Gene Kleinbauer

title.none: Lowden, Early Christian and Byzantine Art (Kleinbauer)

identifier.other: baj9928.0003.012 00.03.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Gene Kleinbauer, Indiana University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Lowden, John. Early Christian and Byzantine Art. London: Phai don, 1998. Pp. iv, 447. $24.95. ISBN: 0-714-83168-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.03.12

Lowden, John. Early Christian and Byzantine Art. London: Phai don, 1998. Pp. iv, 447. $24.95. ISBN: 0-714-83168-9.

Reviewed by:

Gene Kleinbauer
Indiana University

Well known as a preeminent and highly productive specialist in Byzantine illuminated manuscripts, Professor John Lowden of the Courtauld Institute of Art has published an authoritative, clearly written, and up-to-date but relatively short survey covering over 1300 years of Early Christian and Byzantine art. Issued as a welcome addition to Phaidon's series Art and Ideas, Lowden's volume is clearly aimed at a wide readership: it is free of the technical and linguistic jargon that marks art historical discourse of the last two decades and is visually attractive with the majority of illustrations in color. Lowden covers all media, although his treatment of architecture is largely in terms of how it accommodates mosaics or wall paintings rather than a historical development of the medium. He is preoccupied with surviving monuments, from the corpus of which he makes a judicious selection. A few lost monuments known through literary sources are however mentioned at appropriate places in his text. His detailed discussion and color illustration of illuminated manuscripts offer a great strength of the volume: here he speaks with great authority. He even devotes an entire chapter to holy books made between ca. 976 and ca. 1100. Well-known manuscripts of the pre-Iconoclastic period, of the so-called Macedonian Renaissance (which have attracted such wide attention in past surveys of Byzantine art), and of the Late Byzantine period (which here receive their due) are also generously treated. To Lowden illuminated books offer the richest source for the study of Byzantine art and ideas but are also the most challenging to interpret (p. 306). As is customary in surveys of this material, the overall framework of this volume is chronological and divided into four parts: "Art before Iconoclasm" (pp. 9-144), "Iconoclasm" (pp. 145-184), "Art after Iconoclasm" (pp. 185-306), and "Byzantine Art in a Wider Context" (pp. 307-424).

The first part, "Art before Iconoclasm," is divided into three sections: "The Formation of a Christian Art," "Constantinople and the East," and "Ravenna and the West." Lowden launches his discourse not with Rome and catacomb paintings, as do earlier survey books (e.g., John Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art, Pelican History of Art, 1970), but with the Rotunda of Hagios Georgios at Thessaloniki and the artistically spectacular mosaics in its dome (figs. 3-5). After a succinct description of what is preserved in the dome of this church, he asks what these mosaics meant to their mosaicists and their early Byzantine audience? Why were the nearly two dozen orant figures in the great frieze at the base of the dome selected? Why is the church round (it was not built as a church), and why were figural mosaics placed so high as to be difficult to see from the ground? As is often pointed out in this volume, the evidence to answer such fundamental questions about Byzantine art is wanting. Questions concerning Byzantine artists, patrons, and audiences continue to engage Lowden's attention in this volume. Throughout the book he believes that we must try to ignore certain modern assumptions if we want to approach what Byzantine art actually is or represents. He rightly recognizes that this art is conservative and closely tied to ancient Greek art as transmitted through Roman editions. During Iconoclasm the Byzantines developed the idea that the content of Christian art had to be strictly controlled, and after the end of this religious controversy it became an art that had to operate within certain conventions and to satisfy certain conditions. Yet Lowden stresses that Byzantine artists avoided predictable imagery by "presenting the novel or innovative as the traditional and orthodox" (p. 188). It is refreshing to find this abiding interest in the creative aspects of Byzantine art rather than a preoccupation with its visual sources. For Byzantine art transcended its Greco-Roman roots.

