Sunday, 30 November 2008


Byzantium, such a lovely word: conjures up pictures of a mystical east. We imagine the riches of Constantinople and a great empire. We’re reminded of the amazing architectural and artistic heritage of the period.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy in London reinforces all this. And, with a plethora of icons and other saintly images (and much gold leaf into the bargain), it’s likely to put you in a very Christmassy mood.

I guess, in the 5th century - aeons before TV and advertising - the gold leaf and images did a very good job. The murals and mosaics told particularly good stories pictorially speaking. And, by all accounts, they convinced worshippers that there were riches awaiting them in heaven.

Icons and illuminated manuscripts had one up on these, in my estimation, because they could be carried around. The former were to worship visually, the second possibly read whilst waiting for the next camel train. Either way, they sure beat a glossy magazine and a grubby paperback. But, of course, you don’t have to be so rich to afford these modern day messages. But then nor do they inspire us to higher things, only more consumerism.

One of the most interesting conclusions that emerge form the exhibition is that there are only so many ways that specific religious events can be portrayed in an icon. It seems that the images of Christ, Mary and the Angel had to adhere to classic poses carried down over the centuries. Whether 5th century or 14th century icons, they had to stick to the story.

It’s an interesting fact that the figures in an icon were not meant to depict real people: they were flat, two dimensional, to be prayed in front of. They were meant to be inspirational. I loved the beauty of the icons but my Best Beloved, who thoroughly enjoyed the historical content of the show, found himself iconed-out by the end.

Although, to be fair, the show is not all icons: there is jewellery too, and household items and relics on display as well. One of them, the Antioch Chalice, was rediscovered 100 years ago. Since then it’s inspired several art forms: books and films based on searches for the Holy Grail. But, contrary to speculation, the chalice couldn’t have been the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper as it actually dates from about 500AD. There you are, that just goes to show what advertising and a bit of hype can do.

It’s also obvious from the exhibits that Constantinople (Istanbul to us) was an amazing city. It was called the second Rome, but one halfway between the eastern and western cultures of the day. Their religion was neither Muslim nor Catholic, whilst the architecture drew on both. Think of vast square spaces, enormous domes and rich decoration.

Overall, you get the impression by the end of your visit that the Byzantines were a cosmopolitan lot. You have until 22 March to be dazzled and see for yourself.

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