Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Creation of Christian Art; The Origins of Byzantine Form part 1

Art of the Later Roman Empire

Both of these are major works of art ordered by 2 different emperors who each thought of themselves as "Roman" and rulers of the Roman Empire. At the top is a detail of the sculpted frieze from the Ara Pacis, the Altar of Peace commissioned by the Emperor Augustus to commemorate a successful political journey to Gaul, and the first year of "peace" (ie, no armed conflict) within the imperial domain. It shows members of the imperial family and court participating in the religious ceremony of the altar's dedication. Below that is a famous mosaic from the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna showing the Emperor Justinian front and center with some of his bishops, ministers, and generals participating in the Christian Eucharist.
To our eyes, these are sharply different images. The Middle Ages considered them to be both "Roman." The "Roman" art that the Medieval world referred to and sought to imitate was usually what we would call early Byzantine. The distinction that mattered to the Middle Ages was between "Pagan" Rome and "Christian" Rome. It wasn't until the Renaissance that the two were seperated out ("La Maniera Greca"). The term "Byzantine" is a modern invention. Emperor Justininian and all of his successors considered themselves to be "Roman" emperors, and called their empire "Rome" (the Ottoman Sultans who took over Constantinople also took over the title "Caesar").

And yet the Emperor Augustus would have hardly recognized the Rome of Justinian. The capital was now in the East in a new city of Constantinople. The language of the court was not Latin, but Greek. The religion was no longer the old state sacrificial religion, but Christianity. Most profound of all was a difference of culture. The old Classical culture that Augustus knew was focused on this world and this life. It was a humanistic culture about the possibilities of human life in this world. The culture of Justinian's time was religious. It was focused on the next life, on the realm of the spirit.

We see that difference in the 2 works of art above. The figures on the Ara Pacis are all vividly alive and carefully individualized. They stand squarely upon the ground. They move and act independently. Drapery realistically falls over bodies that are solid and movable. The work is a sculpture and the forms are emphatically sculptural. They are all independent beings who voluntarily participate together in the ceremony. The image of Justinian and his court is not a sculpture but a picture. Not only is sculptural form rejected, but the role of sculpture itself in this later Rome is greatly diminished. The Emperor dominates the center and faces us, as do his officials behind him. They do not appear to move and act independently, but only as part of a larger ceremony. The form is anti-naturalistic. The chiaroscuro, light and dark intended to create the effect of sculptural form on a flat surface, is minimized, especially in the drapery. We do not have much of a sense of solid bodies at all underneath those increasingly abstracted draperies. The ground plane is reduced to a field of green, and the feet seem to dangle there as an afterthought, whereas in the Ara Pacis relief their role as support is crucial to each figure.

Above is a detail of the Justinian mosaic.
The mosaic technique itself helps to defeat the naturalism of the image. The joins between the pieces or tesserae create a network of lines that flatten the image. The gold background is gold leaf on the back of glass pieces set into the wall at angles to catch the sunlight and sparkle. Whenever anything shiny or sparkly is applied to a picture, it immediately brings the image back to the surface and flattens it.

Where did this anti-optical form language that we associate with the transcendent liturgical art of Byzantium come from? How did that dramatic transformation from classical form to symbolic form that we see between the 2 works above take place?

In large part, it was a creation of later Imperial Rome, long before the Empire became Christian. The seeds of what were to become fully Medieval civilization were already sown long before Constantine legalized Christianity, and certainly long before the Roman Empire in the West officially fell in 476.

The Classical culture of Rome ended in the Crisis of the Third Century that began with the assassination of Emperor Alexander Severus by his own troops in 235, and ended almost 50 years later with the ascension of Diocletian to the the Imperial throne. This was a period of almost unrelenting catastrophe with invasions from the north and from Sassanian Persia in the east. There was almost constant civil war with the Empire breaking apart into 3 separate and warring states at one point. There was devastating economic collapse throughout the Empire that impoverished millions of people. Famine struck areas that were formerly prosperous. A plague of smallpox killed hundreds of thousands of people including the Emperor Claudius Gothicus. When it was over, Rome emerged badly shaken and substantially weakened. The old Classical culture that Rome had inherited from Greece and made its own, and made the center of its imperial mission, was gone.

We can see that old Classical culture disappearing before our eyes in the art of the Third Century.

