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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Vikings Live: bringing our shared history to the cinema screen

Bettany HughesBettany Hughes, historian, author and broadcaster, presenter of Vikings Live from the British Museum

When you’re about to handle an archaeological artefact, interesting things happen to your body. In anticipation of the pleasure to come, your heart starts to race a little faster, the hair on the back of your neck might begin to rise, palms can become sticky. And of course there is the nagging knowledge that the security of that unique, precious – sometimes priceless – traveller in time is, physically, in your hands.

Vikings Live presenter Bettany Hughes

Vikings Live presenter Bettany Hughes

This gives the fact that we will be examining world-class Viking treasures live in front of a nationwide audience later tonight a certain piquancy. The combination of outside broadcast satellite trucks, electricians, cameramen, cables and lighting stands with 1,000-plus-year-old artefacts, is not an obvious one.

But there is form – we have done all this once before. Last year, Paul Roberts, Peter Snow, Mary Beard, Rachel de Thame, Gino Locatelli, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and I risked the world’s first ever live broadcast from a museum exhibition, with Pompeii Live. The British Museum’s notion was that we would develop the blockbuster into a private view for those who couldn’t make it to London; or who wanted a further, in-depth look at the objects. The great thing about these ‘Lives’ is that the camera can get up close and intimately personal to the displays; plus the audience gets the VIP treatment – with world experts gathered together on the night to unravel the significance of the most intriguing pieces. There was a tsunami of support from the public for our first effort. We’ve taken on board feedback (more shots of the objects themselves and less of the presenters’ mugs!).The number of cinemas hosting Vikings Live is up by a third on Pompeii, so hopefully, fingers crossed, we’re doing something right.

Female burial assemblage with a pair of round brooches, chain ornaments, equal-armed brooch, pendants, arm-rings and finger rings, AD 1050 – 110. Grave C23, Kjuloholm, Kjulo, Finland. © Suomen Kansallismuseo, Helsinki

Female burial assemblage with a pair of round brooches, chain ornaments, equal-armed brooch, pendants, arm-rings and finger rings, AD 1050 – 110. Grave C23, Kjuloholm, Kjulo, Finland. © Suomen Kansallismuseo, Helsinki

As an historian this is all truly great news: Memory matters to our species. From before the time of Homer we have chosen to join together in shared space to tell one another stories, to make sense of our world, our past and our shared futures. This is particularly relevant when it comes to the Viking story. My own fascination has always been that here in the UK we tend to think of the Vikings as OUR problem. But of course these men and women (‘Viking’ doesn’t mean a particular ethnic group but refers to an activity, vikingr, or raiding) were raiding and trading across four continents. From Kiev to Constantinople, from Gibraltar to Greenland, the Vikings meant something; they are all our ancestors. One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition is a necklace found in a woman’s grave in Finland. Semi-precious stones from the Baltic are joined by Islamic coins – dirhams. Face to face with that bit of jewellery you can just imagine the pride of the original owner; knowing that her loved ones’ adventures across the seas in Asia or Al-Andalus connected her to a rich, cosmopolitan world.

Odin, or v&oumlaut;va figure, AD 800–1050, Lejre,. Zealand, Denmark, © Roskilde Museum, Roskilde

Odin, or volva figure, AD 800–1050, Lejre,. Zealand, Denmark, © Roskilde Museum, Roskilde

I hear that one of Neil MacGregor’s favourite objects in the exhibition is the small silver figurine of Odin, but particularly the representations of Odin’s pet ravens – Huginn and Muninn – representing Thought and Memory. The British Museum – and indeed museums across the globe – are the custodians, caretakers and communicators of our collective memories. Although slightly terrified, I can’t wait to share these with you (and the screen with my long-time hero Michael Wood (who wrote yesterday on this blog). Oh, and incidentally, honey and dried fish were top Viking dishes; maybe have those as refreshment tonight rather than popcorn: Get in that Viking mood!

Bettany Hughes is one of the presenters of Vikings Live, at cinemas around the UK on Thursday 24 April.
Supported by BP

Follow @Bettany_Hughes and @britishmuseum on Twitter

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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