Nancy Sevcenko

title.none: Maguire, ed., Byzantine Court Culture (Sevcenko)

identifier.other: baj9928.9811.005 98.11.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Nancy Sevcenko,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Maguire, Henry, ed. Byzantine Court Culture from 829 to 1204. Washington, D. C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1997. Pp. x, 264. $60.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-884-02242-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.11.05

Maguire, Henry, ed. Byzantine Court Culture from 829 to 1204. Washington, D. C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1997. Pp. x, 264. $60.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-884-02242-0.

Reviewed by:

Nancy Sevcenko

Its title would suggest that this book is a luxury volume, replete with color plates of dazzling gold and enamel works of art. This, for better and for worse, it is not: it is a set of fourteen papers from a Symposium held at Dumbarton Oaks in 1994 which together offer the reader a careful, varied assessment of diverse aspects of court life in the Middle Byzantine Period, amply footnoted, and illustrated entirely in black and white. Since this volume is the result of a conference of specialists, it does not pretend to be an overall survey of the subject, but the contributions reveal many fascinating aspects of Byzantine court culture in its finest hours.

The papers are assembled under the headings of "Imperial Spaces", "Imperial Costumes and Cult Objects", "Interchanges with Foreign Courts", "Court Intellectuals and Rhetoric", "Social Composition of the Byzantine Court", and "Art of the Byzantine Court". Some of the papers present a fairly broad survey of the subject they have been assigned (Littlewood on palace gardens, Piltz on court costume, Dennis on imperial panegyric, Kazhdan and McCormick on the social world of the Byzantine court, Oikonomides on titles and sources of income); others use test cases to elucidate the larger picture (Majeska on imperial ritual in the church of St. Sophia, Magdalino on two Byzantine courtiers, Jolivet-Levy on some lost mosaics in St. Sophia, Maguire on the emperor as angel). Two excellent papers explore the use of sacred objects in court ideology and piety (Kalavrezou on imperial ceremonies and the cult of relics, Carr on icons at court). Trilling's article deals with court art, especially with what has become one of the most famous metaphors of Byzantium, the golden singing birds and the roaring lions of the imperial throne. Several other papers shed light on Byzantine court culture through an investigation of the art of neighboring, even rival, courts (Tronzo on the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, Grabar on Islamic reports of gift exchanges, and the second part of Jolivet-Levy's article, which deals with the Armenian royal church at Aghtamar). There is a brief, lucid Introduction by Henry Maguire, and an Index.

One major challenge, addressed by several of the papers but not allotted a separate paper to itself, is that of definition: what in fact was the Byzantine court? Who belonged, how did they get in, and how did Byzantine court culture differ from that of the "courts" of the Western Middle Ages? Paul Magdalino, "In Search of the Byzantine Courtier," starts by addressing this challenge head on, and then retreats to a close analysis of two individuals, Leo Choirosphaktes in the 10th century, and Constantine Manasses in the 12th, whose careers and personalitites serve to highlight the changes in the court that occurred between their two lifetimes. His opening pages (pp. 141-46) are crucial: he points out that there has been relatively little attention given the subject because "the Byzantines themelves did not isolate the court as a social and cultural phenomenon worthy of literary attention" (p. 141); they therefore "failed to develop not only a vocabulary of courtliness but also an ethos of courtliness" (p. 142) comparable to that in the West. He offers several cogent explanations, among them the idea that the city of Constantinople itself, the center of the empire, took the place of the inner circle of a court, and the idea that the Byzantine court culture was never "purely secular or profane" (p. 144). His portrait studies of the two writers, rich in insights on how differently these two men viewed the emperor's place in the cosmos, are directed more at the specialist (and include a close reading and translation of much of Leo's inaccessible Thousand-Line Theology).

