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 11,841 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Born #onthisday in 1820: Sir John Tenniel, who illustrated the first edition of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865. Here's Alice and the Cheshire Cat
#books #history #illustration Every ‪#‎PayDay we're sharing a ‪#‎MoneyFact!
The first coin issued with the dollar denomination was not in the USA, but in West Africa by the British Sierra Leone company in 1791.
You can explore the history of money around the world in the Citi Money Gallery (Room 68): britishmuseum.org/money
#history #money #coins #coin #fact ‪#‎DefiningBeauty opens in one month! Look out for our highlight #FridayFigure each week. 
The exhibition brings these three sculptures together for the first time, creating new narratives.
These sculptures show the work of three of the greatest artists in ancient Greece: Phidias, Myron and Polyclitus. Myron’s discobolus (disc-thrower) is the perfect balance of opposites and Polyclitus' doryphoros (spear-bearer) is constructed on a precise set of ratios. In contrast, Ilissos is carved from life rather than arithmetically calculated. Discover more on tumblr: britishmuseum.tumblr.com
#exhibition #behindthescenes #installation #art #sculpture You can now explore #AfricanRockArt from #Chad with new images available online at www.britishmuseum.org/africanrockart 
Chad has thousands of rock art engravings and paintings, some up to 7,000 years old! 
Throughout the caves, canyons and shelters of the Ennedi Plateau in Chad, thousands of images have been painted and engraved, comprising one of the biggest collections of rock art in the Sahara. A series of engravings at Niola Doa of groups of life-sized human figures have become especially renowned for their singularity and quality.
#art #rockart #Africa #Chad #engraving #painting This week we’re highlighting the #AfricanRockArt project, cataloguing 30,000 years of rock art.
Did you know that some rock art in #Niger is thought to be several thousand years old? Find out more about the rock art in Niger with new images online at www.britishmuseum.org/africanrockart
These spectacular life-size engravings of giraffe can be found at Dabous in Niger. Thought to date from between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago, the engravings cannot be seen from ground level and are only visible by climbing onto the boulder.
#RockArt #Africa #giraffe #art #history Here’s an exquisite chalk drawing by Renoir, born #onthisday in 1841.

Renoir began his career as a painter of porcelain in Limoges, aged thirteen, before studying with Sisley and Monet at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His early work flitted between sober academic painting and freer, more colourful en plein air ('open-air') work. He was, with Monet, at the forefront of the movement that became known as Impressionism. The two artists painted side-by-side on occasion, most famously for their paintings of the popular bathing-spot La Grenouillère (1869), then just outside Paris on the banks of the Seine.

His later works concentrate on the female nude and he tended to emphasize simple forms and solidity, as well as relishing pink and orange flesh, as this study illustrates. Several versions of this pose survive, all probably intended as finished pieces rather than sketches for grander work.

Crippled by rheumatism in his last years, Renoir continued to paint with brushes jammed between his fingers. 'If painting were not a pleasure to me I should certainly not do it'.
#art #artist #Renoir #impressionism #history #drawing
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 11,841 other followers

%d bloggers like this: