everyone, not just mosaicists, should know about Byzantium.
Last year I undertook a mini poll. I asked twenty citizens of Bradford,
in the north of England, what they knew about the Byzantine Empire.
Their collective response - 'Nowt', and its synonyms. One girl did
say, 'Gold... Icons...', and a young man, 'I see Russia. I see a
crown. A crown with jewels hanging from it. Right, luv?' But no-one
could name any building, any emperor, or any event in its history.
Nowt, near enough.
And yet they were all children of Byzantium. We all are, in Britain,
in Europe, in the West. We have all sheltered within the walls of
Constantinople. And we don't know it - it's a safe bet that 95%
of all Britons know as little as my Bradford sample. I didn't know
owt about Byzantium until I was in my forties, and only discovered
it because of Wagner.
Yes, Richard. To know him is to know his amazing patron, King Ludwig
II of Bavaria; and after years of wondering why Ludwig built a Byzantine
throne room in Neuschwanstein Castle (the Disneyland one) and planned
bedrooms and palaces in the same style, I finally borrowed a book
about a Byzantine empress called Theodora, and promptly fell in
love. Not with her, though she was clearly a corker - with her Empire,
her world. It was a revelation; scales tumbled from my eyes. Ich
bin ein Byzantiner.
Like most people, I'd been brought up to think that our Western
civilisation started with the Greeks, continued with the Romans,
enter Christianity, then came The Fall Of The Roman Empire (476
A.D.), the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, and so on. What no-one told
us was that the Roman Empire did NOT fall in 476. The Western half
of the Empire fell to the barbarians, certainly. Goths, Vikings,
all that. But the Eastern half, centered on Constantine's New Rome
(alias Byzantium, Constantinople, Czargrad, Micklegarth and Istanbul),
carried on for another thousand years - all in all it lasted for
much longer than the original Roman Empire did. And for half that
time, until the Middle Ages really got going, the Byzantine Empire
was Christian civilisation. And it was superb. And to the
end they called themselves Romans. Why weren't we told?
We are the heirs of Athens not least because Byzantium preserved
Classical Greek literature for us. Byzantium gave us Roman law and
State organisation. While civilisation in Dark Age Western Europe
was - in Lord Clark's phrase - 'squeaking through by the skin of
its teeth', the perfumed courtiers of Constantinople quoted Homer
much as we quote Shakespeare, and State bakers debated the drawbacks
of Monophysitism. Central heating, polo, orphanages, baths, planning
regulations, toilets, trade guilds, gold automata, hospitals, weights
and measures legislation, women doctors, hydraulic air conditioning
- Constantinople had all these.
For centuries this marvellous Christian city withstood ferocious
attacks by Goths, Huns, Slavs and Persians. Charlemagne's grandfather
stopped the Arabs at Poitiers, true, but if Constantinople had not
been a bulwark against the other arm of the Arab advance, it's my
guess that Bradford would have had its first mosque in 973, not
We all know about people and stories from Roman history - Hannibal
and the Battle of Cannae, Anthony and Cleopatra, Nero and the Christians,
etc. etc. - but Byzantium has people and stories just as good. Try
Justinian and the Victory riots, Heraclius and the Return of the
True Cross, Zoe the Empress who brewed perfumes in her bedroom,
Basil the Bulgar-Butcher, or the murderous sex-glutton emperor Andronicus
and his horrific end...
Byzantine art and architecture was glorious. Exquisite ivories,
silk embroideries, illuminated manuscripts. Gold reliquaries studded
with jewels and enamels. Churches and palaces adorned with multi-coloured
marbles, their vaults and domes glittering with gold mosaics. At
Daphni, the huge mosaic of Christ the Almighty is the most awe-inspiring
image of God the Son ever created. In Constantinople the Harrowing
of Hell fresco in the Chora church is as great as anything in the
Sistine chapel. The mighty church of St. Sophia, built by the emperor
Justinian, is greater than St. Peter's. I'm in love, remember.
of St. Vitale
art, especially the superb mosaics, influenced painters like Giotto
and El Greco. And when Charlemagne built his palace at Aachen, the
chapel there derived from one at New Rome's vast Imperial Palace,
that wonder of the world, now alas no more. Another vanished Byzantine
wonder, the Church of the Apostles, was the model for St. Mark's,
Venice. Those four bronze horses used to preside over chariot races
at the Hippodrome in Constantinople.
They are in Venice because in 1204 the Roman Catholic Franks, Germans
and Venetians of Pope Innocent III's Fourth Crusade, driven by need,
greed and envy, turned aside and sacked Constantinople. It was the
first time the city had fallen, and was one of the great cultural
crimes of history, something that the Orthodox Christians of Byzantium
have never forgotten. It made certain that the separation between
Catholic and Orthodox would remain an unhealed wound. We should
have been told.
Though the Byzantines got the Crusaders out after sixty years, that
attack fatally weakened the Empire, and the Turks slowly but surely
closed in. The West would not help. When Constantinople fell for
the second and last time, in 1453, the last emperor, Constantine
XI, died fighting alongside his troops, as an emperor should. His
body was never found; just the red Imperial buskins, or so the legend
goes. It's a great story.
A thought. On the night before the Turks made their final assault
on the city, Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians alike gathered
in Justinian's Great Church of St. Sophia and, all differences laid
aside, celebrated the holy liturgy together. It took the Fall of
Constantinople to do it, but they got there. They could do it again...
Meanwhile, how about making the history of the Byzantine Empire
part of the National Curriculum?