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Byzantinian Bureaucrats Trumped Art

Friday 11 of July, 2008

Arnold Toynbee, the last great world historian, said of the Byzantine Civilization it had minimal art but was full of bureaucrats. Treadgold's history of the Byzantine Empire is remarkably deficient in citations of great Byzantine artists because there were so few or none. Compared to the Greek civilization before it the Byzantine is horrendous, worse than the Yankees without Roger Clemens or other former Boston pitchers (including Babe Ruth). Byzantine art in writing was also terrible for its lack of creativity and productivity. You won't find a Sophocles or Aeschelus, a Homer or a Phidias amidst the Byzantine's roster of artists. The Byzantine civilization was a retreating rump state of the former unified Roman Empire that best served the world by keeping the heathen at bay for another 900 years after the fall of Rome.

Most Byzantine art of quality was created late in its history when more travel and communication with the early Italian Renaissance allowed 13th century artists the opportunity to become productive in a politically chaotic era with incessant Muslim war on the south and west and the need for a rapprochement with the western church and increasingly strong Europeans to help contain Muslim invasion pressure. Byzantine art was basically frescoes, mosaics and church decorations-nothing like the brilliant Greek art of Athens.

The Byzantine philosophic production of neo-Platonists such as Plotinus was brilliant, yet even that description of The One was condemned, unfortunately as pagan(in error).

Constantinople had some fine architecture such as the Haggia Sophia, yet it lacked a history for itself as a people native to the locale. As the artificial eastern Roman Empire cut off from its source at Rome because Constantine moved the capitol of the Empire to Constantinople permitting a schism to grow between the Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions over the centuries the Byzantine was concerned about being a self-perpetuating bureaucracy interested mostly in it self. Reconciliation at meetings in Venice and Firenze (with the Medici hosting the latter spectacle in the 13th century) even as the horde of Muslims that would finish up the consumption of the rotten empire of the east Byzantium proceeded.

The Byzantine Empire had no tradition of a Republic behind it to draw upon. Instead in had some of the worst imperials in history such as Justinian and Theodora, and of course the state Church led by the Emperor (imagine Bill or Hillary, George Bush or Barack Obama as head of the church) with a host of monasteries and monks wise enough to keep a distance from the royal court busy mismanaging the world. The political writing was censored, more so than in the Roman Empire with it's Suetonius, Juvenal and other acerbic or frank writers. Procopius wrote the Secret History of Justinian and Theodora (she slept with 50,000 men)yet was careful to conceal his name and not publish until after his death.

The masses were entertained with games and rival red and blue popular cults giving the people as fans some sports to fight and kill over civilly until the schism of east and west branches of the Christian church was permitted by Photius in the 9th century. Emperor Leo III (the Isaurian, 716-41) began troubling church users of artistic religious images and statues as iconoclasm grew in the Byzantium Empire. Iconoclasm was likely another of the impacts of Muslim pressures at the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire. While the use of fiction images in Church contexts isn't a desirable practice, neither is it something to slaughter people about who do(its probable that the recent (Muslim) suicide bombing of the Indian embassy in Afghanistan was prompted by Indian sympathy for idolatrous reincarnation/Hindu phenomenalities they are associated with). Muslim pressures to conform to vulnerable religious beliefs at the frontier of a civilization have a history of compelling believers of other faiths toward syncretistic practices.

In Italy the Medici sheltered and nurtured a young Leonardo Da Vinci who was adopted from his poor father and given support. Michelangelo worked for the Medici and gave refuge to Galileo. The number of artists they sponsored in Firenze is incredible and that tradition continued in Rome when they produced Popes such as Leo X. The Byzantine Empire on the other hand marginalized artists and writers. Being a faceless bureaucrat was the great achievement of the Byzantine Empire-an enigmatic bulwark against immediate pagan invasion of Europe from the east giving Europe time to grow and become invaded by their native Vikings who eventually made it all the way to Constantinople without being able to conquer the crown jewel.

Byzantium was a clever synthetic state conquered in time by Turkish ethnic tribesmen that transformed the formerly Greek, Italian, German and Celtic nation into a bastion of Islamic militancy that wasn't subdued until the First World War defeat along with its partner Germany.

The Byzantine Empire was one of the most inartistic of world history more like the Abassid Caliphate in quantity and quality than a European or Chinese state. While itís nearly impossible to entirely prevent works of art from being created the Byzantine civilization made a heroic effort.

in Gary Gibson' s Blog
Posted at 15:13:07 UTC

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