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Mary Hodegetria, painted by Ellen Francis, a contemporay icon painter


Byzantium has had a bad press in history books, but the current exhibition at the Royal Academy in London aims to contribute to the revision of the old historical view, replacing it with a new appreciation of the wealth of culture that infused the Empire as well as an appreciation of the contribution the Empire made to countries that lay outside its boundaries.


I went to see the exhibition first just after it opened.  Although not quite alone, I still had room to move freely from exhibit to exhibit and back again, admiring the beauty of the jewelled objects, the decorated manuscripts and the everyday tableware, the stone carvings, the micro-mosaics and the gilded icons.


The exhibition opens with a hall devoted to the pre-Christian Empire.  Roman floor mosaics depicting the months, and secular objects, plates, a tomb, carvings, set the scene for the conversion of Emperor Constantine on his death bed, and for the influence of his mother, a follower of Christ before him.  The palette is terracotta, yellow ochre, browns and greys.


And then it changes to silver, to gold, to emerald and ruby and sapphire.  A Bible has a silver cover studded with semi-precious roundels of stone, and a spine made up of hundreds of tiny hinges.   A statue of the virgin sits in a crysal grotto as clear as glass.  Enameled decorations take everyday objects out of the ordinary.


For someone who has not grown up in an Orthodox or Catholic tradition, the imagery is sometimes difficult to interpret, but gradually the repetition of image after image builds up a composite picture of Christ, of Mary, of Gabriel, of the Saints, that begins to hint of the perfect forms behind the many attempts to depict the personage of God, his mother, the angels and the saints.


So there is the icon of the Mother of God Hodegetria, the image of Mary cradling the baby Jesus on her left arm, a copy of the icon painted by St Luke and venerated in the Hodegon monastery in Constantinople to be paraded at times of celebration and triumph. Later Italianate icons sometimes show Mary holding her baby on her right arm – an usual position, for a mother normally instinctively holds her child where the child can feel her heart beat.  There is also the image of Mary, lying dead, her soul ascending into heaven, surrounded by other Biblical figures. 


There is Christ the Pantokrator, the all powerful Christ with his right hand raised in blessing, and his left hand holding or resting on a Bible.  There is the Mandylion, the traditional icon of Christ showing only his face which refers to a sacred relic, a piece of cloth bearing the imprint of Christ’s face brought to Constantinople in 944 AD and kept there until its disappearance in 1204 following the occupation of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, and linked, controversially, to the Shroud of Turin .  Yet Christ is not confined to any one of the images.  He is not any of these images, but is in all of them.  Familiarity with the traditional icon forms is important.  I felt very anxious the first time I visited the exhibition because I neither understood the labels, nor were they explained.  Having had them explained to me, or having found out what they meant, I was able to set aside the anxiety the second time, and concentrate instead on the now familiar image of the divine.


The final room at the exhibition holds a small collection of large icons borrowed from the Orthodox monastery in the desert, St Catherine’s monastery at Mount Sinai.  These paintings are priceless, very rare icons that date from before the period of iconoclasm that lasted from 726 to 843 AD – when all depictions of Christ were forbidden and those pictures that existed within the Byzantine Empire were destroyed.  St Catherine’s was outside the Empire’s reach, in a region already conquered by the Arabs, and so its icons remained safe.  Some of the icons date from the 6th century, hundreds of years older than any other surviving icons.


At first the icons seemed like flat representations, almost two dimensional.  Then, before I visited the exhibition again, I discovered “reverse perspective” and my view of icons changed completely.


Icons are different.  Other paintings usually try to draw the observer into the scene that is depicted by the use of perspective.  Our eye is drawn beyond the foreground to the horizon in the distance, to the distant hills or the dark corners of a room.  The vanishing point of the lines of perspective is pointing away from us, behind the picture.


Icons have a reverse perspective that proceeds from the eyes of the subject depicted and the vanishing point is not behind the picture but in front of it.  The subject looks into us and disappears into our head behind our eyes.  At least, that is what the most successful icon painters manage to achieve.  Icons then are food for contemplation and meditation, looking inwards not outwards.  Even conventional portraits usually have a background that encourages us to look through the subject rather than allowing the subject to look through us.


Bishop Kallistos Ware, the English Orthodox Bishop of Great Britain, now Metropolitan of Diokleia, in The Orthodox Way,  describes the spiritual way to God as being divided into three parts, the middle part being a call to contemplate the world around us and to find God in it.  The challenge, he says, is as described by George Herbert in his reflection on the passage in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13 (βλεπομεν γαρ αρτι δι εσοπτρου εν αινιγματι), “For now we see through a glass darkly, then face to face”:


“A man that looks on glasse,

On it may stay his eye;

Or if he pleases, through it passe,

And then the heav’n espie.”


Bishop Ware elaborates: “To look on the glass is the perceive the “thisness”, the intense reality, of each thing; to look through the glass and so to “espie” the heaven is to discern God’s presence within and yet beyond that thing.”


Thus every icon presents us with a challenge, to find God’s presence within it.  Of course the skill of the icon painter is important, but one imagines it is not essential.  Many of the early icons cannot be attributed to a particular painter, though later artists are often easier to identify.  The exhibition includes work by Andreas Ritzos, the famous Cretan icon painter, as part of a body of icons originating in Crete, painted both alla latina or alla greca depending on the wishes of the client for whom the icon was painted.  I tried and failed at the weekend to watch a film about the life of Andrei Rublev, a famous Russian Orthodox icon painter.  I am not sure that anything matters – the author, the style – as much as our stance before them.


The Old Testament commandment prohibits the creation of an image of God.  Theologians have argued that since Jesus is fully and completely God, then it would be unlawful to depict Jesus, and yet there was a strong human need to own, to hold, to look at pictures of loved ones, of their Saviour.  Emperor Constantine resolved the dilemma at the First Ecumenical Council in 325 AD.  The Council stipulated that since Christ was consubstantial with God, but had also become man, and it was permissible, desirable even, to depict this human aspect of his nature as evidence of God’s incarnation in Jesus.  Subsequent Councils refined this compromise.  The fourth Council spoke of the two natures of Jesus Christ, being both one in essence with God and one in essence with man.  The seventh Council of Nicaea in 787 AD proclaimed – during a brief hiatus in the Iconoclastic Controversy – that it was legitimate to depict Christ’s image since he had become man, but that since he was one person and not two, these images of Christ would not show us just his humanity, but also his divinity and that the one was inseparable from the other.


When I visited the exhibition for the second time the rooms were crowded with people and it was difficult to get close to many of the exhibits without waiting patiently in turn, and then feeling it was impolite to stay too long.  I stood in front of some of the Sinai icons, treasuring their presence here outside their usual inaccessible place of safety, testing the power of their reverse perspective, and I skirted around the unusual icon, the Ladder of Ascent, which more than any other claimed my attention.


The exhibition continues until the end of March.  Its treasures, which I have been fortunate enough to see with my own eyes, will stay with me for much longer.


Exhibition Education Guide to Byzantium: