Saturday, October 27, 2007

Summary of Lecture Seven

On several occasions the term "Byzantine" has come up. It is not easy to delineate a boundary between late-antique/early Christian, on the one hand, and Byzantine, on the other. The shift has something to do with the affirmation of the hegemony of Constantinople. It may also reflect a new maturity, as the contradictions of the earlier mode become fused (by and large) into a new unity.

Three helpful books were noted: A. Grabar, The Golden Age of Justinian; E. Kitzinger, Byzantine Art in the Making; and R. Cormack, Byzantine Art (Oxford History of Art series).

The personality and accomplishments of Justinian are pivotal in the establishment of the First Golden Age of Byzantine Art. Of unknown ethnicity, the peasant Justinian owed his fortune to his uncle Justin (ruled 518-27). After assuming the sole emperorship, Justinian faced opposition, culminating in the Nika riot, which destroyed the original building of Hagia Sophia.

His most enduring achievement was the Corpus Iuris Civilis, which underlies the legal systems of most countries in the world (though not the English-speaking ones). This work, commonly known as the Justinian Code, is a mixed bag. Created under the guidance of Tribonian, the Code does harmonize and organize a vast mass of earlier Roman law and legal opinion. However, it sought to enforce religious uniformity and morals, leaving a dubious legacy. Examined closely, the Code provides evidence, supported by other sources, for the growth of a magical world view. This shift away from rationality is symbolized by Justinian's closing of the philosophical schools of Athens in 529.

The confusion of realms (politics and religion), as we might term it, evidences the Byzantine principle of Caesaropapism, whereby the emperor felt empowered to interfere in religious matters. This doctrine may be reflected in Justinian's appearance (by means of mosaic) in the sanctuary of San Vitale.

The great church of Hagia Sophia is a great engineering and decorative achievement. It is hard to describe the plan, but it reflects an effort to fuse the centralizing and longitudinal principles. It also relies on the late-Roman constructional device of the pendentive to effect the transition between the foundational square and the dome above. The original decoration, or most of it, was largely abstract, relying on a principle of surface flow, what might almost be termed viscosity.

In addition to great buildings (duly chronicled by Procopius), the era saw a remarkable production in the minor arts, as seen in the ivory angel (British Museum) and the Riha Paten (Dumbarton Oaks Collection).

The final section of the lecture was devoted to icons of the pre-Iconoclast period. The most important cache of these (some 36 items) resides in the monastery of St. Catherine's at Mount Sinai. We examined the Peter icon, the Marian one, and the Christ icon. Other early icons have been preserved in Egypt (some 30), and the city of Rome (four). The icons represent the beginning of many centuries of European panel painting. At the time, however, they evoked disquiet as foci of idolatry. This problem was to lead to the outbreak of Iconoclasm in 726.

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