Byzantium’s “total aesthetic experience”

The Guardian has a good review by Jonathan Sumption of the Royal Academy’s Byzantium exhibition (see previous post).

Sumption begins by describing the way in which the negative attitude of “Enlightenment” figures such as Gibbon and Voltaire towards Byzantium finds echoes in the “instinctive suspicion” which modern generations feel towards the Byzantine world:

It may be true, as Cyril Mango observes in his introduction to the catalogue of the Royal Academy’s new exhibition, Byzantium 330-1453, that “what used to be called superstition is now called spirituality”.

But we are still wary of theocratic states, enclosed value systems and patterns of daily life controlled by intense and manipulative religious emotion. So the study of Byzantium remains an arcane pleasure reserved for archaeologists, aesthetes and enthusiasts.

As Sumption continues, “this is a pity”, given the “incomparable contribution to European civilisation” made by medieval Byzantium:

For centuries it defended Europe against successive waves of Asiatic invaders. For more than a millennium, it was the sole political embodiment of Hellenic culture. Its scholars, compilers and scribes were responsible for preserving much of the literary and scientific legacy of ancient Greece. Without them, we would know almost nothing of Plato, Euclid, Sophocles or Thucydides, apart from isolated fragments written on papyrus.

Nor was Byzantium just a deep-freeze preserving the best of the ancient world:

It was a cosmopolitan society, standing at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa. At the height of its prosperity, Constantinople was the richest and most populous city of the medieval world. Its aristocracy and civil service laid out their riches in books, ivories, jewellery and metalwork. The Greek church, with its dramatic liturgy, its rich symbolism and its powerful mystical tradition inspired buildings, paintings and sculpture of great beauty and originality.

Byzantium created a unique fusion of classical, Christian and Asiatic traditions, which deserves more than the sneers of the age of Enlightenment.

That said, even an exhibition as magnificent as that currently on display at the Royal Academy cannot hide the fact that the “mentality” of Byzantium is “hard for the secular west to recapture”. The artefacts in this exhibition “require a more sustained effort of historical imagination” than viewing a Titian or Rembrandt:

At the time of their creation, they were part of a total aesthetic experience. We have to place ourselves in a world that loved drama and splendour, and regarded neither as gaudy or superficial; a world that looked up to the stiff orientalising court of a half-divine emperor, with its elaborate ceremonial and its finely graded hierarchies of officials and servants; a world of constant processions of dignitaries wearing gorgeous robes, jewellery and gaudy cosmetics, each according to his status; of churches dimmed by incense pouring from metal braziers; of imperial chapels populated by crowds of officials, priests, eunuchs and soldiers, the air filled with hymns and chants…

As a consequence, Sumption observes, the objects at the RA “look slightly incongruous in their glass cases”:

The icons and liturgical objects were made to be carried, to be touched and kissed. The rich materials of which they were made were intended to be stroked. The subtle patterns in the fabrics could be seen only when they moved. Mosaics were designed for the dim glow of lamps and candles, not the harsh direct light favoured by modern museum practice.

So an exhibition like this can only be a faint image of the world from which these objects are taken. But that’s not going to stop me counting the days until mid-January, when I’m due to visit the exhibition.

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4 Responses to Byzantium’s “total aesthetic experience”

  1. It definitely is a contrast to today’s society. In a local congregation today everything has to be approved by the voters. It seems only the most practical, and the very needed things make it into the sanctuary. I can convince the voters to spend $10,000 on air conditioning. Not so much for an ornate baptismal font. (well to be honest I haven’t tried that one yet. Too busy at the moment trying to convince them to tear the place down and start over…) I was once put on the carpet at a voters meeting for increasing the budget put aside for communion by insisting that we have communion every Sunday. Like we couldn’t afford an extra $3 dollars a year for the swill they call wine over at Mogen David! Thankfully many more in the congregation saw the infinite value in the forgiveness of sins they get for that $3.
    Then you have Byzantium, no expense spared when it came to worship. Build a church, build it right, so even a 1000 years later people appreciate its beauty. Compare that with the churches that don’t hold aesthetic value for a decade today. Marvelous.

  2. John D says:

    Sumption describes Byzantium’s artifacts as part of a total aesthetic experience, but doesn’t that experience belong to any society? I don’t see much of a contrast to today’s society, or any society.

    And remember that the splendid buildings were built due to the crushing Byzantine tax system. With the Arab conquest (aided by Jewish and Christian collusion), jizya was sometimes an economic relief.

  3. John H says:

    John D: I think Sumption’s point is twofold:

    1. Western art tends to be able to stand on its own, apart from its original context. Byzantine art loses more in the translation to a western art gallery. To put it another way: the Titian and the Rembrandt may not have been painted to go in a public gallery, but they were painted to be looked at, from something of a distance. Icons were painted for different reasons: as a gateway to the Divine; as something to be touched and kissed.

    (One analogy might be an exhibition of stained glass, viewed in a culture that had never known church buildings: it might look wonderful, be beautifully lit and so on, but those viewing it could find it difficult to appreciate of what it was like to see that glass in situ.)

    2. Even if western art also forms part of a “total aesthetic experience” pervading society – which I think is highly questionable (one of the features of western modernity is the move from an aesthetic society to a technical one) – the point is it’s our “total aesthetic experience”, whereas Byzantine art is part of a different “total aesthetic experience”.

    Can’t comment on the Byzantine tax system as a contrast with that of the Arab and Turkish conquerors: I’m still only 2/3rds of the way through the first volume of the John Julius Norwich series. 🙂

  4. John D says:


    Thanks for the response. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood what “nothing new under the sun” means. And I had not even considered past art that is now in galleries or present art that is made for galleries (galleries are treated as sacred spaces, and, as Roger Scruton observes, a painting’s frame is part of the painting’s isolated aesthetic experience). But my society loves movies; it looks up to (or down at) hierarchies of public officials and public servants; and I can turn on a television to watch red carpet processions of celebrities wearing designer clothes and gaudy cosmetic surgery (Sumption doesn’t mention sports, but Procopius pretty accurately describes football hooliganism). Most of these modern things would be puzzling removed from their context – some of them are puzzling even in their context (which is sometimes the point).

    I noticed something else: Sumption also passes over farmers, peasants, and all other Byzantines not employed by the state – they aren’t even in those imperial chapels!

    As for persecution and collusion: I won’t speak of the Turkish conquests, but look for the Christians of Antioch, the Monophysites and Jews of Damascus, and the Patriarch of Alexandria.

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