Orthodox Traditions of Art outside the Boundaries of the Byzantine Empire

By the early eleventh century a Byzantine commonwealth existed which stretched from the Gulf of Finland to Crete and from the Adriatic to the Caucasus, where a community of nations in varying degrees owed allegiance to Byzantium, the Byzantine Church and its cultural traditions. In the first instance, many of the countries of the Slav North emerged as military rivals to the Byzantines and even after their conversion to Christianity some hostilities continued. Another unifying element was the Cyrillo-Methodian heritage of Old Church Slavonic into which the Greek New Testament and the liturgical offices had been translated; by the tenth and eleventh centuries also a whole mass of patristic and related literature was available in this native Slav language. It meant that Moravia, Bohemia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Russia all shared a literary heritage which provided access to Orthodox Christianity in a native language and perhaps negated the need to study Greek. By implication, this also barred access to the classical heritage, so that the literary traditions of Slav East Europe incorporated the Byzantine Greek tradition without recourse to its pagan Hellenistic foundations. The same may be argued concerning the visual arts and that by the ninth and tenth centuries the theology of the icon, the liturgical iconography and the techniques of its production were all in place and the Slav peoples inherited Byzantine iconography in a very pure form, but without recourse to the waves of Hellenism that constantly resurfaced in Byzantium.

By the thirteenth century Byzantine political domination diminished, particularly during the Latin occupation of the capital, and major concessions were made to local ecclesiastical autonomy. For example, in 1219 a Serb, St Sava, was consecrated as Archbishop of Serbia and he established an autocephalous Orthodox Church; in 1235 the Bulgarian Church was recognized as an autonomous patriarchate; and in 1250 a

Russian monk, Cyril, was consecrated as Metropolitan of Kiev. Although many of the political bonds loosened, and finally disappeared with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and Moscow had proclaimed its position as the Third Rome and the protector of the Orthodox faithful and of the Orthodox traditions, the Byzantine religious, cultural and artistic links remained largely intact.

The relationship between the Byzantine heritage and the development of national schools in all cases is a complex phenomenon. In the first instance, in Bulgaria, Serbia and Russia, Byzantine artists appeared in the early years after the acceptance of Christianity and one could argue that the frescoes in St Sophia in Ohrid, c.1040, the mosaics in St Sophia in Kiev, c.1043-6, and the frescoes in the Bachkovo ossuary in Bulgaria, c.1083, are the works of mainly Byzantine artists. It also needs to be noted that Byzantine artists commanded enormous prestige by the local East European rulers, even in times of political dispute with Constantinople. There are numerous documented examples from the Palaiologan period of records of Byzantine artists working in the Slav lands, and on numerous occasions art in the Balkans and Russia has been attributed to Byzantine masters on stylistic grounds. Nevertheless, without violating the principles of Byzantine Orthodox iconography, distinctive local traditions did arise in the nations of East Europe, which enriched the existing cultural heritage.

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