxy”, because I emphatically didn’t mean “Eastern Orthodoxy”.

    My point was specifically targeted at the political-imperial aspects of Byzantium, the whole concept (as I said in my post) of a “Christian empire”. I don’t question for a moment the fact that under that regime flourished an astonishing wealth of spiritual riches – and of opposition to the imperium when that was called upon.

    It was also targeted at my own susceptibility to fall for what Simon Schama has called “the oompah of empire”; a “Last Night of the Proms” mentality. When I say I feel I ought to disapprove of Byzantium, it’s in the same way I feel I ought to disapprove of the British Empire, but can’t quite bring myself to do so to the requisite extent.

    I also had my tongue at least partly in my cheek.

    What it comes down to is this: I don’t believe the church is ever intended to ally itself with Caesar, even when Caesar professes faith in Christ. But it has to be said that the version of the alliance on display in the Byzantine Empire is pretty compelling in many ways. If it’s a choice between Jacques Ellul and Hagia Sophia – well, sorry, Jacques…

  6. J Random Hermeneut says:

    If it’s a choice between Jacques Ellul and Hagia Sophia – well, sorry, Jacques…

    “Shine, Jesus Shine” on a clavinova is the clear victor over both those options, innit?

  7. John H says:

    Now that’s just harsh.

    We only sing it very occasionally, and as the accompanist I hope that the Celestial Tribunal on Crimes Against Church Music will be more sympathetic to the “only obeying orders” defence than certain other courts have been…

    Plus we may actually be getting a proper organ before long. With actual pipes. Watch this space…

  8. I think that’s a JRH, for the win.

  9. Paul says:

    May I recommend Warren Treadgold’s “A History of the Byzantine State and Society” as a more reliable work than Norwich’s work.

  10. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Byzantium’s “total aesthetic experience”

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