A case in point is Lowden's treatment of the early fifth-century Quedlinburg Itala fragment of a pre-Vulgate Latin version of the Books of Samuel and Kings, a manuscript now housed in the State Library in Berlin, which, as Lowden makes clear, illustrates one principal venue by which Christian art came into existence in the first place. In this manuscript the paint surface has flaked off, revealing much of an underlying text in the four compartments of the imagery in folio 1r (fig. 31). Lowden makes the surviving text accessible to his reader by translating it and supplying the corresponding Biblical text--something absent in earlier survey books. He observes that the Quedlinburg text was composed by a knowledgeable advisor who not only was quite familiar with the Bible but also provided instructions in generic descriptive terms to an illuminator as to what to paint. The real significance of the Quedlinburg Itala is clearly explained by Lowden: for Biblical illustration there existed in Early Christian art no compelling established pictorial tradition (or "recension" in the terminology of the late Kurt Weitzmann, in his day one of the foremost specialists of illuminated Byzantine manuscripts). Illuminators were left to their own creative devices to generate complex images by combining simple visual formulae that were widespread in the Greco-Roman tradition. What makes the illuminated images in the Quedlinburg Itala Christian is the new context of the stock elements employed by the illuminator. And to assure that the audience correctly identified the individual figures and scenes inscriptions were added (in this case under the paint layer). The celebrated mosaics in San Vitale at Ravenna deserve their lengthy treatment on pp. 127-135. Since his book was published in 1997, Lowden cannot have possibly known of the paper by Irina Andreescu-Treadgold and Warren Treadgold, "Procopius and the Imperial Panels of S. Vitale," Art Bulletin 79 (December 1997), pp. 708-723. But these authors initially presented their case, based on firsthand examination of the mosaics from a scaffold, for the imperial panels depicting Justinian and Theodora exhibiting two phases of work at the annual meeting of the Byzantine Studies Conference in 1990, whose abstracts were published in that year. And Irina Andreescu-Treadgold elaborated upon some of her findings four years later in "The Emperor's New Crown and St. Vitalis' New Clothes," XLI Corso di cultura sull'arte ravennate e bizantina, 1994, pp. 149-186. According to her interpretation, the figure and inscription of Archbishop Maximianus is part not of the first but a second phase of mosaic work in the church. Even if Lowden dismisses this interpretation, brief mention of it would have been appropriate.

The part of the book on Iconoclasm (726-843) probes the causes of this major rupture in Byzantium. The impact of the controversy on existing art works and how it prevented the making and veneration of new religious images as well as the wretched fate of artists daring to create religious images during this period are all eloquently discussed with clarity, accompanied by pertinent texts and images.

The third part of the volume, "Art after Iconoclasm," is divided into three sections. The first section, "Orthodoxy and Innovation: Byzantine Art c. 860-c. 960," treats the first century of mosaics, illuminated manuscripts, icon painting, ivory carving, metalworking and enamelling after the end of Iconoclasm. At that time Lowden identifies Constantinople as the greatest artistic center of the Byzantine empire, attracting artists from afar and dispatching them throughout its territories with metropolitan Constantinopolitan ideas and images in their artistic baggage. This is a traditional point of view advanced earlier by scholars (such as Robin Cormack) and finds support, for example, in a comparative analysis of the dome mosaic in St. Sophia at Thessaloniki (fig. 107) and the murals of the Tokali New Church in Göreme Valley in Cappadocia (fig. 108). Earlier contributions to the numerous manuscripts which date from this one-hundred year period--for instance, that of the late Kurt Weitzmann--focused on the "renaissance" character of the illuminations of these works and downplayed or overlooked their creative innovativeness. Lowden is fully aware of the issue of conscious archaism in these monuments but stresses instead how the illuminator manipulated his sources and the viewer's response in a variety of ways. For Lowden the "style of the images is an aspect of their meaning, not merely the expression of the individual artist's preferences" (p. 208). Many a Byzantine art work is controversial, and Lowden brings this fact to the reader's attention. One of the more celebrated controversies concerns the mosaic above the central door leading from the inner narthex into the naos of the patriarchal church of St. Sophia in Istanbul, which depicts a bearded emperor kneeling in proskynesis before an enthroned figure of Christ flanked by medallions containing the Mother of God and an archangel (fig. 105). Atypically for Byzantine art, this mosaic lacks any identifying inscriptions. While pointing out that this image seems to convey clearly a bond of piety and subservience between an emperor and Christ and how the Theotokos prays to Christ on behalf of the emperor, Lowden asks what the representation meant to the emperor and the patriarch in whose time the mosaic was executed. He argues that the programer of the mosaic intended the panel to convey a range of meanings rather than a single reading. The total lack of inscriptions in the panel would bear Lowden out on this point, but no doubt controversy will linger.

