”THAT is no country for old men… caught in that sensual music all neglect, Monuments of unageing intellect.” W.B. Keats from Sailing to Byzantium. All the world’s wealth seemed to pour through the trade routes of the Levant, overland from India and beyond, or down the great Russian rivers and into the Black Sea into the queen of cities, there to furnish fresh magnificence in art and architecture. The only signs of trouble to come were the increasing independence of the great feudal overlords; the growing alienation of the West, soon to lead to official schism with Rome; and the deepening shadow of the Seljuk Turks converging on the northeast frontiers.
This was the dynasty of the Macedonians that filled the two hundred years between 867 and 1057; territorial expansion and internal prosperity of for Byzantium. This was followed by materializing threats culminating in the sack of Constantinople by the fourth crusaders in 1204. It was with the Fourth Crusade that the full depradation of the Western host broke over the Byzantines: in 1204 the Latins assaulted and took Consantinople, the virgin city was handed over to wholesale plunder , and the accumulated treasures of nearly nine centuries, including those works of classical art which Constantine the Great had brought to his capital, were committed to destruction.
It is one of the ironies of history that it was the soldiers of the Cross who were responsible for the rape of the queen of Christian cities and it was they who prepared the way for the overthrow of the Christian empire. The sense of impending doom was vivid throughout this final period under the Palaeologi emperors and yet it saw a renaissance of the arts of which the paintings at Mistra in the Peloponnesus and the decorations of many churches in Constantinople itself, especially of Kariye Camii, allows one to guage the mastery.
Even if weakened by the naturalism that later reduced art in Italy to the level of sensation, the hieractic form of these works still reflects the vigor and audacity of the Byzantine spiritual intellect, sharpened as tis had been by controversies with theologians of the Latin West. If one needed to demonstrate the fact that the Byzantines, far from being moribund effete, the hidebound victims of a religio-political system of their own making, retained their creative vitality even after a thousand years and more of historical existence, then the art and intellectual activity of this final period are there to supply the needed evidence.
The persistence of the classical tradition through the whole Byzantine period is well indicated; and it may be added that if the Byzantines were not humanists, in that they did not regard man and his reason as the measure of reality, yet the studies of humanities was, except for a short period during the iconoclast struggles, an indispensable part of their intellectual training. Of music it is impossible to estimate the full richness. Ecclesiastical music has survived in numerous manuscripts, but interpretation is difficult and uncertain.
It seems safe to say however, that the chants were akin to the Gregorian, which may in fact have derived from them. Literature, like the music and painting, was largely in the service of the Church, and reflected the same spiritual qualities. In the major theological works are enshrined the meditations of some of the most profound doctrinal masters of the Christian tradition, while the vast body of liturgical writings; hymns, prayers and offices, combines theological penetration with rich lyrical imagery in a manner that is both dignified and moving.
Of secular poetry little is left; with the rare exception of that unique product of medieval Greek literature, the epic of Digenes Akritas, in which chivalresque adventure, Persian romance, and mythological imagery are expressed in a language reflecting the rhythms and strength of popular speech. The products of craftsmanship, in reliquaries of jewelers and goldsmiths’ work, in glass enamels, ivories and fabrics emphasize on a smaller scale what arhitecture, painting and literature demonstrate on a larger one, that the Byzantines were among the world’s most perfect artificers.
Through the long centuries which separate the ancient Greco-Roman world from the Renaissance, the classical tradition; the literature and art of ancient Greece, was part of the living heritage of the Byzantine world, and it was through Byzantium that it was transmitted to Renaissance Italy and hence to the whole of the modern Western world.
On the afternoon of May 28, 1453, a day of ill omen, the last Christian service was held in the great church of Hagia Sophia. Relics and icons were brought out. After the service, Emperor and patriarch bade public farewell. The all took their posts to wait for the attack. Before the dawn of May 29th it came. A breach was forced in the great walls and the Sultan’s soldiery poured through. The Emperor, discarding the insignia of his office, plunged into the fighting and was killed on the ramparts. Constantinople fell, and with its fall the Byzantine Empire was at an end.
…And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come. ( William Butler Yeats, Saling to Byzantium, 1927 )