Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 1, 2002
Yuri Piatnitsky, Oriana Baddeley, and Earleen Brunner, eds. Sinai, Byzantium, Russia: Orthodox Art from the Sixth to the Twentieth Century Seattle: University of Washington Press in association with Saint Catherine Foundation, London, 2000. 456 pp.; 550 color ills. Cloth $100.00 (0295980273)
Exhibition Schedule: State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia, June 19-September 18, 2000

Brilliant and hermetic, Byzantine art exhibitions have glittered across the millennial decade (1993–2004), leaving us to ponder what they have altered or reclaimed. The groundbreaking exhibition held in Athens in 1964 claimed in its title, Byzantine Art, an European Art. “Why?” rejoined Greek critic Iannes Tsarouches. “Why not call Byzantine art an American art? This isn’t paradoxical: from a certain point of view Byzantium has much more in common with America than Europe” (“Parataires Skepseis Enos Episkepte tes Ektheseos vyzantines Technes,” E Epitheorese Technes 113 (1964): 388). But in the United States, Byzantine studies seem to Robert Ousterhout “semi-marginalized,” unable to claim position either as our own or as other (“An Apologia for Byzantine Architecture,” Gesta 35 (1996): 21). Ideological partisanship is precisely what critics missed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Glory of Byzantium exhibition in 1997, and an attitude of spectator neutrality was yet far more calculated in exhibitions mounted in France and England, which displayed not Byzantium as such, but the ways its artifacts had been collected.

Ownership is, by contrast, the passionate claim of Sinai, Byzantium, Russia: Orthodox Art from the Sixth to the Twentieth Century, the catalogue of an exhibition of 496 items or clusters of items held at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2000. At its core are ten superb icons from the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, along with a vast array of 156 Byzantine, fifteen Georgian, and 315 Russian artifacts drawn from the museum’s collections. The exhibition covers a period ranging from the Justinianic era to 1918 in a scintillating cascade of every imaginable luminous medium: metalwork, enamel, gold embroidery, ivory, panel painting, manuscript illumination, glyptics, and glass. The exhibition “represents two wonderful, famous, and typologically different treasure houses: Sinai and the Hermitage” (9), reminding us of their bonds and furthering fundraising for Sinai’s preservation. In the catalogue’s words: “Through its active imperial support for the St. Catherine Monastery, Russia firmly announced its adoption of the Byzantine tradition of state patronage of religious institutions. . . . It is a great honour for us to revive Russia’s glorious traditions, even if not at the former tsarist level” (9).

Even if not, perhaps, at the former tsarist level, the catalogue is nonetheless overwhelming in its prodigality. Many of its artifacts, including three of the Sinai icons, have never been published, and many more, including all ten Sinai icons, have never been exhibited. Practically all of the works are excellently reproduced in color, many for the first time. Together, they offer an unparalleled volume of otherwise unknown works: As a visual offering, the catalogue is a staggering achievement.

In all this amplitude, it is easy for the reviewer to dwell upon the things that are not there. Most conspicuous of these is an articulated art-historical strategy for the exhibition. The objects range from the Justinianic period to the end of the Romanov era, but the essays focus only on the Sinai collection. The contributions from Oriana Baddeley, Yuri Piatnitsky, Marlia Mundell Mango, and Robin Cormack include insights into Russian support for Sinai during the early modern centuries, when the monastery’s history is especially obscure. In addition, Cormack’s essay contains a useful summary of speculation about artistic production at Sinai. Otherwise, one is left awash in a radiant flood of objects, from icons to Easter eggs to gilded porcelain portions of Easter cheese. The connections between them are not articulated, and the objects themselves are left to make clear the exhibition’s theme of the seamlessness of Byzantium, Sinai, and Russia.

All artifacts presented here are Orthodox. But what does it mean to be Orthodox? Certainly there are icons, but the deliberate juxtapositions of icons in radically different manners make it clear that their Orthodoxy does not lie in their style. Many of the objects have a ritual function, but those functions change, as polycandilia and pyxides give way to Easter eggs and commemorative medals. The theological disputes precipitated by the Old Believers that so often shape histories of Russian art are not examined here. A section on Cretan icons, including a ravishing tiny triptych by Nicolas Tsafouris (B155), shows that Orthodoxy is larger in scope and influence than Russia itself. More than in site, style, function, or doctrine, the essence of Orthodoxy seems to find expression in a particular attitude to material, an attitude that—rather than likening the monastery to a museum—makes both into treasure houses. Such a reading, however, emerges visually; the essays do not examine it.

One misses, too, a consistent template for the catalogue entries. In some cases the texts are very rich in their physical analysis of the works, in others quite perfunctory. That this concern emerges is a response to one of the catalogue’s signal strengths: its engagement with the works as material objects. The physical descriptions, on the other hand, are sometimes skewed in translation. Nonetheless, the images are visually and intellectually stimulating, inviting a kind of particularized admiration that we rarely concede to what we regard too often simply as bodiless "images"—as if icons could somehow be understood through the lens of mechanical or photographic reproduction. One yearns for a consistent way of analyzing them as physical entities.

