Second Golden Age of Byzantine Art (Conclusion)

The Blachernitissa Icon, an image of the Theotokos, 7th century (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow).

After the iconoclastic persecution, full-length statues were considered “dangerous” compared to high reliefs and paintings.  However, many of these Byzantine Icons/sculptures were copied outside the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire. Some of these icons* copied abroad must have been very old, as they repeated themes formerly represented in the catacombs. Examples of these icons are the praying woman with arms raised kept in the church of the Blachernae, called Blachernitissa, and the icon of the church of the Calcopatria in Constantinople which showed on her chest a medallion with the image of the Divine Child.

 

From these early Byzantine Madonnas in prayer only the one called Hodegetria was the figure that became the model for all modern statues of Mary carrying her Son in her arms. The Hodegetria was the icon of the Odegon church, the chapel of the mailmen.

Praying Virgin Mary bearing in her chest a medallion with the image of the Child Jesus, it was inspired by the icon of the Calcopatria Chapell (Church of St. Mary “Mater Domini”, Venice).

The Hodegetria appears slightly moving one foot looking like going somewhere.  She carries the message, which is baby Christ, and in turn this little boy carries the roll that contains the New Law.  Thus, it was quite natural that mailmen during their trips spread their devotion to this particular icon. This is how this Hodegetria appeared later in the West, in the Rhine and in Italy, well ahead than other images of Mary, with the big difference that the West didn’t understand the theological significance of that image as a “Mother Emissary”.  By contrast, in the West She was crowned like a queen and the Baby was carrying an apple, a dove, a flower …, everything but the Gospel.

Another icon of Mary that was reproduced countless times was a figure of the Mother sitting on an ivory throne with her Son bearing the aforementioned roll. Two angels appeared admiring them from above. Alone on the throne, without crown or jewels, she was the image of the quintessential Marteroi.

 

 

 

 

The Hodegetria, this is one of three objects of Byzantine ivory representing the full length of the human figure that remain to date, ca. Xth century (Metropolitan Museum, New York).

The figures of the Apostles depicted in little altars and ivory objects were well established by Byzantine iconography* and always represented in the same order: Peter in the center, on his right John and James, and on his left Paul and Andrew. The lateral panels showed four holy men and four confessors, as they were also portrayed in mosaics. On the back of the panel the procession of the holy hermits and scholars continued. In the center was a cross decorated with flowers and worshiped by stars and two cypresses. This was the symbol associated with Jesus-Nika, or triumphant Christ. The icon of the Baptist, the most important saint of the Byzantine church, was venerated in the Church of St. John at the Stone, in Constantinople. He was dressed like a Patriarch wearing fur garments. The icon of Christ who guarded the entrance of the Sacred Palace of Constantinople, the most hated image by iconoclasts, was a bearded bust of the Savior.

Byzantine icons mostly represented men. Throughout the whole Byzantine iconography it was never depicted the holy virgins, widows, or female martyrs that would be represented later by the Latin Church. The Byzantine liturgy relegated holy women to a particular and separated place in Heaven which wasn’t accessible from Earth.  Mary, the Theotokos, or Mother of God, summarized everything considered feminine for religious purposes. After her, the most feminine representations were angels who were always portrayed as androgynous creatures. We know very little of what once was the vast Byzantine iconography, because after the iconoclastic controversy, all the icons were destroyed and only a few were restored later, no mentioning the names of the artists who produced all the works of Byzantine art, of whom very few names are known to this day.

The Triptych of the Virgin enthroned with the Child in her lap between Saint Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom, one of the rare Byzantine works in bronze remaining today, ca. XIII century (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).
Harbaville triptych (Louvre), famous Byzantine Ivory from the XI century. Christ enthroned between the Virgin and John the Baptist pray for sinners, while below, separated by a line of fleur-de-lises, are the figures of the Apostles James, John, Peter, Paul and Andrew. On the side panels are the figures of warriors in armor and mantle (top panel) and images of preachers (lower panel).
This ivory is part of the cover of a book from the eleventh century. In the central medallion is John the Baptist and surrounding him are the Saints Philip, Stephen, Andrew and Thomas (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

 

We also know some few Byzantine secular objects. We now know about the circus’ games that took place in Constantinople thanks to a series of ivory boxes decorated with rosette borders and figurative insets. They had buffoons, athletes, or agile jumpers in the act of passing lighted torches to each other. Mixed with these figures were biblical themes of a few historical issues of the Old Testament.

Ivory ark (Metropolitan Museum, New York), one of the most beautiful pieces of Byzantine ivory carving. Xth century.

 

Rectangular ivory box (National Museum of Bargello, Florence), from the tenth century, in which the figures are also separated with bands of rosettes in perfect geometric order.

 

The cover of the Gospels of Otto III from the late tenth century (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich), has at its center a Byzantine ivory plaque representing the Dormition of the Virgin, and is completely surrounded by antique gems and cameos in a matrix of gold. In the central piece, Paul appears besides the deathbed while Christ takes in his hands the Virgin’s soul.

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*Icon: An icon (from the Greek meaning “image”) is a religious work of art, most commonly a painting, from Eastern Christianity. Though especially associated with “portrait” style images concentrating on one or two main figures, the term is also used for most religious images in a variety of artistic media produced by Eastern Christianity, including narrative scenes.

 

 

 

*Iconography: Iconography studies the identification, description, and the interpretation of the content of images: the subjects depicted, the particular compositions and details used to do so, and other elements that are distinct from artistic style. A secondary meaning is the production of religious images, called “icons“, in the Byzantine and Orthodox Christian tradition.

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