BBC Documentary: Art of Eternity, The Glory of Byzantium

BBC Documentary: Art of Eternity, The Glory of Byzantium

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“The Art of Eternity” is a series of three one-hour documentaries on Christian art. Hosted by Andrew Graham-Dixon and first broadcast on BBC Four in 2007, the series provides a popularized introduction to the theological and creative concerns of Christian artists in pre-modern cultures. As the series introduction puts it:

How should art depict the relationship between man and God? How can art best express eternal values? Can you, and should you, portray the face of Christ? For over a thousand years these were some of the questions which taxed the minds of the greatest artists of the early West. In this three-part series, art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon sets out to unravel the mysteries of the art of the pre-perspective era. Why has this world been so frequently misunderstood and underrated? His journey takes him from the mysterious catacombs of ancient Rome to Coptic Egypt, to the Orthodox Christian world of Istanbul and then onwards to medieval Italy and France.

In the second episode of the three-part series, Graham-Dixon examines the world of Orthodox Christian iconography, traveling “to Istanbul to immerse himself in the tumultuous world of the Byzantine Empire. He reveals the art that emerged, decodes the iconography and explains its continuing relevance to everyday people.”

He regularly highlights the West’s ignorance and even disdain for Byzantine art, noting, for example, that “the French Enlightenment writer Voltaire summed up the whole history of Byzantine civilization in two sentences: ‘This worthless history is full of nothing but declamations and miracles. It is a disgrace to the human mind.'” In contrast to such assessments, Graham-Dixon emphasizes the striking beauty he finds as he travels to major churches and, in some cases, talks with the Orthodox Christians who still worship in the presence of centuries-old mosaics.

Although Graham-Dixon’s interest is confined to Byzantine art, and he only scratches the surface of iconography’s role in Orthodox Christianity, such popular presentations can whet the appetite and provide an impetus for deeper study of the Eastern Roman Empire more broadly, providing helpful context in the study of Orthodox Christianity itself. As J.M. Hussey wrote in the introduction to her seminal work, The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire:

When John Meyendorff published his Byzantine Theology in 1974 a reviewer took exception to his title on the ground that the truths of Orthodoxy were not related to any historical period. This may be so, but it is also a fact that Orthodox theology was Byzantine theology. Universal truths have to be articulated in a temporal milieu and this articulation however imperfect is that of its generation. The historian cannot therefore discard the world in which medieval eastern Orthodoxy developed, nor ignore the ecclesiastical framework of the Church, and indeed the spirituality of its people is often better understood in the light of the contemporary background… Byzantine life is now seen as marked by constant change though at the same time there was loyal adherence to certain traditions governing the outlook of both Church and Empire. It has also become increasingly clear that Byzantium had its own creative contribution to make not only in art (that at least had been allowed), but in other fields and most vital of all in its many-sided religious life. The Church was not a department of state. But it was closely integrated into the daily life of an empire which was regarded as being ideally the mimesis or copy of the heavenly kingdom. Yet in the last resort the Church maintained its own responsibility for the things which were not Caesar’s.

At any rate, the photography in the documentary is beautiful to behold! Let us know what you think.

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Seraphim Danckaert

Seraphim Danckaert is Director of Mission Advancement at St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary. He holds an M.Div. from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and is a Ph.D. candidate in theology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.