06 05 24 - By Souren Melikian International Herald Tribune
|Road to Byzantium is paved with a passion for antiquity
By Souren Melikian International Herald Tribune FRIDAY, APRIL 28, 2006
LONDON Transition periods that bridge the abyss from one culture to another hold a special fascination to our society. None was so protracted nor so complex as the interval that separated the end of antiquity from the new world molded by Christianity that emerged in the Near East, and then Europe. Another world recasting the legacy of antiquity to its own ideas arose in Iran.
Glimpses into these trends can be caught through a disparate assemblage of objets d'art mainly from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg on view
at the Courtauld Institute until Sept. 6.
Called "The Road to Byzantium," the exhibition only deals with objects and therefore does not touch on one of the unanswered questions relating to early
Christian culture. Why do so few churches predating the fifth century survive, if only in ruins? Is this due to the materials? Or could there be some reason
rooted in the evolution of ideas?
Interestingly, the question applies to Armenia, the first nation to proclaim Christianity a state religion, decades before the Constantine edict of A.D. 313 made the Christian religion licit in the Byzantine empire. The admirable church architecture of Armenia blossomed in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D.
Objets d'art of any size and significance appear in substantial numbers around the same time, making one wonder whether the paucity of identifiable Christian
art prior to that period does not reflect a considerable delay between the spread of a faith and the formulation of a new culture.
The persistence of literary themes and styles going back to Greek antiquity in a series of silver vessels from Constantinople, now Istanbul, the capital of
Eastern Christianity, lends some weight to such a hypothesis. Several of these are in the show.
On a silver plate with low relief scenes from the reign of Justinian I, a herdsman sits on a stone stool, wistfully looking down, as a goat nibbles at a
tree and another goat reclines below. The herdsman's dog turns its head, its muzzle open to yap and catch his master's attention.
This is a bucolic scene that Roman artists already dealt with under Emperor Hadrian, four centuries earlier, as noted by Vera Zalesskaia, head of the
Middle East and Byzantium Department at the Hermitage.
A century later, silversmiths working for the Byzantine emperors continued to borrow themes from antiquity. A plate made under Heraclius, between 613 and 630, could not be further removed from Christian ideals. A virtually naked Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, carries a big wine skin on his shoulders
and skips merrily, while a maenad (female companion) of Dionysus pretends to run away but looks back with interest at the drunken, pot- bellied fellow.
Other Greek myths were perhaps used as metaphors for new ideas. On a silver plate from the reign of Heraclius, Meleager and Atalanta stand together ready
to go hunting.
Zalesskaia interprets this scene as an allegory to which the key is given by Dio Chrysostom's "Oratio" celebrating hunt as the school of courage and valor.
The passion for antiquity lingered into the 10th century. A famous ivory and bone casket on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum has panels carved in low
relief in a manner that recalls Roman stone sarcophagi. The rape of Europa is represented on the lid and the sacrifice of Iphigenia on the front. Scenes of Dionysiac revelry decorate the sides and the back. Other figures are inserted between the scenes. Scholars are not sure about the intended message - it might be a humorous mythological puzzle to be deciphered by some learned patron. But
whatever the case, the casket points to a remarkable taste for ancient Greek myths in 10th-century Byzantium.
One of the most mysterious objects in the show indicates that heirlooms from antiquity were integrated into the Christian ritual. The bronze statue of Dionysus, which dates from the second century A.D., was recovered near the river Don. The text of Psalms 28:3 (29:3 of the Revised Standard Version) is engraved in Greek capitals around the waist.
Zalesskaia reminds us that the passage is read during the consecration of water at the Feast of the Ephiphany. Two crosses engraved on the chest end with
letters that form the traditional invocation "Lord, help me." The statuette could have been used to pour water for liturgical purposes. What underlying
metaphorical meaning might have been given to Dionysus in that context eludes us.
Even greater uncertainty surrounds the legacy of antiquity in the Middle East.
The conquest of Alexander the Great had spawned a wave of Hellenization from the Syrian shores to the Iranian world, right up to northwestern India. It took
different forms depending on the cultures with which it interacted.
In Syria and Palestine, Hellenistic sculpture was radically transformed by a stylization that broke with the Classical canon. The stone head of a king
wearing a laurel crown dug up near Jerusalem is not so much a portrait as an archetype of distress. Possibly dating from the third century A.D., the head
bears witness to the impact of the eastern Syrian tradition.
Within decades, Syrian figural art moved more markedly toward expressionism.
The small chalcedony bust that once topped the staff of some fourth century A.D. consul is believed to be the likeness of Julian the Apostate. The bloated
face has huge wistful eyes staring in a manner that heralds European carvings of the 12th century.
In Syrian silver plate, the transformation went further. A bowl of the mid- fourth century A.D. with a gilded scene depicts the emperor Constantius II
riding his horse in triumph. The big eyes, wide open in pitiful mockery, and the peevish mouth hardly convey the elation induced by triumph. The female Nike
personifying Victory brandishes a crown of laurels with a positively lachrymose expression. Could this be intentional sarcasm?
Another silver bowl of A.D. 343, with the medallion portrait of Constantius II in the center, depicts a lugubrious looking emperor with simplified features
smacking of caricature. The irony here is underlined by the Latin inscription in Roman capitals, which celebrates the 20th anniversary of the emperor's rule.
For pure paradox, though, nothing matches the Hellenizing fashion that survived in the Iranian world long after the Parthians had ousted the Seleucid Dynasty installed in the wake of Alexander's conquest. It reached a high degree of sophistication. A little-known silver dish dug up at Yengikend in Azerbaijan, in the northwestern tip of historical Iran, is made of two silver sheets fitted together with low relief scenes. The technique is similar to that practiced soon after under the Sasanian Dynasty (224-651), while the art points to a thorough mastery of Hellenistic aesthetics. A nude woman is seated sideways on a hippocamp led across a stream by a triton who clutches the bridle.
Some scholars think that this scene was inspired by a passage in Ovid's "Metamorphoses" that sings of Galatea having fun in the sea, watched by Polyphemos, her rejected lover. If so, the interpretation is quite loose.
Ascribed in the catalogue to "Rome, second half of the second century A.D.," the plate has a standard Iranian shape which differs from known Roman silver.
Its figural style bears comparison with that of early Sasanian silver. In all likelihood, it was made in Parthian Iran, in the very area of Azerbaijan where
it was found.
Themes adapted from antiquity and rendered in styles still influenced by Hellenism persisted even longer in eastern Iranian lands. A dish from the British Museum, possibly of the third century A.D., shows a king at a wine banquet reclining on a couch as Assyrian rulers already did in the seventh century B.C. He is attended by a character who has the attributes of Hercules and may stand here for the semimythical Iranian hero Rostam.
The refashioning of the Classical legacy in early medieval Europe, the Middle East and northern India could be the subject for a fantastic art show. Perhaps
the modest, often confused, Courtauld Institute exhibition will be the flame that ignites such a process.