In their "The Social World of the Byzantine Court," the late Alexander Kazhdan and Michael McCormick also attempt to come to grips with the issue of definition; they define the terms court (redefined as "the palace"), aristocracy, the ruling class, elite and courtiers in their Byzantine sense, and emphasize the vertical mobility that could lead straight to the top in the 9th and 10th centuries (as opposed to the family connections that were to prove so important in the Komnenian period). They estimate the size of the court (probably something less than 2000 people); they look at institutional and social subgroups, including ethnics, eunuchs, senators, imperial craftsmen, and women, and at the basis of a courtier's wealth, and ask how the demands of the court ceremonies affected the psychology, and helped the finances, of the participants. The statistics here are balanced by lively evocations of the careers of men such as Constantine-Cyril, Theophanes, Basil I and Symeon the New Theologian.

James Trilling, "Daedalus and the Nightingale: Art and Technology in the Myth of the Byzantine Court," seeks to clarify what we mean by court art. The objects with which the court surrounded itself are hard to access, since we have virtually no images that depict the court in action. Trilling focusses instead on automata as symbols of court taste, on ideas of virtuosity and their political implications, and on how these, the most artificial creations of the Byzantine elite, reveal an appreciation of nature on their part that should be separated "from ideas of ceremony and rigid order" (p. 228).

Henry Maguire, "The Heavenly Court," views the Byzantine court through its apparent model, the court of Christ in heaven, but he concentrates not on the reflection, the one of the other, but on the effects of the interactions and intermingling of the two. There are sections on the symbolism of wings in Byzantium, which the emperor, by holding the rank of an angel in the heavenly court, may sport, and on angels clad in imperial garb or as eunuchs: oddities explained by the overlapping of the two courts.

A theme that recurs throughout this volume are the changes that occurred between the 9th and 12th centuries. The apparently unvarying court ritual both overlaid and underpinned important alterations to the social structure of Byzantium during the Middle Byzantine period. Nikos Oikonomides takes up Kazhdan's distinctions between the Macedonian and the Komnenian periods, in his "Title and Income at the Byzantine Court," pointing out how "the nature of (a courtier's) income, and the way in which it was obtained, changed radically" (p. 199). The change was from a monetary economy, with officials and dignitaries paid in cash, to a system of benefits that allowed the official to collect his income directly from the taxpayer; this change, which Oikonomides sees as a reaction to the decrease in monetary reserves that plagued the 11th century, resulted in the quicker circulation and more efficient use of what money there was.

Another theme is the interpenetration of the secular and the sacred. George Majeska studies three types of services at St. Sophia in which the emperor was an active participant, and focusses on his exact role and what this might mean with respect to his clerical status. The three types of ceremonies studied are the emperor's coronation, the patriarchal liturgy on the major feasts of Christ of the church year, and those of one particular day, Holy Saturday, the eve of Easter. Majeska shows how imperial coronation is in essence a form of ordination to holy orders, though to what holy order is left unclear; on feastdays, and on Holy Saturday, the emperor acts like a member of the higher clergy, but also as a lay patron of the church, and there are limits to his access to the sanctuary. Majeska concludes "The emperor is, perhaps, priest and king, but he is not priest-king" (p. 11). A convenient ground plan of the church has the various stations marked.

The article by Ioli Kalavrezou, "Helping Hands for the Empire: Imperial Ceremonies and the Cult of Relics at the Byzantine Court," is perhaps the most interesting in the volume. After a discussion of the various palace relics (housed in the Pharos Church, and in St. Stephen's), she shows how two arm relics were used in the emperor's coronation and on the feast of the Baptism, and then shows how these relics made their indirect way into Byzantine iconography: the arm of St. Stephen into portrait images of Stephen, and the arm of John the Baptist into scenes of the Baptism of Christ (She has rediscovered the relic of the latter in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul). This is a superbly documented, innovative article, and her understanding not only of the political significance of imperial relics, but of the interweaving of relic and iconography has broad implications for future art historical research.