The second section of the the third part is entitled "Decorated Churches c. 960-c. 1100," a period which for Lowden represents a modified dynastic model from the later Macedonian emperors to the first of the Komnenians. Here he considers a small number of major mosaic panels or programs: Hosios Loukas, the katholikon of the Nea Moni on Chios, the mosaic of Constantine Monomachos and Zoe in St. Sophia in Istanbul, St. Sophia in Kiev, and the church of the Koimesis of the Theotokos in Daphne. All discussions of this material owe a not insignificant debt of gratitude to Otto Demus, Byzantine Mosaic Decoration: Aspects of Monumental Art in Byzantium (London, 1948). Lowden notes the preference at Daphne of the end of the eleventh century of large multi-figured images, in preference to medallions of saints in the Nea Moni or Hosios Loukas, which earlier scholars saw as a trend toward "hellenizing" or "classicizing." Lowden, however, finds the change "essentially aesthetic" (p. 269), relating to new concepts of how a church should be decorated. Since we lack evidence of such a change, I myself prefer to see the style of the Daphne mosaics as executed under the direct influence of mature and late classical sculpture on the Parthenon and other nearby sites which was readily accessible to the mosaicists working at Daphne and their patron or patrons. The third chapter of the third part deals with "Holy Books: Illuminated Manuscripts, c. 976-c. 1100," which represent the most abundant source for an understanding of Byzantine art after Iconoclasm. Here Lowden makes a rigorous but quite defensible selection of manuscripts on the basis of how the illuminations were intended to be viewed by the donors for whom the specific books were made. Lowden's approach is evident in his excellent analysis of the celebrated Menologion of Basil II in the Vatican Library (pp.272ff.). After informing the reader why this big book is associated with Basil II and how many pages it runs to, he discusses three folios and illustrates the full page rather than just the illumination on that page, and all are reproduced in color (though sometimes on too small a scale). Lowden translates the text accompanying the images on the three pages and explains to what degree text and image correspond or diverge. He asks what the viewer of the manuscript made of the individual pages and admits that in the case of this menologion we cannot always be sure. He also treats the problem of the eight signatures in the manuscript, which he admits must be left open, but observes that the evidence does not reveal these eight artists as individuals with personalities or careers that can be reconstructed through their signed works. Asking how the book might have been used by Basil II, he maintains that it was for display.

Throughout his volume Lowden seeks to understand Byzantine art in terms of its theological and intellectual background. He rejects the Renaissance concept of progress of the art as foreign to the Byzantines. Though fully cognizant of the various political and religious upheavals in Byzantine history, Lowden observes that "Byzantine art often communicates a profound--if deceptive--sense of continuity in a changeless world-order, with an element of transcendent isolationism" (p. 5). This character decisively sets Byzantine art apart from the art of the western Middle Ages and the Italian Renaissance, and therein lies its paradox: its recognizable nature as opposed to the arts of these other two periods.

Techniques of artistic creation are not ignored by Lowden. Details of the planning and execution of wall mosaics as well as miniature mosaic icons are explored (pp. 256ff., p. 369, respectively), as is the procedure for making enamel work (p.169). The fourth part of the volume, "Byzantine Art in a Wider World," starts off with "Perception and Reception," art in twelfth-century Italy. This is an informative overview of mosaics in Sicily and Venice as well as metalwork and enameling made in Constantinople and shipped to Italy, and sketches why patrons in Italy wanted to hire Byzantine artists to express ideas that were often un-Byzantine (p. 346). The second chapter of this part treats twelfth-century art in Constantinople, Macedonia, Cyprus, the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, and thirteenth century Venice, as well as the conquest of Constantinople in 1204, and the murals of the Serbian kingdom of the thirteenth century.

The third chapter of the fourth part covers Paleologan art of 1261 to 1453. Throughout the fourteenth century Constantinople continued to remain the most important center for Byzantine artists, and teams of mosaicists are seen as moving between commissions in the capital and centers elsewhere in the Byzantine empire (p. 404). Still, a few other centers maintained a local tradition of architecture and decoration (e.g., Mistra).

The book includes a glossary, a list of later Roman and Byzantine emperors, an identification of key dates comparing specific art works with a context of events, a map of the later Roman Empire ca. 325, a relatively short bibliography of relatively recent item mainly in English, and a useful index. Although Lowden's contribution is relatively short--it runs to 424 illustrated pages of text--it offers a much fuller account of the topic than another recent book, Thomas F. Mathew's Byzantium: From Antiquity to the Renaissance (1998), which is far briefer (163 illustrated pages of text) and far more selective in its choice of monuments which are thematically rather than chronologically presented. Lowden's text focuses on quintessential issues far more incisively than does Lyn Rodley's Byzantine Art and Architecture: An Introduction (Cambridge, 1994), a lengthier volume which is perhaps more appropriate for university students than the general public and is in any case visually far less stunning than Lowden's volume. Rodley, however, treats the development of Byzantine architecture in its own right. These three general surveys point up the keen interest that Byzantine art has generated in the last decade, an interest certainly sparked in part by major international exhibitions of Byzantine art in Paris in 1992, London in 1994, and New York in 1997, each of which was well attended and generated good press.