The danger of the “Byzantine”

I’ve already commented on this blog about the pitfalls of the word Byzantine, especially in relation to the mosaic art of Late Antique and Early Mediaeval Rome. I stand by that perspective. Indeed, after a conference I was at earlier this year, I am even more deeply entrenched in my anti-Byzantine position.

One of the many difficulties besetting the use of this word is its strong association with Greek and the Eastern Mediterranean (indeed, I think of Byzantine as Greek mediaeval, or mediaeval Greek, personally). This is combined with the fact that, despite the great cultural and political ruptures of the seventh century, historians of ‘Byzantium’ and the ‘Byzantine’ Empire like to start their story with Constantine or something like that (in which case we are far enough back in time to be clearly in the Late Roman East).

Why are these two things problems?

Justinian.

I haven’t dealt with him in my ‘Discover Late Antiquity‘ series yet — not properly. Nevertheless, Justinian reconquers North Africa, a bit of Spain, and Italy. His (re)conquest of Italy ran from 536 to 554. As a result, the heartland of the Roman West was reunited with the Roman East. This increases the cross-cultural exchange between East and West — traditional Italian artwork of Late Antiquity thus maintains ties with the traditional Hellenic artwork of Late Antiquity (that is, the ‘Byzantine’). Eastern craftsmen can make their way West within a united empire.

Let me now circle back to how the Hellenic, eastern-focussed use of this word and its application to art can cause problems.

In 553, the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of St Mary — the Basilica Eufrasiana — was rebuilt in Porec, Croatia. As Wikipedia will tell you, this basilica ‘is an excellent example of early Byzantine architecture’. Having observed lovely photos of this basilica, it strikes me as an excellent example of early Christian architecture. Indeed, a basilica of similar style to its comrades in Rome:

Photo by Wikimedia user JoJan

Photo by Wikimedia user JoJan

Central apse, by Wikimedia user JoJan

Central apse, by Wikimedia user JoJan

Nevertheless, Wikipedia is not the only source that will tell you that the Basilica Eufrasiana is ‘Byzantine’. At the aforementioned conference, one of the papers discussed the basilica’s images of female saints — all well and good. Indeed, given the fact that the Istrian Peninsula was part of the Byzantine world, I’d even be willing to grant limited use of the word Byzantine to the artistic style.

However, from being used of the art, this word began to applied to the cultural context and worldview of the people who commissioned it and used the basilica. And this simply will not do. Istria is not Greek. Istria was not Greek. The cultural worldview of the sixth-century, Late Antique people of Istria was not Byzantine.

Female Martyrs on triumphal arch, photo by Wikimedia user JoJan

Female Martyrs on triumphal arch, photo by Wikimedia user JoJan

The reason this is a problem is because the presenter kept on finding Greek sources to corroborate her interpretation of the mosaics and the artistic scheme of the basilica. However, one glance at those same mosaics will show the viewer quite a lot of Latin — because that is the language of the Late Antique Istrians.

Ecclesiastically, in fact, the Istrian Peninsula was under the archiepiscopal oversight of the Bishop of Aquileia. And, along with that bishop and some others, was among the places that, around this time, entered into schism with the Bishop of Rome over the Three Chapters (on which I’ve blogged here). Therefore, Greek canon law is not germane to any discussion of how Istrians viewed women; Latin canon law, however, is. As are the writings of the ecclesiastics of Aquileia. Nonetheless, the paper to which I am referring continually resorted to Greek, ‘Byzantine’ sources.

I can only guess that the reason was because of the overuse of this word to refer to all Late Antique art of a certain style, and a confusion between politics (yes, this was then part of the Eastern Roman Empire) and culture (but it was not, therefore, Greek).

Byzantine is a word that can be very useful. But I find that the earlier it is applied, or the farther West it journeys, the more it simply confuses matters.

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