The Search for the Past in Byzantium around the Year 800

Early Byzantine ArtThe Search for the Past in Byzantium around the Year 800

Ihor Ševčenko

Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 46, Homo Byzantinus: Papers in Honor of Alexander Kazhdan (1992), pp. 279-293


One of the leitmotivsin Alexander Kazhdan’s multifaceted oeuvreis a message that by now most of us have made our own: during the life- span of Byzantine civilization, significant changes were occurring behind an apparently uniform fa- cade. There existed, as it were, several Byzantine civilizations at different times. In the offering which, after some years of rumination, I am presenting to the master of our studies and an old friend, I wish to provide a pendant to his message: my story will be straightforward, but it also will re- mind us that at any given time there coexisted, as it were, several manifestations of the same Byzantine civilization.

If one were to ask the average Byzantinist to name the monuments of Byzantine art that can be dated to around 800, give or take a quarter of a century, the answer would probably be parts of St. Irene in Constantinople and St. Sophia in Thessalonica; a stage in the mosaic decoration of the Dormition Church of Nicaea (assuming that he had seen photographs taken before 1922); the remains of Theophanes the Confessor’s church at his mon- astery of Megas Agros; the ivory (probably a scep- ter) with the likeness of one of the emperors Leo- which one would depend on which recent article he might have read;’ and the miniatures of the Vatican Ptolemy (Vat. gr. 1291).

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