This is the portrait bust of the Emperor Phillip the Arab, one of a succession of about 25 "Soldier Emperors" who came and went very quickly and very violently during the 3rd Century Crisis. Phillip was indeed from what was then called Arabia. He was the head of the Praetorian Guard under his predecessor, Emperor Gordian III. He murdered the emperor and claimed the throne for himself. He, in turn, was murdered 5 years later by his successor. The artists of the 3rd century showed these brutal ruthless men who took over the political life of the Empire with astonishing candor. Phillip wears a scowl of intimidation, with more than a little hint of the frightened animal underneath. Gone is the civilized clemency, curly classical hair, and philosopher's beard of a philhellene emperor like Marcus Aurelius. Phillip is a man who spent his entire life in the army as can be seen in his short military style hair and short stubble beard. The carving is still Classical naturalism at its best, though the carving is beginning to get a little rough. There is none of the old Antonine dynasty polish, and the hair is more suggested with chisel strokes than actually rendered and fully carved.

Here is Phillip's murderer, the Emperor Trajanus Decius who likewise would be murdered in short order by his successor. The naturalism and remarkable psychological realism are still there, but the carving is getting even rougher with sharper and less natural planes between the lines around the mouth and around the eyes and brows. Again the hair is more suggested than carved. There is already a resort to pattern in the carving of the lines in the forehead.

Thoughtful and conscientious people of the time abandoned politics and public responsibility to the soldiers who had made such a bloody mess of it. They felt overwhelmed and helpless in the face of the disasters coming down on them from all sides. Philosophers turned to mysticism. Mystery religions and various forms of Gnosticism flourished in this time. It is no accident that the affluent Romans responsible for the first Christian art in the catacombs begin converting in large numbers. Citizens turned their backs on the world to look for that transcendent escape hatch out of the madness. The head above is sometimes identified as the philosopher Plotinus, the last great NeoPlatonist of the Ancient World. Whoever he is, he has an ascetic's hollow cheeks. The eyes become larger and play an ever more expressive role in 3rd century sculpture. They look out in this portrait in what to my mind is a 3rd century version of what was called the "thousand yard stare" in World War II, the faraway stare of the traumatized. It is an image of a man looking beyond the here and now for that escape hatch into something better than this.

The Crisis came to an end with the reign of the Emperor Diocletian who radically remade the Empire into something that the generations before the Crisis would have hardly recognized as Roman. He remade it according to older Eastern models with a divine ruler at the top. The first Emperor, Augustus went to great pains to assure Roman public opinion that this new alien Asiatic title of "emperor" was not an innovation, but a restoration of traditional Roman values. Augustus went to great pains to have himself portrayed as a primus inter pares, a first among equals, a responsible Roman citizen assuming the burdens of power. The statue above of Diocletian and his 3 co-rulers (the Tetrarchs), now part of a corner of Saint Mark's in Venice, is hardly recognizable as a Roman statue. The old Classical form centered on the independent living human figure is completely gone. We have full-fledged symbolic form here, long before the Empire has become Christian.
The first thing that's symbolic is the choice of material. Instead of marble or bronze, the sculpture group is carved from porphyry, the "purple" stone, associated with royalty ever afterwards because of its deep maroon to dark violet color, just like the Imperial Purple. The figures are short and stumpy. The embrace between each Augustus and Caesar is more emblematic than credibly naturalistic. The uniforms and weapons count for more than the figures themselves.

These heads certainly are not portraits. It is hard, if not impossible to identify exactly who is who among the Tetrarchs here. They are no longer independent individuals. They have no life and no meaning apart from the roles they play. Likewise, their forms are reduced to emblematic patterns. None of these 4 figures could conceivably stand alone from the group. They already look like Romanesque carvings almost 800 years too early. In their original state, they may have looked even more Eastern and exotic. The crowns and weapons were probably gilded and bejeweled. The eyes and the hair may have been painted.

The Emperor Constantine decided to celebrate his victory over his rival Maxentius, and the return to rule by a single emperor by building the last great triumphal arch in Rome near the Colosseum.

