Macedonian and Komnenian Dynasties

Byzantine art from the end of iconoclasm in 843 to the fall of Constantinople to the armies of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 is frequently termed Middle Byzantine. The whole period is dominated by two imperial dynasties, the Macedonian dynasty, which dominated the imperial throne between 867 and 1056, and the Komnenian dynasty, between 1081 and 1185. The cross-in-square church which entered metropolitan use in the ninth century became the norm in Byzantine architecture and in the tenth century became widespread throughout the empire. The Russian prince Vladimir of Kiev, who was baptised probably around 988-9 and who married Anna, the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Basil II, by 996 had Byzantine architects working in his capital; they built a cross-in-square church, the Tithe Church in Kiev. In mainland Greece, near Delphi, between 946 and 955 a variant of the cross-in-square design was employed in the building of the Theotokos church at Hosios Loukas (originally dedicated to Hagia Barbara), while in Thessaloniki an impressive cross-in-square church of Panagia ton Chalkeon was built in 1028. On Mount Athos, the holy monastic peninsula founded by St Athanasios in the tenth century, about twenty monastic cross-insquare churches were eventually built, two of the earliest being the Theotokos church at the Vatopedi Monastery in 9 72 and the Koimesis church at the Iviron Monastery in 976.

In contrast to the metropolitan churches of earlier centuries, the cross-in-square churches constructed during the Macedonian dynasty were generally small in scale and frequently employed a decorative brickwork on their exterior, the so-called cloisonné style. If the early Christian basilicas sought huge enclosed spaces for large congregations, while the imperial churches of the sixth century made a statement concerning imperial power, wealth and grandeur, the new cross-in-square churches reflected a shrinking demography, and often had as patrons members of the military or civil aristocracy, and on many occasions were designated as monastic churches and also were designed to serve as the founder's tomb. Implicit in this patronage was the commemoration of the founder by the monastic community in perpetuity, something which was frequently written into the typikon or charter of the monastery. These churches created a more intimate atmosphere for worship and where the original liturgical furnishings survive, as in the rock-cut churches of Cappadocia or at Hosios Loukas, it appears that the sanctuary screens grew considerably in height, creating a physical barrier between the inner sanctuary containing the altar and the lay worshipper. These templon screens, apart from accommodating 'holy doors' which enabled the clergy to go in and out of the sanctuary, also served for the display of icons (Epstein 1981). So rather than an opaque barrier, it became like a visual parable where to the Orthodox faithful the iconography was revealed both liturgically and in the process of private prayer. After iconoclasm, icon painters strove to be non-naturalistic, usually employing gold backgrounds; they were deliberately symbolic and faithfully preserved the prescribed characteristics of the original prototype.

As a large number of these Middle Byzantine churches has survived with much of their decorations, there is room for some generalizations. Churches like the katholikon at Hosios Loukas with mosaics and frescoes from the 1020s, the katholikon at Nea Moni on Chios, with mosaics from c.1042-55, the frescoes and mosaics in the cathedral of St Sophia in Kiev, c.1043-6, the frescoes in the column churches in the Goreme Valley in Cappadocia, c.1060s, and the mosaics in the katholikon church at Daphni, on the outskirts of Athens, dating from c.1100 (plates 18.9 and 18.10), can all be described as churches where the decorations and architecture form a single Christian microcosm. While from monument to monument there are considerable stylistic differences and some scholars have separated them into metropolitan and provincial trends noting different classicizing or hieratic elements, stylistically the emphasis was placed on preserving the spiritual characteristics of the figures and on conveying the symbolic iconography of the scenes. Although the individual churches may reflect local cults and peculiarities, the main liturgical feasts of the Church were always celebrated. The Dodekaorton, the twelve principal feasts of the Church, were frequently included on the vaults or on the upper reaches of the walls. These feasts were: the Annunciation to the Virgin, the Nativity of Christ, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the Baptism of Christ, the Transfiguration, the Raising of Lazarus, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Crucifixion, the Anastasis, the Ascension, Pentecost and the Koimesis. Although in some churches there were more Marian feasts or other scenes from the Passion cycle, which could reflect the dedication of the church, the main feasts of the Orthodox church calendar became also the main images depicted within the church. There was more variation in the inclusion of saints, so that in a major monastic church like Hosios Loukas (plate 18.11) there was a great multitude of monastic saints included in the iconographic programme, while in Nea Moni, a church with an imperial founder, there were more warrior saints and others saints who had major cults in the capital. The church, its architecture and its decorations, formed a single symbolic and liturgical whole, a sacred space which existed outside temporal time.

If some of the monumental art during the Middle Byzantine period seemed more private and intimate than that which preceded it, this is particularly evident in some of the illuminated manuscripts, carved ivories and other religious artefacts of exquisite quality. Four manuscripts in particular, the Paris Gregory, c.879-83, and the Paris Psalter, c.950-70, both in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and the Leo Bible, c.930-40, and the Joshua Roll, mid-tenth century, both in the Biblioteca Vaticana in Rome, have been singled out by scholars as part of a so-called Macedonian Renaissance because of their use of classicizing motifs. Unlike the western traditions of art, in the context of Byzantine art this is not a particularly useful concept, as Byzantine art never lost its links with the Hellenistic heritage and unlike the West, where there was a conscious rejection of medieval spiritualism and the desire to revive classical pagan art and values, within the Eastern Orthodox tradition one may speak of a perennial classicism which found stronger expression at some periods than in others, but which was never totally abandoned.

