Byzantium (part III)

View the scanned original illustrations

Here, doubtless, is where we must seek the highest expression of an epoch when barbarous luxury crushed intelligence, when the latter was reduced to shutting itself up in the solitary enjoyment of harmonic mysteries which were transmitted from one to another by the initiated. Outside the circles of the adepts, the art of Byzantium was never fully developed, for it was enchained with gold, rendered motionless by dogma and by bureaucratic regulations which fixed the social and professional life of the corporations and the artists, down to its smallest details. Even so, the rise of Byzantine art to its heavy flight was interrupted for more than a century by the edicts of Leo the Isaurian and of his successors who proscribed images. The cult of the icons triumphed only after a hundred years of proscriptions, killings, and furious vandalism. When the images reappeared, the tradition was shattered, the root of the effort was cut, the artists of Byzantium were dispersed by exile into the near-by Orient, into Italy, and as far as Spain and France. If Byzantine art survived, it was because the illuminators continued their work in the monasteries right through the iconoclastic periods; it was because a renewal of energy followed the effort that Constantinople was to make in throwing back the Slavic invasion and the Mohammedan invasion; above all, it was because, with the Crusaders, a great current of life traversed the country. During the two centuries that this current lasted, it filled Byzantium, Salonika, and Syria with those basilicas with the polygonal towers—so poor on the outside, with their flattened, tile-covered domes, with their indigent and dry material, but so rich in their interior, where, from a blue and green darkness, elongated figures look down out of great eyes. This new life installed itself in the cradle of Venice, penetrated to the heart of the Arab caliphates, to Bagdad, to Abyssinia, where it still persists, invaded Christianized Russia to combine there later on with obscure Asiatic influences which the Mongol invasion brought from Persia, from India, and even from China. It is through this other current that we explain the icons with their gems and gold, and also the golden cupolas, blown up and bulbous, flattened or elongated, spindling or twisted into rhythmic curves. Everywhere in Europe, up to the hour when the French soul—after having concentrated in the springs of its inspiration all the currents that had come from the Greek, the Hindu, and the Arabian Orient, from the Scandinavians and the Romans—began, in turn, to pour itself over the Occident, everywhere, for three or four hundred years, the stiff arabesque of Byzantium was found—its flat, symbolic animals, its wheels, its crosses with splayed arms and its bas-reliefs that have the appearance of thorn bushes. In the capitals of columns, in the embroideries of metal, of stone, and of wood that cover the balustrades, doors, and caskets, in the enamel sheathing of reliquaries, sacred vases, and censers, and in the rigid folds of priestly garments, we witness the steady invasion of a monotonous and systematic art of ornamentation. Its character of monotony and system is the evident mark of the persistence of Greek genius —forced by intelligence to formulate a harmony which flees the heart of the artist to dwell in the mind of the theorists. But with this characteristic we must consider the profusion of the ornament, which is the evident mark of the persistence of the Romanized genius of Asia, compelled by sensuality to express a richness of impression which the mind of the theorists cannot tear from the heart of the artist. The overabundant flavor of Roman decoration fuses, in a stiff and dull, but impressive, ensemble, with the feeling for balance and selection that characterized Greek decoration. The merchants of Byzantium inundated the world with carved ivories, gold objects incrusted with enamels and pearls, cloths of gold, and golden reliquaries set with uncut polished gems. In these objects, which were for use in the church and which were exported in such profusion, we see how the hard patience of the carvers and the lapidaries succeeded in overcoming the moral passivity of the barbarians. Through the Byzantine artisan a semblance of tradition was kept up everywhere; what was left of the effort of Rome and Athens was communicated unconsciously to the sensibility of the new peoples; an indefinite and floating, but real, transition was established between Europe and Asia, between the spirit of antiquity and the spirit of the Middle Ages.

When man's energy for an ascent is exhausted, when a social and political group becomes the motionless center of gravitation for a world, it is historically necessary that revolution or invasion renew or destroy that world. All the blood sweated by the Middle Ages and all the gold that was heaped up were suffocating Constantinople. Other centers of light were growing in power. Islam was approaching its summit. The Crusaders, from the end of the eleventh century onward, were hurling Europe upon the Orient in troubled torrents. The barbarians of the west fell on the fabulous cities of the east as the barbarian of the north had marched on Rome. A hundred years after they had pillaged Jerusalem, a city of the Infidel, the Franks pillaged Byzantium, a Christian city. Europe breaks down the rampart that protects her from Asia.

There was in the fourteenth century, indeed, after the fall of the Frankish Empire, a last outburst of energy which spread the art of Constantinople over Rumania, Serbia, and Macedonia. The mosaics became more living, more full of movement; the world moved; Giottesque Italy, after having undergone the influence of Byzantium, affected Byzantium in its turn. Great painting was perhaps to have emerged from the confusion of the primitives and to prepare, as it did at the same moment in the Occident, the reign of the individual. But here the effort was too old and had been too often repulsed, the Greek rhythm that was prolonging its echo in other countries was giving way under the pressure of Asia, which was overflowing at every point. It was too late. Even if the Turks had not taken Constantinople, men would have seen that the hour had struck. Manuel Panselinos, who, about the beginning of the sixteenth century, is to cover the convents of Mount Athos with frescoes, seems completely, even too completely, Italianized. And about the end of the same century Theotocopuli flees his Greek island, leaving behind him nothing but the letter of Byzantium and bearing off its spirit alone, in the sumptuous envelopment of Venetian painting. He sublimated the opulence of Venice in the flame of a heart that is unique in history, that was capable, by its sole action, of making fertile the stormy and solitary soul of Spain. It was too late. In reality, when Mohammed II planted the standard of the Prophet on the Golden Horn and installed Islam in Saint Sophia, the crisis was ending and no event could have modified the issue. In Palestine, in Egypt, in Sicily, in Tunis, in Spain, in France—everywhere about the Mediterranean, the two mystic currents born of the old Semitic ideal had been clashing for three hundred years, repulsing each other at some points, mingling at others, and revealing to each other, despite themselves and unknown to themselves, the resemblance of all men and the unity of their desire.

No comments: