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The Byzantine Empire: The Lasting Glory of Its Art

The Economist

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And don't forget its vibrant cosmopolitan civilisation.

ON AN unusually mild Arctic morning in September a simply clad but dignified cleric stepped ashore at a remote bay on the southern tip of Greenland and conducted a short service at the remains of the oldest Christian church in the New World. Local Greenlandic worthies were delighted to see the 270th Patriarch of Constantinople, whose ancient office is one of the Byzantine world's enduring bequests to the modern world. As they pointed out, their little church, built in the early 11th century, goes back to the era of an undivided Christendom, which disintegrated a few decades later with the formal split between Rome and Constantinople.

Werner Forman Archive

Not all modern observers of Byzantium have been so willing to associate the city on the Bosphorus with universalism or cultural breadth. While Byzantium's rating has risen recently, it has not entirely shaken off the criticisms dished out in the 18th and 19th centuries, including the devastating verdict of William Lecky, an Irish historian, who in 1869 described the Byzantine empire as "the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilisation has yet assumed."

Even Byzantium's modern defenders have tended to set out their case in qualified terms, stressing the empire's relationship to other historical developments. Some see it as a connecting line (of debatable effectiveness) between classical antiquity and the modern world; others, particularly those who think that civilisations are doomed perpetually to clash, stress the empire's role as a bulwark against Islam, without which Europe as a whole would have turned Muslim. Others again see it as a catalyst for the European Renaissance, especially after Hellenic talent was freed from Byzantine dogmatism.

Judith Herrin, a professor at King's College London, sets out to show that there are far better reasons to study and admire the civilisation that flourished for more than a millennium before the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and whose legacy is still discernible all over south-east Europe and the Levant. She presents Byzantium as a vibrant, dynamic, cosmopolitan reality which somehow escaped the constraints of its official ideology. For example, despite the anti-Semitism of the empire's public discourse and theology, its complex, diversified economy could hardly have functioned without the 30-plus Jewish communities that Benjamin of Tudela, a 12th-century rabbi, described.

Read the entire article on The Economist website (new window will open).

Posted: 12-Jan-08



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