Annemarie Weyl Carr has also written on the connection between sacred and secular in her article "Court Culture and Cult Icons in Middle Byzantine Constantinople". She notes the absence of icons in surviving imperial imagery, and shows how minor a role icons played in the rituals of state (p. 87), concluding that "the linkage of court and icon is due very largely to one icon... the Hodegetria" (p. 89). She relates how this icon eventually eclipsed all the others of the city, including even the Blachernitissa. She emphasizes that unlike the relics discussed by Kalavrezou, the activity of most icons was not on a grand civic scale, but personal, their miracles private ones (p. 99), and the icons were "identified with the state... through the person of the emperor" (p. 98).

There is sadly no article in this volume on palace architecture, but a broad survey of one aspect of imperial and aristocratic dwellings is provided in A. R. Littlewood's "Gardens of the Palaces". This article relies mostly on literary sources, some going as far back as Ashurnasirpal in the 9th century B.C., and it does include some Byzantine images thought to represent palace gardens. The ideology of the imperial Byzantine gardens has been recently treated by Henry Maguire, "Imperial Gardens and the Rhetoric of Renewal," in New Constantines: The Rhythm of Imperial Renewal in Byzantium, 4th-13th Centuries (Aldershot 1994), 181-97. Littlewood is more concerned with what Byzantine gardens looked like, and what was planted; he filters his sources of their rhetoric and poetry to unearth the concrete evidence they may contain. Byzantine gardens, he says, were "designed largely to be viewed and delighted in from indoors, or at least from the shade of a colonnade, as is regular in near eastern palaces" (p. 25). In the course of his study, he deals with fountains and other waterworks, trees, flowers, and game parks. The power of convention in Byzantine literature and art is so strong, that getting to the root of a garden description or representation is by no means easy. Littlewood is perhaps less able to separate the convention from the reality in the latter, that is, in works of art, than he is in literature: art works may be able to tell us a good deal about the "idea" of a Byzantine garden, and its formal characteristics, if not about the precise species of plant they included. Nonetheless, this article is a marvellously valuable collection of literary material.

The article by Elisabeth Piltz on "Middle Byzantine Court Costume" lists the imperial costumes, and the costumes of dignitaries, mentioned in the 10th-century Book of Ceremonies, and tells us on what occasions they were worn. The importance of dress and of color of dress for defining rank at court is made abundantly clear. Reference is made throughout to the surviving images of emperors in their finery, though the plates might have been even more helpful had some attempt been made, even in cases of doubt, to identify the garments worn by the painted emperors and courtiers in the accompanying captions (as was done for fig. 18, where the costume worn by a princely martyr in Gotland is identified as the skaramangion and the chlamys). The claim that "the splendor of the delegated power of the officials helped keep the empire from falling apart during more than a thousand years" (p. 51) may seem a bit excessive, but fits well with one more theme of the book, that change and permanence walked hand in hand.

The articles dealing with foreign courts include an article by William Tronzo on the Cappella Palatina, which, despite its title "Byzantine Court Culture from the Point of View of Norman Sicily" is really about the Norman, not the Byzantine court (See too his fine recent book, The Cultures of His Kingdom: Roger II and the Cappella Palatina in Palermo [Princeton 1997]). Tronzo limits himself to two themes: Christomimesis, and style. Under the rubric of Christomimesis, he deals with the traditional question of the "royal view" (what the Norman king saw from his box in the Cappella Palatina), turning it onto its head to focus on how the king was himself seen: standing between representations of the Crucifixion and the Anastasis (now lost), with all the Christological associations that such a position would provide. One could argue that his choice of Byzantine monuments for comparative purposes is a bit too narrow (multiple tiers of narrative scenes on a single wall is not as rare in Byzantium as he implies; the use of model books does not always have to be assumed; Georgian royal boxes might have been mentioned), and that too much is built on two lost, and therefore only hypothetical, scenes, the Crucifixion and the Anastasis (remembering that even important feast scenes might well be excluded from the main body of a Byzantine church, as was the case at Hosios Loukas, the Mavriotissa at Kastoria, etc.), if for reasons that are not always entirely clear to us. Tronzo takes up the traditional argument that in his mosaic portrait, Roger II resembles the Christ who is crowning him, and suggests that here in Sicily the image is bolder than it is in Byzantium, freer to put into visual form messages that in Byzantium are articulated in rhetorical panegyric, but not in art. Under the rubric of style, he contrasts the "Arabic" and the "Byzantine" styles encountered in the Palatina, showing how they were used deliberately in order to portray the emperor as secular ruler in the nave and heavenly ruler in the sanctuary.