Although in literary sources the Byzantines in the eleventh and twelfth centuries continued to refer to themselves as 'Romans', one could argue that real identity lay with the physical manifestations of Orthodoxy: the Church and its sacred iconography, particularly as expressed in its icons. Even regimes which vied with the Byzantines for political supremacy, such as the Normans in Sicily and the Venetians, imitated Byzantine conventions in their architectural forms and mosaic decorations, as part of their bid for imperial legitimacy. There exist only scant physical remains of the monumental cycles of decorations in Constantinople from this period, in contrast to the wealth of examples from Greece, Cyprus, Cappadocia, the Balkans and Russia. While every church and monastery has its own history and peculiarities, there are many features which they share. Generally the wealthier foundations, sometimes with imperial connections or popular pilgrim cults, employed the expensive mosaic tesserae for the decorations of the vaults and marble revetment to cover the lower reaches of the walls. Other churches and monasteries employed the much cheaper medium of frescoes and in some rare instances, for example St Sophia in Kiev, they combined mosaics for the more prominent parts of the church, executed probably by imported Byzantine artists, and frescoes for other sections, where there is evidence of local participation. Frescoes were generally painted in water soluble pigments directly into freshly laid sections of plaster and then completed on the dry surface of the wall with pigments mixed with a binder, with gold leaf sometimes added for the haloes and other details. Frescoes frequently covered the entire wall surface of the church, leading to more extensive iconographic programmes than with mosaics. Even in churches of relatively modest proportions, for example the three so-called column churches - Elmali Kilise, Çarikli Kilise and Karanlik Kilise - in the Goreme Valley monastic complex in Cappadocia, there are up to fifteen feast scenes and a considerable number of images of individual saints (see plate 18.12).

It was also in the frescoed churches of the eleventh and twelfth centuries that strongly expressed individual artistic talents appear in Byzantine art. Although very few Byzantine artists of this time can be identified by name, when one looks at the frescoes in St Sophia in Ohrid, c.1037-56, or St. Panteleimon at Nerezi, 1164, both in Macedonia, or at Panagia Phobiotissa in Asinou, 1105/6, or Panagia of Arakos in Lagoudera, 1192, both on Cyprus, one immediately recognizes the presence of a strong individual artistic genius. In some instances one is able tentatively to follow the progress of these artists and their related workshops as they travelled from one monument to the next, whether it be within Cappadocia or moving between the churches in Macedonia, Kastoria, Cyprus or in the Balkans (Skawran 1982; Stylianou 1985). If many of the important iconographic conventions by this time had found their resolution and relatively minor variations were tolerated by the Church and patrons, the spiritual intensity through which this iconography was communicated and the artistic strategies employed varied considerably.

In Byzantine manuscripts of the time, both in their texts and their illuminations, there appears a certain standardization as well as an unprecedented richness and variety in the large number of surviving examples (Carr 1987). It is difficult to speculate on the extent to which profusely illustrated manuscripts, such as the Menologion of Basil II, c.976-1025, in the Biblioteca Vaticana, of which only the first of two volumes survives, or the lavish eleventh-century Gospel lectionaries from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos and at the Biblioteca Vaticana, are chance survivals or characteristic of a much broader tradition. What is clear is that there was a considerable level of production of high quality illuminated manuscripts which disseminated Middle Byzantine iconographic conventions very widely. There also survives quite a large number of very high quality Byzantine icons, enamels and examples of precious metal work from this period.

What is much more speculative is the manner in which the Orthodox worshipper used religious images. From the iconophile writings of the eighth and ninth centuries, as well as from the evidence found in liturgical manuscripts and in scenes of various aspects of the liturgy found in other illuminations, especially in Gospel lectionaries and the menologia, we know that Byzantine Christians from this period frequently venerated icons on their knees, kissed icons and carried icons in procession on feast days and took them around city walls at times of crisis. The icons did symbolize the spiritual presence of the saints depicted on them and prayer and veneration shown to the icons were communicated directly to the spiritual beings depicted on them. With narrative images, such as feast scenes, they were not read simply as literary illustrations, but they were 'prayed through' in an allegorical and spiritual manner, one revealed by the liturgy, where the faithful partook of some of the mysteries of the scene (Ouspensky 1992). In an icon of the Nativity of Christ, for example, the cave in which Christ was born also related to the womb of the Virgin and the actual cave crypt in the church at Bethlehem, and allegorically prefigured the tomb of the sepulchre. The Christ Child in the swaddling clothes in the manager related both to the text of the Gospel of St Luke as revealed in the Christmas liturgy, as well as to the funerary shroud and the sepulchre in which the body of Christ was placed. In this way, every detail of the sacred iconography became like a visual parable, which was gradually revealed to the faithful. Specific icons were venerated on specific occasions and certain parts of the church were metaphysically associated with a sacred topography.

Aesthetics certainly played a role in Byzantine religious art at the time. The learned eleventh-century Byzantine historian, Michael Psellos, noted on one occasion:

I am a most careful viewer of icons: but one icon astonished me by its indescribable beauty, paralysing my senses like a thunderbolt, and vanquishing me of my power of judgement in the matter. Its subject was the Mother of God. (Cormack 1997: 35)

Cults formed around some remarkable icons, some of which were known as Acheirop-oietos (not made by human hands); others were thought as being created by saints, like images of the Theotokos painted by the Evangelist Luke. An icon of the Virgin and Child was brought from Constantinople to Kiev in 1131 and then moved to the principality of Vladimir, from which it acquired its name Our Lady of Vladimir and became the most holy image of Russia. Other icons appeared miraculously and were interpreted as heavenly signs which called on people to establish monasteries in their honour in those locations.

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