"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Byzantium's Saintly Spectacular Empire

Interest in all things Byzantine remains constantly high, not least when it concerns Byzantine art, subject of two recently released books, the first by Carolyn L. Connor, Saints and Spectacle: Byzantine Mosaics in their Cultural Setting (Oxford UP, 2016), 232pp.

About this book we are told:
Saints and Spectacle examines the origins and reception of the Middle Byzantine program of mosaic decoration. This complex and colorful system of images covers the walls and vaults of churches with figures and compositions seen against a dazzling gold ground. The surviving eleventh-century churches with their wall and vault mosaics largely intact, Hosios Loukas, Nea Moni and Daphni in Greece, pose the challenge of how, when and where this complex and gloriously conceived system was created.
Using an interdisciplinary approach, Connor explores the urban culture and context of church-building in Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, during the century following the end of Iconoclasm, of around 843 to 950. The application of an innovative frame of reference, through ritual studies, helps recreate the likely scenario in which the medium of mosaics attained its highest potential, in the mosaiced Byzantine church. For mosaics were enlisted to convey a religious and political message that was too nuanced to be expressed in any other way. At a time of revival of learning and the arts, and development of ceremonial practices, the Byzantine emperor and patriarch were united in creating a solution to the problem of consolidating the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire. It was through promoting a vision of the unchallengeable authority residing in God and his earthly representative, the emperor. The beliefs and processional practices affirming the protective role of the saints in which the entire city participated, were critical to the reception of this vision by the populace as well as the court. Mosaics were a luxury medium that was ideally situated aesthetically to convey a message at a particularly important historical moment--a brilliant solution to a problem that was to subtly unite an empire for centuries to come. Supported by a wealth of testimony from literary sources, Saints and Spectacle brings the Middle Byzantine church to life as the witness to a compelling and fascinating drama.
The second book is a collection edited by Robin M. Jensen and Lee Jefferson: The Art of Empire: Christian Art in Its Imperial Context (Fortress Press, 2015), 368pp.

About this collection we are told:
In recent years, art historians such as Johannes Deckers (Picturing the Bible, 2009) have argued for a significant transition in fourth- and fifth-century images of Jesus following the conversion of Constantine. Broadly speaking, they perceive the image of a peaceful, benevolent shepherd transformed into a powerful, enthroned Jesus, mimicking and mirroring the dominance and authority of the emperor. The powers of church and state are thus conveniently synthesized in such a potent image. This deeply rooted position assumes that ante-pacem images of Jesus were uniformly humble while post-Constantinian images exuded the grandeur of power and glory.
The Art of Empire contends that the art and imagery of Late Antiquity merits a more nuanced understanding of the context of the imperial period before and after Constantine. The chapters in this collection each treat an aspect of the relationship between early Christian art and the rituals, practices, or imagery of the Empire, and offer a new and fresh perspective on the development of Christian art in its imperial background. 

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