He decorated it by taking crowbars to the monuments of his much earlier predecessors from before the 3rd Century Crisis, stealing the sculpture off of them and putting it up on his own monument. This arch is decorated with sculpture pried off of monuments to Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. He had the heads of some of the emperors recarved into his own likeness. Above are 2 round reliefs from a monument to the Emperor Hadrian. In the round panel on the left showing Hadrian hunting a boar, Constantine had Hadrian recarved to look like himself. Now Constantine rides in the hunt with Antinous, Hadrian's deified boyfriend, looking off to the left behind.
The other sculptures in this picture were carved for this arch in Constantine's reign. They are a major bone of contention among scholars. What to make of them and how to evaluate them? I will take the very incorrect position and say that I see a manifest decline in the quality of these sculptures when compared to the earlier sculptures looted from Hadrian's monument. The carving is much shallower and more tentative than on those earlier sculptures. The figures in the spandrels around the arch look like a very bad pattern book for beginners version of earlier Classical sculpture. The figures in the long relief above that have the same short stumpy features of the Venice Tetrarchs. Is this evidence of decline or transition? I would answer yes. The old humanist convictions that drove and sustained classical form died in the Third Century Crisis. The spandrel figures are attempts to imitate a form language that is already almost forgotten, and that no one really believes in anymore. The sculptors have forgotten how to make Classcal figurative sculpture. They also don't care anymore and are more interested in creating a new form language for the other-worldly culture that is emerging out of the Third Century Crisis. The long carved frieze above the arch has a symmetry and emblematic pattern that looks forward to the religious art to come.

There is another very specific source for Byzantine form that comes not from Rome, but from Roman Egypt.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, archaeologists began finding the cemeteries of Roman Egyptians, at first in the Faiyum and later throughout Egypt. They found scores of mummies with the heads covered not by the traditional mummy mask, but by painted portraits of widely varying quality. Many were of remarkable quality like the one illustrated above still attached to some of the mummy cartonage of a woman named Artemidora. Some of these paintings are amazing and raise the question of what came first. Was the sitter alive when the portrait was painted, or already dead?

These beautiful and haunting portraits were painted in encaustic, pigment mixed with melted beeswax, creating effects very similar to later oil painting. Most, but not all, of the sitters in these portraits are young. The remains of the deceased found with some of these portraits turned out to be close in age to the sitters in the paintings. Mortality among the young was high, even among these privileged folk. These paintings give us a very tantalizing glimpse into the lost world of ancient Classical painting. What we have left of that long tradition is almost nothing. What if all that was left of the last 500 years of Western painting was a few scraps of wallpaper? That's what we have of ancient Classical painting along with the literary accounts of Pliny and Pausanias, and these portraits from Egypt.

Like all Egyptian funerary art, these portraits were seen on the day of the funeral and then buried never to be seen again. These are images that had a sacral function. In these paintings, the ancient Egyptian belief that the soul needs a form and a name to return to meets the Classical need to remember and commemorate the life of the individual. They may have played some role in the funeral rites, as did ancient Egyptian mummy masks, and the death masks used in Roman funerals.

Almost all of these portraits appear to have been cut down to fit the mummy bindings, suggesting that at least some of them were painted while the sitter was still alive. Gold crowns like the one worn by the young man above, and by Artemidora further up, appear to have been added later, perhaps for the funeral. Some of these portraits, like the one above, had a lot of gilding added to them at a later date, again possibly for the funeral. Crowns and gilding had some kind of religious function, and the act of applying them may have been part of the funeral rites. These were images not only intended for the grieving of the bereaved, but for the rituals of aiding the dead in their transition to the next life. These were not intended to be memorials kept in the home. Remember, these portraits were seen once at the funeral, and then buried with the dead never to be seen again.

It is possible that these mummy portraits were the direct ancestors of the Orthodox icon. Above is a magnificent 7th century icon of St. Peter preserved in St. Catherine's Monastery on Mt. Sinai. It too is painted in encaustic in technique and form that is very similar to those Roman Egyptian portraits. It too is a picture with a ritual function, not to be buried, but adored. As in the Egyptian portraits, the form of the painting is determined by its ritual uses.

Even before the Roman Empire became Christianized, the symbolic form that we associate with the Early Church and with Byzantine liturgical art was already largely formed.


Kirkepiscatoid said...

What is it about "Byzantine eyes" that captivates me so? They always seem so wide, so expressive, so "alive."

Rick+ said...

     In the last icon of St. Peter, who is the boy to the left in the upper corner? And to the right?

Counterlight said...


I'm guessing that the boy would be John, and the woman would be the Virgin Mary flanking the central figure of Christ. I can't think who else they could be.


To my eyes, the wide expressive Byzantine eyes began in Roman Egypt.

Rick+ said...

     I was guessing the one to the right was Mary. So, John as the beloved disciple makes sense. Thanks!

motheramelia said...

I saw the St Peter icon when some of the icons from St. Catherine's were shown at the Getty in LA. It is so haunting, like the Jesus, Pantocrater from the same period (that wasn't at the Getty). Peter is a powerful looking man and I could imagine him as a former fisherman from that icon.