The National Gallery of Art’s current show on the art of Byzantium, “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections”, gathers together a number of rare and interesting works which have never visited the United States before. It is a comprehensive exhibition, covering nearly 1500 years of art from the pagan and Greco-Roman to the Christian and early Renaissance in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, from icons and sculpture, to jewelry, textiles, and ecclesiastical objects. Even if you are not a Christian yourself, for those interested in history and sociological exchanges between cultures, this show is well worth a visit.
To be frank, Byzantine art does not hold a great deal of appeal for me, generally speaking. I say this as someone who owns about half a dozen reproductions of icons. Perhaps being of a popish persuasion, although I appreciate the images as an aid to meditation, they do not speak to me in the same way they would to my Christian brethren in the East.
That being said, the intersection of Western and Eastern Christian art, particularly in the Early Renaissance and around the time of the Council of Florence, when there was a reasonable attempt at reuniting the two “lungs” of the Western and Eastern Churches, does hold a certain historical appeal. Of all the pieces in the National Gallery’s show, the one which spoke most clearly to this cross-pollination, and which I made a bee-line to examine in person, is the “Crucifixion” by the Cretan painter Pavias Andreas (c. 1450-1505) on loan from the National Gallery in Athens. Hung in the final salon of the exhibition, in a section appropriately entitled “Crosscurrents”, the collection of works in this room demonstrates just this sort of exchange of ideas, and this panel in particular makes it readily apparent, from the mixture of figures dressed in Western and Eastern fashions, and the fact that the artist signed his name in Latin, meaning it was most likely commissioned by an Italian patron.
In this “Crucifixion” we see many pieces of iconography related to the Passion. All three of the crucified have died, and if the viewer was in any doubt as to which of the two thieves crucified with Christ was the good one, we can see that Christ is oriented toward the thief on His right, whose tiny soul is being taken up into Heaven as Christ promised. The soul of the bad thief, which is emerging from his eye socket – according to pious legend the bad thief’s eyes were plucked out by crows – finds a black, horned little demon waiting for him to take him to Hell.
The earthquake described in the Gospels as having taken place at the moment of Jesus’ death has revealed a skull at the base of Golgotha, “The Place of the Skull”, although the inclusion of a skull in the painting was not meant to be a pun. It is commonly accepted that the term “Place of the Skull” refers to the shape of the hill of Mount Calvary itself, but there was an earlier tradition that Calvary was the place where the skull of Adam was interred. This made Christ dying upon the spot where the first man was buried all the more significant.
One could spend hours studying all of the detail in the painting, and still come back to it to learn more. The artist depicts the Crucifixion with a truly mesmerizing fusion of Eastern and Western ideas and stylistic elements, and a riot of activity and color. It is the sort of work which the great, rather odd, Flemish painter Hieronymous Bosch, an exact contemporary of Pavias Andreas albeit working hundreds of miles away, would have acknowledged as being that of a kindred spirit to his own.
The piece is thusly described in this slideshow of some of the highlights of the exhibition in The Washington Post which, as usual in the “mainstream” media, entirely misses the point:
An icon of the Crucifixion, made in the latter half of the 15th century, qualifies as beautiful without reference to its religious content, critic Philip Kennicott says. “Never mind the stifling fear of hell promulgated in the lower register, where demons cavort beneath a skull at the base of the cross. Even without engaging with its religious particulars, one senses the presence of something calm and essential in a sea of details and a riot of activity.”
It is always amusing when secular art critics make value judgments on sacred Christian art which they do not understand, particularly since the point of the picture is not the “stifling fear of [H]ell”, but rather Christ’s triumph over it. The “cavorting” described represents the terror of the demons in realizing that they have lost, and God has won. Be that as it may, even though it is not the most prominently displayed of the many works in this exhibition, it is definitely worth seeking out, if you are able to catch the show.
“Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections”, is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington until March 2, 2014. Following its run at the NGA, it will travel to The Getty in Los Angeles from April 9 – August 25, 2014.