An Encounter with the Byzantine

I broke the rules. I took pictures. This happened at the National Museum of Medieval Art here in the Albanian mountain town of Korce, and I started off with such good intentions to follow the rules, despite a temptation as bad as a child in a toy shop being told “Don’t touch.” But then I started seeing pieces as early as the 1500s with faces that looked natural. Guys, this is whack. I had to document it.

According to everything I learned about iconography in art history, seeing ANY signs of realism should have been as likely as hearing hip-hop at the Continental Congres. (Sorry, Hamilton.) My mind was, and still is, blown. Look down at this standard depiction of Mary and the Christ Child – a successful copy of the universal icon pose as it should be, an accumulation of universally understood religious symbols, checklist of ingredients all present and accounted for – and then look up at the Archangel Michael. The face isn’t impossibly stylized and stilted; the eyes have expression. Michael’s face is brimming with some very specific emotion like suspicion or sarcasm.

Is it really possible that the Italian Renaissance happening across the channel could have influenced something as set in stone as Orthodox inconography? Icons have always been fossilized in a stiff medieval symbolic style. The standard Byzantine style does not change substantially any more than the rounded shape of the Bhudda does. Religious icons are still made in the old standard poses, usually with a lack of individualization, TO THIS DAY all around the world.

In the most stylized, standard icons, the figures have bags under their eyes, Cubist-style long thin noses and absurdly tiny mouths. (This is to symbolize their spirituality by minimizing the earthly senses – Greek Gnosticism, anyone?) It makes them look unhappy. In one icon of Christ, his eyes are so narrowed that he looks irritated.

So what gives here? I never found out for sure, but it certainly seems that figures other than Mary, baby Jesus, and grown Jesus, were permissible to experiment on. Looking back, there is no doubt in my mind that the term “Medieval” is a bit of a misnomer for at least some of the pieces in this museum. The time period from the 1500s on places these pieces squarely in the Renaissance timeline, even if most of the art is not done in the Rensaissance style.

See the picture below for an example of a strong Renaissance influence.

Now see the enormous difference from the more Medieval icon below.

However, as traditional as it seems to be, something about the one below is different from the others. Mary usually holds up a hand to bless or gesture towards the Christ child, but here she holds him up with both her hands. Even more surprising, he looks at her instead of the viewer. It feels more intimate, like a very human mother and son.

The outside of the building is modern and minimalist with large blocks of neutral tones.

Pieces from various centuries are all mixed together, but somehow it mattered not one little bit. It was kind of fun to play “Where’s Waldo?” and find paintings in a later style that seemed out of place. I did not feel the lack of informational panels in the large gold room downstairs, even though they were missing for all pieces higher than the bottom row – and the artwork stretched up to the ceiling. It helped to just focus on the art itself; knowledge of which century it was from doesn’t actually inform the observation, so it was nice to absorb the art without written information to distract from it.

Christ Pantokrator (a specific representation meaning “Almighty” or “All-powerful”) usually had eyes unusually close together, to the point of looking fully cross-eyed. The asymmetry in general was so unsettling, it was difficult to look at. It was much more uncomfortable than looking at one of those too-perfect artificial robot human faces. Those are too perfect, too symmetrical. Here, the needle has moved more in the direction of something…ugly.

I was surprised to see Saint George make several appearances, as I always understood him to be a specifically English saint. He was easily recognizable on his white horse, killing a much smaller dragon with a spear.

Some of the coolest things I saw were the cartoon panels! There on the wall amidst standard size pictures would be long, narrow horizontal wooden rectangles blocked by carved columns into little squares, each with a different apostle or scene. They were quite fascinating to look at, but somehow the tiny scenes strained my eyes. The proliferation of human figures and colors without any regard for perspective or scale made it physically difficult to focus.

I was reminded of how literacy rates would have been quite low in those days, and these illustrated Bible stories were a visual reminder of teachings that the congregation likely couldn’t read for themselves.

The three figures at the bottom of this painting are in motion! This is a massive contrast to the rest of the painting with its typically static figures extending their arms to make various hand gestures. Two men are losing sandals, which fly in the air or down to the ground as they dive for cover with their robes billowing around them. Both men reach out with their hands to break their fall; one covers his eyes with his left hand. (This move from stiffness to action is extremely Renaissance.) These men may still have full golden halos, but they are fully upside down – a far cry from the typical murals on church walls. Their dramatic reaction is canonically accurate, by the way.

It’s the story of the Transfiguration of Christ, where he went up on a mountain and revealed his true divine glory to his three closest friends. In that moment, they saw not the ordinary looking man that they had always seen but the blinding light of divinity itself, which Jesus never once revealed before or afterwards during his time on earth. The three disciples – Peter, James, and John – fell to the ground, terrified and dazed. In this depiction, St. Peter (identifiable by that grey beard he is always painted with to mark him as an important church father) is looking up and talking to Jesus. This is also canonically accurate, per his story of saying stupid nonsensical stuff about “We should set up tents and stay here camping like this!” that he so obligingly passed on to the authors of the Gospels.

All in all, Korce’s National Museum of Medieval Art was a fascinating experience, and I recommend anyone in the area to check it out if they have time.

I’d love to hear your comments about the art, especially if anyone has studied the topic in more depth and can shed some light on the subject!

I’ll leave you with this picture of the mythical St. Christopher Kynokephalos, “Dog-headed”, as well as a link to an explanation!


Published by gracexaris

Explorer, thinker, writer, teacher, woman.

2 thoughts on “An Encounter with the Byzantine

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