British Museum blog

A second look at a Byzantine icon: The Triumph of Orthodoxy

Robin Cormack, classicist and art historian

And life slips by like a field mouse,
Not shaking the grass.

Working on a new edition of my book Icons – first published by the British Museum in 2007 – I was reminded of these lines by the poet Ezra Pound on the rapid passing of time. I had to think what changes might be necessary to my work after seven years. In writing Icons my hope was to do two things: to celebrate the importance of the collection of Byzantine and Russian icons in the British Museum, and at the same time to give reasons why icons form a significant part of the history of Europe too. To use a favourite phrase of art historians, if art is embedded in society, then how can we understand that society through looking at its art? Icons are a special case because they are a medium that was produced in Europe from the early centuries of Christianity, became an essential element in the lives of the people of the Middle Ages, especially in the Byzantine world with its capital of Constantinople, but continue to be produced today. In other words, if you go into an Orthodox church, you will see in use icons first painted centuries ago side by side with new icons. That makes icons a very special form of art. There is the further complication that you may also see icons, not in a church, but in a ‘secular’ setting like the British Museum. Do they have the same impact in that context?

Icon with the Nativity of Christ. Egg tempera on wood with linen and gesso. Crete, 17th century (2012,8039.1)

Icon with the Nativity of Christ. Egg tempera on wood with linen and gesso. Crete, 17th century (2012,8039.1)

What changes have there been since 2007? The Museum has acquired a dozen more icons since then, which are illustrated at the end of the catalogue. For me the most charismatic new icon is the Nativity of Christ (cat. no. 112), painted on Crete in the 17th century. It came to the British Museum in 2012 as a bequest from the artist and Royal Academician John Craxton who for most of his life worked in a studio at Chania and produced colourful and joyful paintings of life in modern Crete. He wanted this, the best icon in his collection, to be in the British Museum collection, and so the Museum has in its possession a painting previously owned by the artist who encouraged art historians to appreciate the icons of Crete.

The Triumph of Orthodoxy. Icon painted with egg tempera, with gilding, on a wooden panel faced with linen and gesso. Byzantine (late), around 1400, Constantinople (1988,0411.1)

The Triumph of Orthodoxy. Icon painted with egg tempera, with gilding, on a wooden panel faced with linen and gesso. Byzantine (late), around 1400, Constantinople (1988,0411.1)

Possibly the best known icon in the British Museum is the Triumph of Orthodoxy, dating to the 14th century. It celebrates the end of the period of Iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries when icons were banned in Byzantium. From AD 843 onwards, the ban was revoked and icons became a defining feature of the Orthodox Church. The people who fought for icons are represented on the icon. As part of my research for the new edition of the book, I looked closely again at the icon, especially at the fragmentary Greek inscriptions giving the names of these iconophile ‘heroes’. I decided that I – as well as everyone else who had looked – had made some wrong deductions about who some of the figures were. In the new edition I identify the two central saints in the lower register, who jointly hold an image of Christ, as the two most famous iconophiles: St Stephanos, who was reputedly martyred in the 8th century, and St Theodore who was exiled on the 9th century for promoting the veneration of icons. As for the saints on the right, it is now argued that the artist wrote the wrong names beside some of the figures. The most likely explanation is that the icon copies an earlier icon of the same subject and the artist made a few mistakes, probably because the model was larger and had a few more figures.

So a second edition gives a second chance to look and interpret. Perhaps Ezra Pound was unduly pessimistic.

Icons by Robin Cormack, published by British Museum Press, is available online for £14.99, Members’ price £13.49

Robin Cormack is Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and is currently teaching Ancient art and archaeology at the Classics Faculty, University of Cambridge

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We welcome nearly 7 million visitors a year to the Museum and this photo by @zoenorfolk wonderfully captures the movement of people around the Great Court. Completed in 2000, the Great Court also features a quote by Tennyson: 'and let thy feet millenniums hence be in the midst...’
#repost #regram
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum In 2000, the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court designed by Foster and Partners transformed the Museum’s inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe. We love this striking photo by @adders77 showing this incredible space at night #regram #repost
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum This wonderful photo by @what_fran_saw captures the stunning Great Court #regram #repost
The two-acre space of the Great Court is enclosed by a spectacular glass roof made of 3,312 unique pieces!
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum The roaring lions on the walls of King Nebuchadnezzar II’s palace represented the Babylonian king himself and were intended to astonish approaching visitors. Nebuchadnezzar commissioned major building projects in Babylon to glorify the capital of his empire. Glazed bricks in bright shades of blue, yellow and white were favoured for public monuments in order to emphasise both divine and royal power. These works displayed the might of the city and its king, who commanded unlimited resources.
Glazed brick panel showing a roaring lion from the Throne Room of Nebuchadnezzar II, 605–562 BC. From Babylon, southern Iraq. On loan from Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin.
Share your photos using #mybritishmuseum and tagging @britishmuseum.
#lion #art #history #BritishMuseum Lions have perhaps been adopted as a symbol more than any other animal. They are seen as proud, fierce and magnificent – characteristics that made kings and countries want to associate themselves with these charismatic big cats. As well as being the national symbol of England and Scotland, the lion is in many ways the symbol of the British Museum. Lions guard both entrances to the building. At the Montague Place entrance are the languid lions carved by Sir George Frampton, and on the glass doors of the Main entrance are the cat-like beasts designed by the sculptor Alfred Stevens in 1852.
This lion can be found on the wooden doorframe at the south entrance to the Museum, and its nose is polished smooth by the many visitors who rub it for luck on their way in. Share your photos using #mybritishmuseum and tagging @britishmuseum This colossal lion in the Great Court is one of the most photographed objects in the Museum. It weighs more than 6 tons and comes from a tomb in the ancient cemetery of Knidos, a coastal city now in south-west Turkey. The tomb stood on the edge of a cliff overlooking the approach to Knidos harbour. The building was 18 metres high and the lion was on top of its pyramid roof. The hollow eyes of the lion were probably originally inset with coloured glass, and the reflection of light may have been an aid to sailors navigating the notoriously difficult coast. It is carved from one piece of marble, brought across the Aegean Sea from Mt Pentelikon near the city of Athens. Opinions vary as to when it was built. One suggestion is that it commemorated a naval battle off Knidos in 394 BC.
We’ll be sharing more lovely lions this week! Share your photos using #mybritishmuseum and tagging @britishmuseum.
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