“Sailing to Byzantium”. To do this became a romantic ideal in the poetry of W B Yeats. But despite this popular poem, the word Byzantine is still most often used today to evoke the obscure, the remote and over-complicated. Wrongly, I believe, Yeats was absolutely right to be dazzled by the golden treasures and mosaics of Byzantine art. Robin Cormack – art historian specialising in Mediterranean art – unravels the nature and power of Byzantine art by seeing how the Byzantine artists managed to develop and transform the art of antiquity.
As someone who has for many years as a University lecturer taught the art history of Antiquity and Byzantium, I believe that it is only by visiting monuments and churches around the Mediterranean that we can unravel the nature and power of Byzantine art, by seeing how Byzantine artists managed to develop and transform the art of Antiquity. Whereas Greek and Roman art had strived to represent the world as one, full of Gods who were shown as living presences influencing everyday life, Byzantine art wanted to convey a monotheistic Christian world of certain and unchanging truths. In Homer, the hero Odysseus is helped and guided by the goddess Athena, who is both immortal but at the same time full of human emotions. The aim of Byzantine art was equally religious, but the artists evoked in their imagery the story of the life of Christ on earth, and the promise of an eternal and unchanging paradise for Christians after death. They wanted this imagery to be clear and not be weakened by ephemeral artistic fashions. So, over the centuries, Byzantine art changes very little and icons retain their original visual power for passing generations. To define and explain this is the aim of my Oxford book Byzantine Art, which has now appeared in a second enlarged edition.
The historical politics of Byzantium are easily set out. In 330, the Roman emperor Constantine the Great converted Rome into a Christian empire and renamed the city of Byzantium on the Bosporus both as Constantinople and as New Rome. The Christian art of the new capital, which we now call Byzantine art, dominated the art of the Mediterranean for centuries. The best of this is found not just in Istanbul, the modern name for Constantinople, and in Rome, but in many of the places that Aegean Odyssey visits: San Marco in Venice, in the churches of Thessaloniki, at Palermo and Monreale in Sicily and even in the mihrab of the Great Mosque at Cordoba. But for me the most thrilling of all buildings with Byzantine mosaics is the monastery of Hosios Loukas in central Greece, near Delphi. A number of Mediterranean voyages will give you the opportunity to visit the strenuous site of Delphi, with its good museum, or go on the drive to the remote monastery of Hosios Loukas. For me the choice is easy, the scenic site on the slopes of Mount Helicon never fails to impress.
The monastery is dedicated to its founder who was not the evangelist St Luke, but a 10th-century hermit who was born at Delphi and claimed, like the oracle there, to have foresight of the future. This new St Luke was sainted after his death in 953 and given the title of Hosios – the Venerable, and the first church was built. The monastery was extended in the middle of 11th-century with a new larger church, decorated with the mosaics which are still well preserved (except in the dome). Vast numbers of medieval pilgrims came to the site and worshipped at his tomb. They prayed and slept in the galleries and many of the sick were miraculously healed there. The abbots were buried in the crypt, still fully decorated with 11thcentury wall paintings, which copy the mosaics, but notably add more narrative details and look more decorative. The special feature of the mosaics in the church, which show the Passion of Christ as well as dozens of monastic saints, is that they depict the holy figures against a background of gold and are focused starkly on the essential features of the stories. This is one of the most perfect moments in Byzantine art.
We have one impressive Mediterranean voyage in 2019 that will be visiting locations displaying excellent examples of Byzantine art, and that is ‘Dalmatia & Ancient Greece‘.