I have been awaiting the arrival of Byzantium with a strange mix of excitement and trepidation. Excitement, because these are underexplored stretches of art’s global output that are certain to offer surprises. Trepidation, because Byzantium is Byzantium: an empire notorious for its knuckle-rapping religious seriousness and its orthodoxy – a byword for the stern and the hierarchical. If ever a show appeared, by its very presence, to be criticising the way we live and think today, that show was surely going to be Byzantium.
However, I was wrong, for two reasons. First, because I had underestimated the ability of the Royal Academy’s designers to construct a sumptuous journey through this sometimes stern but always glorious religious bling. And second, because Byzantium, on this evidence, was not the cruel and controlling force for orthodoxy we have so long imagined it to be. Variety, naturalism, experiment and perhaps even tolerance were included in its make-up. In its plush, coffee-table-ish way, this stunning display finally succeeds in conjuring up a new Byzantium.
That said, how could we ever have believed in the immobile and monocultural Byzantium of legend? The timescales involved are so huge that no culture in history could have remained unchanged throughout them. The birth of the Byzantine empire is neatly dated to AD330, when the Roman emperor Constantine, having converted to Christianity, founded his new Rome on the site of the old Byzantium, on the banks of the Bosphorus, and called it Constantinople. And the empire’s end can be dated just as neatly to May 29, 1453, when the new Rome was captured by the Ottoman Turks and claimed for Muhammad. Thus, the full story of Byzantium spans more than a millennium of dense Asio-European history. A large chunk of late antiquity, the whole of the Middle Ages and a decent slab of the Renaissance can be fitted into it. Of course there would have been variety.
The trick to encapsulating the output of such a huge stretch of cultural territory successfully depends on subtraction rather than addition. Anyone can put the whole lot in front of you and say: “Make sense of that.” A harder ask is to identify the milestones and the turning points, and to construct a telling journey between them.
The first thing you see here is an inordinately large copper chandelier, in which a baffling number of crosses and candles sway like a rusty Calder mobile across the RA’s central octagon. What drama. The gigantic chandelier – the biggest, I suggest, you will ever see – manages to convey simplicity as well as complexity; heavyweight religious passion and feather-light religious joy. It dates from the 13th century, a long way into the Byzantine story. But the agenda it sets so successfully promises drama and beauty, surprises and size. And that’s what you get.
Having foolishly imagined the art of Byzantium to have arrived at its start line with all its subsequent stiffnesses in place, I found it thoroughly enlightening to watch it finding itself so oddly. The show’s earliest stretch looks at the continuing influence of classical models on the new empire’s art. A Jonah being swallowed by a sea monster, carved out of marble, twists and fidgets like a miniature version of the snake-strangling recorded so momentously in the Laocoön. Marble. Movement. Male nudity. Monsters. None of it is expected. At this stage, it is predictably difficult to differentiate between the last gasps of the Roman empire and the first cries of Byzantium. A Christian mosaic displaying lively personifications of the months – February holds a duck, April a lamb – may have been inspired by “Pavlos, priest and teacher of the divine word”, but it is basically indistinguishable from its late-antique predecessors.