The elevator pitch for MOCA’s “Mike Kelley” is “what American society has repressed.” That might equally apply to the Getty Villa’s “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections.” The Byzantine empire has been minimized, if not written out of history books, and its art is barely represented in most American museum collections. The Getty Villa’s permanent collection ends with the sack(s) of Rome in the 5th century. By then Rome’s emperors had moved to Constantinople, where they kept calm and carried on for another thousand years.
Americans nonetheless regard the Byzantines as peripheral to the imagined timeline of Western culture. In fact it was Byzantium that preserved the texts of Homer and Euclid, the Greek playwrights and scientists, the Roman orators and lawgivers. These survived to the Renaissance precisely because the Byzantine empire itself did. Had there been no Byzantium, there were would have been many fewer Wikipedia entries on classical topics. (A case in point is the Archimedes Palimpsest, a Byzantine manuscript that is the subject of a current Huntington show.) For much of the middle ages, Byzantium was smart, sophisticated, and successful, while the post-Roman West was an underachieving, Game of Thrones-uncouth, poor relation. Aspersions were cast both ways. Today, when we say Byzantine we usually mean “complicated.”
The Getty Villa’s “Heaven and Earth” is the first large Byzantine exhibition on the West Coast. It surveys a panorama of Greek culture, high and low, in almost every medium prior to oil paint: marble sculpture and reliefs; mosaic, panel, and manuscript paintings; jewelry, textiles, ivories, coins, and glass.
The earliest works, fitting most directly into the Getty Villa’s usual offerings, are marble sculptures. Above is a 4th-century Christ as Orpheus. It’s an earnest blend of pagan and Christian subjects. The Byzantines came to favor relief formats, and the flattening trend is already visible in Christ as Orpheus. The superflat braids and lions of Byzantium resonated throughout the medieval West.
The naturalism of a 10th-century manuscript of The Four Gospels (left) connects us to Pliny’s tall tales of ancient trompe l’oeil. The gold ground was typically Byzantine, and was also widely emulated in the West.
The best-known Byzantine artworks are icons, those devotional paintings and mosaics that have lent their name to clickable computer interface elements. A 14th-century Archangel Michael (top of post) is otherworldly, focused on the eyes.
With its emphasis on spirit, Byzantine painting is sometimes indifferent to anatomy. Byzantine heads can be pear-shaped, like a brainy, Mars Attacks alien. There is a poetry of furrowed brows. You may be reminded of Lisa Yuskavage, comic books, and street art.
A surprising high point is a case of folksy ceramics. A 12th-century plate may represent a goateed cheetah killing a deer. Textual sources record that Byzantine emperors used the speedy African felines in their hunts.
One of the show’s few paintings by a known artist is a 15th century Crucifixion by Andreas Pavias of Crete. The energetic horror vacui recalls works by van Eyck, Signorelli, and many other Westerners.
The Getty Center has a companion show of Byzantine and related manuscripts. It includes six Greek loans alongside works from the Getty’s manuscript collection. Appearing for the last time is the 1133 New Testament that the Getty is restituting to Greece (right). It was recently discovered that this manuscript, purchased as part of the Ludwig collection in 1983 and widely exhibited, had been stolen from the Greek Monastery of Dionysiou in 1960. The 1133 manuscript’s four gold-ground Evangelist portraits were the most important Byzantine paintings in a Los Angeles collection.
Does Byzantine art matter in our busy, material world? Art history is like the butterfly flapping its wings and creating a hurricane. It’s chaos, and the first rule of chaos is everything makes a difference.
El Greco trained in the Byzantine icon painting tradition of his native Crete. Like “Byzantine,” El Greco’s nickname speaks to the Greek otherness that influenced the Renaissance schools of Venice and Spain.
Five centuries later, a modern El Greco revival inspired Picasso and Jackson Pollock. Mike Kelley reimagined Pollock’s drips as More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid. Another generation of L.A. artists will respond to that or already has—and so it goes. We are all Byzantines.