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

If you would like to leave a comment, click on the title.

Filed under: Collection, , , , , , , , , , ,

Receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 12,401 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

For #AprilFools today, here are some interesting (and true!) stories about the Museum. 
Did you know there was a merman (actually part monkey, part fish!) on display in the Enlightenment Gallery (Room 1)? This ‘merman’ was donated by HRH Prince Arthur of Connaught (1883–1938), grandson of Queen Victoria, and was said to have been 'caught' in Japan during the 18th century. It was given to Prince Arthur by an individual named Arisue Seijiro. 
The British Museum’s ‘merman’ is displayed in the Enlightenment Gallery as an example of the kind of ‘curiosity' that was found in early collections before the more encyclopaedic and reasoned approach to collecting that evolved through the 1700s. In this context it helps to show how museums changed during the 18th century from cabinets of curiosity to the type of museums we are more familiar with today.
#merman #mermaid For #AprilFools today, here are some interesting (and true!) stories about the Museum. 
This is Mike the cat, who assisted in keeping the Main Gate at the British Museum from Feb 1909 to Jan 1929. When he died, the former Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities, Sir E A Wallis Budge, wrote a whole pamphlet about him. His obituary was featured in both the London Evening Standard and Time magazine! Find out more about Mike the cat at britishmuseum.tumblr.com
#cat #Museum #AprilFools! April actually derives from the Latin word aperire, meaning to open (i.e. spring).
Here's #April at Kew Gardens, part of a series by Thomas Robert Way.
#spring #print #AprilFoolsDay #April is named after Aprillis, the Roman goddess of mischief The Eiffel Tower officially opened ‪#‎onthisday in 1889.
This 1928 print by French artist Jean Émile Laboureur depicts the Gardens of Trocadéro with the Eiffel Tower beyond.
#EiffelTower #Paris #print #art #history We are excited to announce that our exhibition #8mummies is now extended until 12 July 2015! Here are the 8 mummies you'll encounter in this groundbreaking exhibition #MummyMonday
#history #exhibition #mummy
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 12,401 other followers

%d bloggers like this: