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Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy from BBC’s History of the World Series

July 7, 2010

At last this series brings us something from Byzantium! As the series now approaches a point in time which is just prior to the Renaissance, why has Byzantium had just one ‘outing’? The series lays claim to be a history of the world, so we should not expect a western-European centric series. Nevertheless, for it to take sixty-seven episodes to mention Byzantium is pretty poor. There are plenty of other ‘Roman’ objects. Is this because the British Museum is poorly endowed with Byzantine objects (not so,) or because, as usual an Empire that has had a profound effect upon the history of Europe and the Middle East for the last 1,700 years, has been ignored and given a walk-on part?

With my rant out of the way, the programme is nevertheless enjoyable and informative and worth 15 minutes of your time and a place on your MP3 player.

Visit the programme web page to see an image of the icon that you can zoom into (very good) here.

Listen to the programme on-line at the BBC website here.

Download the single programme here (right click & “save target as”).

Subscribe to the series podcast here.

The background blurb from the BBC site to go with this episode is as follows, and it was written by the truly well informed Robin Cormack, Professor Emeritus in the History of Art, Courtauld Institute of Art, London. It was Robin who organised the Byzantium 330-1453 exhibition in 2008 (see more about that here).

Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy

This icon commemorates the Triumph of Orthodoxy, a pivotal moment in Byzantine history. It depicts the Empress Theodora, dressed in red, who restored the use of images in religious worship in AD 843. For over a century previously, emperors had forbidden images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Saints. Empress Theodora is accompanied by her son and saints associated with the veneration of icons. This icon was made over 500 years after this event, when the shrunken Byzantine Empire was under the threat of invasion by the Ottoman Turks.

What role did icons play in the Byzantine Empire?

The Byzantine Empire was the eastern Greek-speaking half of the Roman Empire. While the last Roman emperor was deposed in AD 476, the Byzantine Empire continued until 1453. What we think of as the Eastern Orthodox Church was created largely within the Byzantine Empire, and the veneration of icons is part of its legacy. The painted icon on a flat wooden panel, that we are familiar with today, has its origins in the Byzantine Empire. Icons are still used in the Eastern Orthodox Church to focus worshippers’ prayers on a particular saint or subject.

A Vision of paradise

The Triumph of Orthodoxy icon is not a simple work of art. It is a symbolic proclamation of the power of images.

In the first centuries of Christianity, converts expected the imminent end of the world and their personal entry into paradise. The production of art was consequently an irrelevance for them. But from the third century onwards this immediate anticipation receded. The investment in permanent churches for communal worship and the dedication of monuments to record the death of charismatic saints or places of Christian witness, like the tomb of Christ at Jerusalem, stimulated the development of art to embellish places of pilgrimage and pious devotion.

Yet some groups in the church strongly disapproved of this conspicuous promotion of art. In response Pope Gregory the Great, around AD 600, defended imagery as useful for teaching the Christian message to the illiterate and for helping the faithful towards the contemplation of God. Despite church support for art along the same lines in Byzantium, all Christian images were aggressively banned there during the long period known as Iconoclasm from AD 730 to 843, leading to the disappearance of figurative art in the eastern Mediterranean at the very moment when Islam, a religion without images, emerged.

The Byzantine iconoclasts ultimately failed in their attempt to limit the scope of Christian art to the representation of the cross. Instead the idea that since God became man on earth, it was proper to show Jesus Christ, his mother Mary and the saints in art as objects of veneration finally prevailed as Orthodox church doctrine. Iconoclasm was declared to be a wicked heresy. This was argued theologically and also as a matter of practice by stating that St Luke as well as writing a Gospel was an artist who had portrayed the Virgin and Child from life and that his actual icons still existed.

The Triumph of Orthodoxy icon shows the continuing strength of feeling at Constantinople in the fourteenth century about the necessity of images in the Orthodox church. At its centre is shown one of the icons of the Virgin and Christ painted by St Luke and preserved in Constantinople. It is shown venerated by the theologians, monks and emperor and empress who defeated the iconoclasts.

From the ninth century, figurative images of Christian saints and stories decorate domes, walls and portable panels, all called icons – representations or symbols – and became the agreed essential support of prayer and worship at home and at church, at times of both joy and sorrow.

Orthodox Christian artists were required to produce icons to function for centuries, the best being both technically superb (painted in egg tempera or made in durable materials like gold, silver or ivory) and in a style avoiding all ephemeral fashions. Icons are made to be carried in processions accompanied by incense and chanting, kissed with emotion, and are the objects of contemplation, prayer and meditation. As things of beauty and symbols of eternal truths, icons transform their space into a vision of paradise.

Related article:

A History of the World in 100 Objects returns!

Byzantium: Looking at a Mirage

Related category:

Byzantium 330-1453 Exhibition

Byzantine Podcasts

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. LauraDAL permalink
    July 7, 2010 12:40 pm

    Thank you Tom for posting. I ask myself the same question. Why? Why it takes so long to rightfully acknowledge over a 1000 years of human history, full of achievements in every field, and proven bridge between Antiquity and Western history. I’ve recently been reading pieces about major monasteries in Constantinople that were sacked by Latins, Venetians and the like. What is so unforgivable? Splendour?

  2. proverbs6to10 permalink*
    July 7, 2010 12:51 pm

    Laura, we will lead on from this with your idea of the five objects which I will now work on. It takes some time to get it all set correctly on the page.

    Perhaps your point above “a 1000 years of human history, full of achievements in every field” is something we can develop. Your medicine catergory is a start. Maybe others can offer engineering, chemistry (Greek fire), etc. The art speaks for itself. We also have codified law, from the tyrannical Justinian of all people etc.

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