13th Century Shock & Awe

By LIZ HAGER

Unknown Artist, Deësis (Entreaty), mid 13th century
Glass mosaic,Hagia Sofia, Istanbul
(photo ©Liz Hager)

Justinian consecrated his famous church in Constantinople (Istanbul) in 567. It  was to stand as the largest church in Christendom for over 1000 years, until the completion of St. Peter’s in Rome.  In the mid-1970s, sitting in a darkened art history classroom, I never imagined that one day, 30 years later, I would be standing underneath the huge dome of Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom of God) blissfully mesmerized by the shafts of light streaming down through its nearly 40 clerestory windows. Along with frescoes and other ornament, the church—later mosque and now museum—is filled with large, exemplary mosaics of a quality rarely now found anywhere else in the world (with the possible exception of Ravenna). The “Deësis (Entreaty) Mosaic” is probably the most famous of the Hagia Sophia’s Byzantine mosaics. The theme shows up often in the world of icons—Christ is flanked by Mary (on the left) and St. John the Baptist (right), both of whom gaze at him imploring him to intercede for humanity on Judgment Day.

This mosaic dates to the period known as the “Restoration of Constantinople.”  From the 7th century until the early 13th century,  Byzantine aristocrats (Greek Christians really) ruled Constantinople in an unbroken line.  After the Third Crusade failed miserably in its attempt to recover Jerusalem, subsequent Popes agitated for another Crusade. Nearly a century later, when forces were mounted , the political situation in Byzantium (as the city was then known) had changed dramatically. The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) never made it to Jerusalem, rather it was permanently diverted to Constantinople.  In attempt to reunite the two Christian empires, the Crusaders drove out the Byzantian emperor, and installed one of their own.  It was the most profitable Crusade with most of the spoils going to the city-state of Venice. In fact, you’ll need to go to St. Mark’s Basilica to see the riches of Hagia Sophia. (The horses that guard the Basilica are perhaps the most well-known items of booty.)

Christ Figure (Deësis) detail, mid-13th century,
Mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
(Photo ©Liz Hager)

On July 25, 1261, the forces of Michael VIII Palaiologos, a Byzantine aristocrat and commander, recaptured Constantinople from its last Latin Emperor, Baldwin II.  Their actions served to divide the church forever into the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic sects. (The city’s conversion to Islam was another  Michael, who ruled as Emperor for nearly 25 years, became embroiled in his own political intrigues, while trying to wrestle his kingdom from the clutches of the Italian merchants and defending it against the Turks, the Slavs, and the various peoples of Europe.   So what does the Deësis Mosaic have to do with the Crusaders? Legend has it that it was commissioned to mark the end of domination by the Roman Catholic Church and return to the Orthodox traditions.

By comparison with the rather stiff and formal icons of the period, the Christ of the Deësis Mosaic is more naturalistically depicted—his face composed of many fleshtones and softer contour outlining, no mean feat when dealing with little squares of pre-existing color. In fact, many compare the Deësis Mosaic stylistically to the work to an Italian painter of the same time—Duccio.  You be your own judge, but I think the tiny specks of glittery light thrown off by the mosaic’s tesserae create an otherworldly aura no painting can match.

Mary & Child Icon, ca. 13th century
Tempera on Wood
(courtesy: The Icons of Cyprus by D. Talbot Rice)

Beyond the associations with the color gold, the shimmering squares enhance the overall majesty of the image, already a potent one as a result of its larger than life-size dimensions. I can imagine the Deësis Mosaic as the 13th-century equivalent of a religious billboard, broadcasting its message about the Christ Pantocrator and the potency of true faith.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Madonna and Child, c. 1300,
tempera and gold on wood
(photo courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Wider Connections

Stolen (and recovered) antiquities in a modern venue — Cypriot icons

History of the Deësis Mosaic

Egg Tempera

David Talbot Rice—Art of the Byzantine Era (World of Art series)

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One Response to “13th Century Shock & Awe”

  1. Trivelmar Says:

    Excuse me, but the “Mary & Child” icon doesn’t depict Mary and Jesus, but St Anne (Mary’s mother) and Mary as a child (sitting on her mother’s left arm); anyway, in the Greek inscriptions written above the images the names of both women can be read.

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