The entries deserve attention on further fronts. One is historical: Detailing objects’ provenance and restoration history, they offer insights into the past of such precious survivors as the Hermitage’s icon of the Mother of God surrounded by prophets (B90). Another is functional: An entry such as the one on the jeweled ornaments known as zapony (R50) explains their function vividly—behind the tulip and ivy-shaped gems one senses the legendary vine in Solomon’s temple laden with the golden leaves of pious givers. A third reason is aesthetic: Rarely are ritual objects offered with the acute aesthetic passion of Yuri Piatnitsky’s entries. A fourth is candor: The entries can be quirky—as in the identification of a panel with a three-nail Crucifixion as belonging to the Middle Byzantine period (B27)—but they are also frank and disarming, presenting questionable works or issues openly. (See the arguably authentic fragmentary Gospel Book resembling the twelfth-century Tetraevangelion, Athens, National Library 93 [B62], or the delicate dance around the issue of Cypriot painters in the entry on the templon beam of St. Eustratios [S61], an issue that is bound to be affected significantly by the Sinai icons published here.)

The icons from Sinai form the fulcrum of the exhibition and catalogue. Introduced by the moody and beautiful tenth-century panel of St. Nicholas (S54), the majority of the works cluster in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It is striking—indeed, rather sobering—to see how much they tell us that we simply did not know. Functionally, for example, a full-length icon of John Chrysostom (S56) turns out to belong to a full suit of twelve such icons that must have adorned the apse of the basilica at Sinai, occupying the place assumed in painted churches by frescoed figures of the Holy Fathers. None of the twelve has been published, and no comparable suit—to my knowledge—exists. Similarly interesting is the templon beam of St. Eustratios (S61). Its brilliant, garruluous scenes of Eustratios’s posthumous interventions in the lives of upscale patrons contrast sharply with the more austere scenes on St. Catherine’s Vita icon (S60). The Eustratios beam is complemented with Athonite beams (B86, B88, B89), offering an especially rich insight into the painted templon beam.

Formally challenging, in turn, are two other unpublished icons, a pair of Holy Doors showing the Annunciation (S55) and a half-length Archangel Michael (S62). Flawlessly preserved, they exhibit a refined classicism that is peculiarly disturbing. Playing on the tension between classical volume and iconic pattern, the icons reflect an almost pre-Raphaelite self-consciousness that sits strangely with our conception of Byzantine art. Equally striking is the sheer mastery of the huge icon of the warrior-saints Sergios and Bacchos (S63). Though it violates Byzantine hierarchy to place the Mother of God on its battered reverse, the icon cannot be given its “Crusader” label dismissively.

Such functional, formal, and qualitative insights are enhanced by technical observations of the works. Some backgrounds are gold; others, even of superb paintings, are silver with a yellow glaze. Either can show the burnished lightbursts so distinctive to Sinai icons. Some panels are excavated to provide protective borders; other panels have had their borders added. Some are fully wrapped in linen beneath their paint; others have fabric only on their figural surfaces. Paint surfaces within a single panel may be built up very differently, as in the faces of Mary and Christ in the “Blachernitissa” (S57). Such close observation makes one yearn for a fuller analysis of the two imposing icons of Elijah and Moses (S58, S59); they are signed identically in Greek and Arabic by one “Stephanos who is depicting you,” yet they are painted very differently. The questions raised by these ten icons—of form, function, content, thematic hierarchy, and technique—show how valuable this exhibition and catalogue are.

It will be our instinct to locate the catalogue’s importance in the Sinai icons alone, evading the later chapters’ proprietary claim. Yet ever since the 1964 exhibition we have sought a view of Byzantium that was not just visual and formalist, speculative and neutral, offering objects of virtue that are able to affect our styles but not our lives. Months after the Hermitage exhibition, another vast Byzantine exhibition opened in three cities: Athens, Thessaloniki, and Mistras. Entitled Byzantine Hours, it also broke through traditional frames of reference, not of time now, but of genre, offering objects of virtue drawn from life, all beautiful—thus not ethnographic or archaeological—but not necessarily designed to function within the genre of “art”: clothing, toys, tools, wedding wreaths. As Sinai, Byzantium, Russia located Byzantium in a given regime of patronage, Byzantine Hours embedded it in the texture of a particular urban lifestyle, set in cities the Byzantines themselves had known, moving into the very streets, spaces, and workplaces of Byzantine life. Both are invitations to abandon the spectator neutrality of 1964 and step into a more living engagement with Byzantium.

Annemarie Weyl Carr
University Distinguished Professor of Art History, Southern Methodist University

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