Friday, January 25, 2013

Early Christian and Byzantine Mosaics at Thessaloniki

The book I've yearned for, for more than three decades

Ch. Bakiritzis, E. Kourikoutidou-Nikolaidou, Ch. Mavropoulou-Tsioumi, Mosaics of Thessaloniki, 4th to 14th Century.  Athens, Kapon, 2012.
 Thessaloniki.  Basilica of St. Demetrios.  Notice the lovely anta capital and the composite order one (perhaps from an earlier building) in the center, as well as the wood preventing mosaic loosened by earthquake secured awaiting final repair.

Thessaloniki.  Basilica of St. Demetrios.  Note the usual north doors and the gallery also over the ends of the transept, again punctuated by piers.

In 1960-1961, my second year as a pre-doctoral member of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, having by then learned to read katharevousa as well as kathomilomeni  Greek easily enough—for the worthwhile literature, from before WW II, was mostly in Greek—and, as an art historian having had courses in Byzantine art as well as Greek and Roman and later western art (so possessing the architectural language), I volunteered to cover on our travels around Greece the Byzantine architecture of Thessaloniki as well as Mystra.  I returned to them in the later sixties and again in 1987, but possibly not that I can recall since then.
Slides and negatives developed in Greece, taken on (as I recall) Agfachrome ISO 50, reveal how wonderful present-day digital photography can be.  Everything that a Nikon scanner and Photoshop can do has been done to salvage these, but now the new book offers me everything that an elderly photographer in his shop on the Via Egnatia told me Professor Pelekanides had intended to do (but he died in 1976).  The great mosaics could not be taken even holding the reflex camera with its springing mirror for 1/30 second at f2.  Over the years I have worried, whether memory and desire had not falsely glorified Thessaloniki.  Nequaquam.  They look as they ought to have looked, if the spaces had been brighter and if they had been cleaner, at the Latomou (Hosios David) for example; those that I most feared for after the earthquake, above all in the dome of the Rotunda, where the entire vast interior was full of scaffolding and all one had was a little, old guidebook, a couple of plates in Volbach, and one in the standard textbook, H. W. Janson's.  And I never had seen the Late Byzantine mosaics in the 12 Apostles Church or those in the Acheiropoiitos Church.  And the authors of the new book agree that the mosaics in the dome of Thessaloniki's Hagia Sophia are masterpieces.
Now I could never hike all over that lovely city; my joints are not at all trustworthy.  One learns to be grateful for one's eyes and brain.

What is so important, then, about these mosaics?  There always have been scholars who saw Greece's cultural continuity, such as Getzel Cohen recently or D. V. Ainalov or Walter Oakeshott, just to name three, but I saw the questions in different terms, and I was sure that unwillingness or inability to read modern Greek (besides the limited distribution of the books) conditioned many ideas.  The ghosts of "Orient oder Rom" and even the schism of the Greek and Roman churches seem to haunt ideas  between the lines.  Writers of textbooks, the academic branch of popularizing journalism, are not questioned.  I think of them whenever I read history of science; details change, but mantras remain.
Besides, more than just discussing continuity from Greco-Roman art to Byzantine (and western medieval) art is the question of the intellectual content of the styles.  With so much more preserved than at Constantinople, Thessaloniki presents understandings of figural representation that, even allowing for the use of stone tesserae, not glass alone, distinguish it from even Ravenna in the West.  It often continues to strive for the personality of, for example, apostles or for the infantile vulnerability of the baby Jesus, or for the behavior of drapery folds in terms equaled only by the narrative mosaics at Daphne near Athens.  In other words, it celebrates the principle of incarnation, intrinsic to Christianity, in a style that favors humanity and naturalness.  It shows colors as affected by light falling on three-dimensional forms, not colors as symbols.  The gold 'background' of the City of God and its palaces, in the Rotunda, gold effecting divine light and supernatural experience, so not just a background, is quite unlike the gold backgrounds that make later Icons look rich and remote.

Now that I have all these wonderful photographs, as I manage to study and digest them (and, of course, read the text: I notice that there are some ideas new to me), I shall try to describe them more adequately.  And, may I say, if you are interested in Byzantine art, by all means get the book.  It may not have a chance to go through many editions and, even if it does, reprints are seldom of quite the same quality.  It is quite heavy, and postage may be expensive, but it is worth it.

My old photographs, for what they are worth (and they are not worthless in all respects) are in an album on post-Pauline Thessaloniki:  There; the link is better than pasting in the long address.