Oleg Grabar's "The Shared Culture of Objects" is basically a cautionary tale about the "commonality of court behavior and of court practices" (p. 127), and about the existence of "a culture of sensory pleasure" (p. 129) that had little to do with the icons or other liturgical objects that tended to separate the Byzantine and Islamic cultures. Using "the anthropology of the object" (p. 116), and basing himself on the splendid Arabic "Book of Gifts", a document of the 11th century (now published in translation by Ghada Qaddumi), he comments upon the entries that involve gifts to and from Muslim courts, compares them with objects that have survived, and shows how easily the taste for luxury objects transcended differences in religion. He stresses the increasing multiplication of centers of authority and therefore of gift exchange in the 12th century, and how this led to a dissemination, almost a popularization, of the earlier court art of objects.

Catherine Jolivet-Levy, "Presence et figures du souverain a Sainte-Sophie de Constantinople et a l'eglise de la Sainte- Croix d'Aghtamar," deals first with the imperial context for some lost mosaics in St. Sophia (esp. the Pantokrator vault and the Pentecost vault in the South gallery, the former above the emperor's seat, one court over the other, the latter stressing his universalist mission), then spends most of her time on the 10th-century Armenian royal church and the imperial themes of its sculpted facades and its painted Genesis cycle inside. As was the case with the article of Tronzo, the Armenian material, however interesting, reveals more differences with Byzantium than similarities, especially the bolder incorporations of the ruler himself into the program of decoration. One might have asked for a more detailed presentation of the arguments for the emperor's having sat in this exact area of St. Sophia (cf. note 7), and for more help in relating the lessons of Aghtamar to Byzantine monuments. For a parallel analysis of Aghtamar, published earlier, but too late to be incorporated into this study, see Lynn Jones, "The Church of the Holy Cross and the Iconography of Kingship," Gesta 33 (1994), 104-17.

George Dennis' "Imperial Panegyric: Rhetoric and Reality", while concentrating on the "basilikos logos", is a witty, kindly view of the role of rhetoric and the rhetoricians in the Middle Byzantine period. It shows most clearly how rhetorical skills served to define and bond the "literary elite which included emperors and empresses, ordinary laymen, secular clergy, bishops and monks." (p. 132). This is an excellent piece to give to students, who are likely to be dismayed when first encountering Byzantine rhetoric, a form of literature so crucial to the Byzantine political scene, yet so opaque, even unattractive, to the modern reader. Dennis also provides valuable guidelines for the use of these panegyrics as historical sources.

In assessing the characteristics of Byzantine rhetoric, Father Dennis cites Michael Psellos, who in a particular oration says he "does not need to give the name of a certain rebel, since he is addressing people who know what has been happening" (p. 133). The annual symposia at Dumbarton Oaks have long been just this: an occasion for the presentation of new research to an audience of people who know what has been happening. The rather specialized results have usually been published in Dumbarton Oaks Papers, where they are joined by other unrelated articles. Now, however, the papers of the annual symposia are from time to time being collected into separate, independent volumes. This one on the Byzantine court shows the advantages of such a solution, the main one being that there is now an editor to pull together the disparate articles into a coherent whole: indeed, if such a volume is to stand on its own, it could use an even stronger editorial presence than is visible here, to balance the specialist level of discourse. And a volume such as this could benefit from better reproductions, even if in black and white, comparable to those we have come to expect in the Dumbarton Oaks Papers. But we do have here a collection of essays on many important aspects of the Byzantine court, by some of its finest scholars; the mosaic remains unfinished, more tessarae are needed, but the outline is already clear.