Robin Cormack

OUP (2nd edition, 2018) p/b 253pp £19.99 (ISBN 9780198778790)

To publish on Byzantine history is to engage in a debate that gets increasingly hot as more scholars generate and examine ideas about a too-long neglected subject. C. seemed to be feeling the heat to the extent that his publication in the Oxford History of Art series (2000) is followed by a second edition in 2018. There’s new material in the text, an extended bibliography and further reading list, additional notes and five new illustrations, whilst some of the old monochrome items are presented in colour (though it must be said that the decision to print on lighter stock has compromised some of the definition).

It is a brilliant book for several reasons. Take C.’s approach: when considering examples of Byzantine art he brings in the relevant social, political, religious (etc.) factors which affected their production, and this enables us, quite spectacularly sometimes, to look at the works through the eyes of the original beholders. For example, a 9th/10th century mosaic in S. Sophia depicts an emperor kow-towing before an enthroned Christ. This stands on the ceremonial route into the church. How satisfying if this represents Leo VI’s humble readmission into the great Church in 912, having been expelled in 906 for pushing his luck with a fourth marriage (‘beastly polygamy’, ‘a way of life befitting swine…’), and being forced to confront the image on his ceremonial entry. But Byzantine history is a slippery business, and as yet other interpretations are available.

C.’s epilogue ‘Rethinking Byzantine Art’ justifies this second edition against some of the criticism aimed at the first. So, though there is new material, the principles of presentation remain the same. For instance, it is chronological; works are classified by historical period; major works are identified and discussed (though some call this elitism); we get as full a context for the work as possible, attaching names where relevant; the religious nature of much of the art is acknowledged, and its functionality (e.g. how icons facilitate prayer); the study ends in 1453 (even though El Greco and others under the influence don not). One great virtue of this approach is that the presentation aids comprehension and retention of information. We can stack it logically in the mental academy, with a good chance of accessing it when we need to.

In other words, what we do not have here is the theoretical approach that argues for 1300 years of theocratic state art, unchanging because God does not change. True, He may not, but C.’s point is that his worshippers do. Each nuance of orthodoxy is captured and represented to facilitate worship, including the outcomes of a sequence of councils and changing orthodoxies (for example Arianism and Athanasianism, affecting how we view the Son of God). Monasteries promoted a different way of life, and produced a different kind of art. We see works looking to the east and west in style, and influences flowing to and from the metropolitan centre of the empire. Somehow C. has addressed all this in 200 pages and made it accessible to both new and more experienced readers.

Adrian Spooner

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