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.