Palaiologue Dynasty

The friction between the Orthodox Byzantine Empire and the Roman Catholic West came to a head when the armies of the Fourth Crusade, in alliance with the Venetians, in 1204 attacked, sacked and occupied Constantinople. A primary objective was to loot the capital of the weakened Byzantine Empire and vast quantities of relics and treasures were exported to the West, with Venice as the chief beneficiary. Much was destroyed as well; antiquities and Christian monuments were melted down to retrieve the bronze and precious metals. The Byzantine aristocracy who survived the sack scattered to form independent principalities at Nicaea, at Epiros, on the west coast of Greece with a capital at Arta, and at Trebizond on the Black Sea. Together with the Bulgars, Serbs, Seljuk Turks and the Mongols, they all competed with the crusaders to seize control of the empire, until in 1261 the Byzantines from Nicaea gained control of Constantinople and Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos came to the throne, and the city returned to Orthodox hands.

Unlike the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, where one can speak of a hybrid 'crusader art', apart from the destruction, there is little material evidence of the half-century of crusader occupation, although in one of the Byzantine churches converted to the Latin rite, now known as Kalendarhane Camii, there is a fragmentarily preserved St Francis cycle which must have been executed after St Francis's death in 1228 and the Byzantine recapture of the city in 1261. While in exile, the Byzantine principalities continued to commission art and art production continued, but through the accidents of survival little remains in Nicaea. The cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Trebizond, c.1238-63, is possibly the most significant frescoed, purely Byzantine, monument from this period. Certainly during this period, and arguably later, the main centres for art production lay outside the spheres of direct Byzantine political control; there is evidence of Byzantine artists at this time working in Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia and Georgia. This Byzantine commonwealth was multi-ethnic and multilingual, but unified more through faith, liturgy and art than through any sort of military or political alliance.

The restoration of Byzantine rule in Constantinople in 1261, like the Orthodox victory over iconoclasm, led to a period of extensive restoration and rebuilding, and like that period, this one has also been viewed by some cultural historians as one of great revival: a 'Palaiologan renaissance'. However, the Byzantine Empire from 1261 to its final collapse to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 led a very precarious existence, where the Byzantine principalities in exile did not form a single united front, but sought various alliances with traditional foes, while the Bulgars, Serbs, Seljuks and finally the Ottomans all made territorial incursions and threatened the survival of the empire. Attempts to find a unity with the western Church for reasons of political expediency were rejected by the Byzantine Church at home, the prevailing view being that it was better to die and face martyrdom than to compromise one's faith. One can argue that in this late phase of Byzantine art one can frequently note elements of nervous introspection and of heightened spiritualism.

In the south gallery of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, in an area usually reserved for Church Councils and the members of the imperial family, a huge mosaic of the Deesis was created, probably shortly after 1261, where each of the figures is more than twice life-size. The Deesis, the image of Christ, flanked by the Virgin and John the Baptist, in Byzantine iconography served in an abbreviated form as an image of the Last Judgement, where before Christ the Judge, the Virgin and John the Baptist intercede for humankind. In this Deesis, despite its monumental scale, Christ has a most wonderful and caring expression, like a human, his head casts a shadow on his neck and he comes to help and save, rather than to judge and condemn. The mosaic is beautifully modelled in the faces and hands in very fine tesserae, and is reminiscent of the painterly qualities encountered on the sixth century Sinai icon of Christ. Stylistic parallels may also be drawn with the frescoes in Hagia Sophia in Trebizond and with some of the Serbian churches, like those in the Church of the Holy Trinity at Sopocani of the late thirteenth century. It is interesting that the church and the emperor selected this image of intercession before the Last Judgement as the principal icon to erect in the Great Church on restoration of power, when the empire faced such an uncertain future.

A considerable amount of painting and mosaics survives in Constantinople from this late period, although most of the churches in which they are found are restorations of earlier buildings, rather than new creations. It appears that frequently an exo-narthex and a funerary side chapel (parekklesion) were added to an existing structure to restore and re-endow a church and to give it a funerary function for the new donor. In this manner a military man and his widow restored the church of Theotokos Pam-makaristos between the 1260s and 1308, and a major imperial bureaucrat, Theodore Metochites, restored the Chora Monastery between c.1315 and 1321 (Underwood 1966-75; Belting et al. 1978; Mango 2000). Both contain extensive cycles of mosaics and frescoes of an amazing complexity and intricacy in the narrative aspects of the iconography and a growing theological sophistication. Although art historians have frequently described the style as one of refined elegance with a strong classicizing tendency, the elongated figures with their small heads and graceful gestures, with sweeping accentuating draperies and the marked colour and shadow contrasts, as prayer images, denote an intense spiritualism, whereby the beholder is invited to contemplate a divine spiritual mystery, rather than to simply read a familiar story. In the mosaics in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Thessaloniki, c.1310-14, and in the frescoes of Hagios Nikolaos Orphanos, also in Thessaloniki, c.1320, and the Theotokos Hodegetria (Aphendiko) in the Brontocheion Monastery at Mistras, c.1311-22, there are parallel stylistic developments which suggest that this was a general tendency rather than an isolated phenomenon. One could argue that the new spiritualism of Hesychasm, the ideas of St Gregory Palamas and Symeon the New Theologian, all found reflection in some paintings and icons of this period.

Whereas in discussion of earlier Byzantine art chance survivals dictated the choice of examples, in the Palaiologan period large numbers of churches, icons and manuscripts survive in mainland Greece, Athos, the Balkans, Russia, Cyprus and Crete. Although the quality may not be of a constant level amongst the 600 painted churches mainly from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries on Crete or in the cluster of churches at Mistras, the density and concentration of surviving monuments allows us a much better basis for generalizing about Byzantine art and architecture on the eve of the military defeat of the empire by the Ottoman Turks.

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