ENICE AND ALONG THE
OAST: ORANTS AND OTHER IMAGES OF THE MOTHER OF GODM
onumental Byzantine sculpture resembles a no man's land, with few markers and unclear boundaries. The small number of surviving Byzantine sculptures, mostly reliefs, mayrepresent only a fragment of what once existed before eighth- and ninth-century Byzantineiconoclasm and before the Turkish conquest of Constantinople and the advent of Islamiciconoclasm and indifference. One can only guess how large a part of the whole this fragmentrepresents.
Nevertheless, the universe of large Byzantine figural sculpture appears always tohave been restricted.
The 'absent' heads, decapitated and lost, and the many now mutilatedfaces testify to the conviction and violence to which these graven images were subjected.Stone sculpture is not the most portable art form. Thus it appears all the more noteworthythat nearly half of the known pieces from the Byzantine period catalogued in ReinholdLange's
Die byzantinische Reliefikone
(1964), all belonging to the Middle Byzantine periodand later times, are now found in the West, west, that is, of Greece, while the 'eastern' piecesinclude many of modest size and quality.
Lange identified only fifty-six pieces dating beforethe "Nachbyzantinische Zeit" to include in his corpus. To speak of an exodus of works to theWest is possibly exaggerated. But during the Latin occupation of Constantinople (1204-1261)many works of art, including stone reliefs, were removed from the capital by the crusadersand transported to the rich trading cities of Italy, where they became known to a wider publicand where they were highly venerated. A number of reliefs reached the Adriatic coast, principally Venice. Italian masons copied these works, sometimes carefully, and thedistinction between Byzantine and Byzantinizing Italian works is, in the absence of amplecomparative material, often problematic. This distinction has, possibly wrongly, been seen asan end in itself. The diagnosis '
made in Byzantium' often brings the discussion of later pieces to an end. Considered as mere copies, they appear devoid of further interest (althoughicons are, by definition, ‘true’ copies), when, objectively, such works represent a continuationof Byzantine traditions in Italy. In any event, Otto Demus' prefatory statement to his treatmentof the sculpture of the church of San Marco (1960) – "there exists nothing even approachinga consensus of opinion on the question of what is to be regarded as Venetian and what isByzantine sculpture" – appears equally valid nearly a half-century later.If the 'Madonna Greca' of the church of Santa Maria in Porto in Ravenna arrived on theAdriatic shore on the morning of 8 April 1100, as tradition attests, it is, in an age of western
Very many works treated here are included and illustrated in L
's catalogue (1964) and in the most considered treatment of this topic:D
(1960). Appendix II, a handlist of works relevant to Venice and the Adriatic coast, assembles the literature for the works and refers tofurther illustrations. Full references to literature cited in short form are given at the beginning of Appendix II.
Estimates of the extent of Islamic iconoclasm are variable. A large proportion of surviving relief icons and similar stone sculpture showtraces of iconoclastic damage; see, e.g., M
, A Temple for Byzantium, London, 1989, figs. 135-142, with damageconcentrated on the faces; cf.
, nos. 50-55. All the relief icons postdate Byzantine iconoclasm.
Perhaps 30 or more reliefs of Byzantine origin, most definable as icons, survive along the Adriatic coast of Italy, or have been removedfrom there. If, for example, 5% of a conceivable universe of Byzantine relief icons were 'rescued', this assumption would imply an originaluniverse of some 600 pieces of substantial size and significance. A survival rate of 5% may appear high. How much material remains buriedunder the earth is unclear, although ‘new’ pieces continue to be found. The concentration of Byzantine or Byzantinizing pieces in Venice,including pieces with a Venetian provenance, is very large in relation to the surviving material. There is in progress a CNR (Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche) project ('Recuperi bizantini in Italia') that foresees a future 'Corpus degli oggetti bizantini in Italia'; see A
, in: Bisanzio, la Grecia e L'Italia, ed. A
, Roma, 2003, pp. 119-126.
Lange's book remains the most comprehensive treatment of the Byzantine relief icon. This work received a somewhat skeptical receptionfrom practioners in the field of Byzantine studies (e.g., G
; and H
, I, 1970, pp. 238-244).Despite their reservations, Lange's comparative descriptions and analyses of the individual relief icons represent a cumulative reading of these works which is more stimulating and instructive for an outsider than that of Grabar's somewhat cryptic text of 1976, a selection of Byzantine sculptures intended more for the initiated than as an introduction. Lange's reviewers question, to an extent correctly, whether theByzantine relief icon constitutes a genuine, existent
within Byzantine art, and they stress the need to see relief icons in relationto sculptural objects in other media and materials (metal, ivory, etc.). After 1964, a number of large and ambitious exhibitions dedicated toByzantine art have, to an extent, done this (see Appendix II). The relationship of figural Byzantine relief sculpture to Byzantine decorativesculpture is clearly important, but it has not been treated here.