Saturday, September 1, 2012

Dark Ages? Not everywhere: Byzantine love for classics

In popular opinions Dark Ages were taking over Europe until the Renaissance came with revival of classic traditions. This is only partially true. Byzantine Empire continued the tradition of Greece and Rome, combined with Eastern influences. Medieval renaissances of Europe, to be exact Western and Central Europe were brought by closer contact with Byzantine Empire.

 Byzantium was the name of the city, which was renamed by the emperor Constantine Nova Roma, meaning the New Rome, as it became new capital, but it was also renamed  Constantinople . It became Europe's biggest city, it had half million inhabitants.The people who inhabited this empire called themselves Romans, the empire was called Romania. Greek was spoken, as the local language and the language of educated elites, nothing unusual, even in Rome educated people spoke Greek, as Romans were totally admiring Greek culture and copied a lot from it. The library of Constantinople was very prominent, Byzantine equivalent of the great library of Alexandria. Ancient writings were not only preserved here, but also studied and copied, to keep the knowledge from disappearing. There were also periods of additional stronger interests in classics, such as Macedonian Renaissance of the X c. from which time the page of the manuscript called the Psalter of David is dated. King David is depicted as a Byzantine emperor, but the other two figures are very classical. No wonder: as Rome had  monuments of the classical past, so did this area of Byzantine Empire.

Penitence of David, Paris Psalter,  X c.Biblioteque Nationale, Paris

We see David twice: sitting on his throne, and also bowing feeling remorse for all the bad deeds  he has done. Classical figures are here- the admonishing prophet, and the female figure which is the personification of penitence. She is dressed in green and red, the colors later seen often in robes of Mary Magdalene. Why we know that this is penitence? One thing is that personifications were common in the art of Antiquity, another prof is her name written above. It was common in Byzantine art to include captions about the figures to indicate who was who. (People in Byzantine Empire were quite literate, the culture was vibrant). Also above the prostrating David we have the caption which spells his name, that the viewers shouldn't be confused. The writing connected to the female figure there is the word "Metanoia," which term meant repentance in Greek. Meant changing one's mind, turning point. The flagellants of Latin Christianity gave it bad connotations. Penitence was about making amendments, changing mind, changing lifestyle.

But Byzantine Empire was of course more sophisticated than Latin West, were tribal warfare and other struggles went on through some longer periods of time, but still medieval times were not as dark as it is held in popular imagination. The movies may show this time as era of ignorance, superstition, dirt, illness and decline, as this imagery adds drama, but the times were more lively and enlightened. Rather during the Renaissance, or general during the XV-XVII c.Europe had even more dark turmoils: more of  illness, witch hunts, inquisition, wars,  fears of devil,belief that magic equals science, etc. Even medieval universities were not all about faith, as is often assumed: popular belief is that science believed the Earth was flat, or in medicine there was no dissection of corpses, the medical knowledge of Antiquity wasn't practiced, etc. Not true, we know thanks to explosion of knowledge about the Middle Ages during he XX c. So, why the term Dark Ages?

First putting down on the predecessors occurred during the Renaissance, in order to point out the new achievements. Gothic art was called Gothic in a derogative way, as Goths were considered barbarians. The Renaissance mind was so enamored in the nostalgia for antiquity, that they couldn't really appreciate the art and achievements of earlier generations. This lack of appreciation went thorough centuries, and the era of Enlightenment in order to contrast is own achievements needed the idea contrasting light and darkness, needed the term Dark Ages. In addition the term Age of Faith was used, in order to brand the times as irrational and dark. The Enlightenment prided itself not only for its light, but also for reason as opposite to faith. There were even attempts to create temples of reason in churches.

Byzantine manuscript, X c. Paris Psalter, King David Playing Harp, very much in the tradition of classical frescoes

During the XIX c. the scholars were talking still about Dark Ages as the time from which were not too many written records left, but there was also medieval fashion . (Pre-Rafaelites, Romanticism, Gothic Revival, etc). This intense interest in all things medieval was combined with the Romanticism's love for mystery, the  fantastic, emotional and the irrational. Hard reason of previous era wasn't the fashionable idea. During the XX c. however, the term Dark Ages started to be criticized, in light of the new scholarship, and the term was used in a more neutral way, and even the neutrality of the term was disputed. It was argued that the scholars may know that the usage isn't negative, but the general public will not interpret it such way. And the criticism was right on target.

And myself I used the term provocatively in the title of this post. Still, I think in popular culture Byzantine Empire doesn't get enough credit, and this was an empire of great sophistication and influence, and lasted of a millennium. Holy Roman Empire lasted almost a millennium, but there were empires which existed for much shorter time: The British Empire, Austrian Empire, Empire of Austria and Hungary, Bulgarian Empire, and others. So, maybe it is time to refresh the memory of this part of common history? But still, I think the movie industry, mainstream literature, computer games, TV, advertisements, press,some popular chanels historical documentary movies, and others are still in the dark about not-so Dark-Ages.

Quite often there is a misconception of great Rome which fall:yes, Rome was sacked, but before became very empoverished because of Byzantium. The idea of "fall of Roman Empire" first was again talked about during he Renaissance, by popes. It was an idea supporting propaganda: Pagan empire which "fall," quite clever idea, remember, there was the schism between Byzantium and Latin Christianity. It is not very historically accurate common misconception, but quite often still, in XXI c. has place in the classroom.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Byzantine tradition: icons, garments and liturgy

Once strolling through the old streets close to Krakow's Old Town Market Square I heard amazing singing, Orthodox choir. I stood on the street and listen, assuming someone had a nice CD playing, the sound coming from one of the open windows. But listening more carefully I heard that the sound came  the courtyard. Knowing from experience that those centuries-old houses quite often have beautiful an intriguing yards surrounded by walls, I went, slowly. Somehow the music pulled me. Than I saw the sign, "Orthodox Church," and an arrow. I followed, after climbing some steps in one of the old buildings I entered a church which was housed among apartments, not a regular Orthodox church building I normally knew and view from afar, but never visited during liturgy. There I saw the choir: three women with white kerchiefs covering their heads, and with them was one man, all very focused and singing beautifully. The congregation was very small, but there were icons on the walls, with  lamps hanging before them, and the liturgy was celebrated. In my country Orthodox Christians have a reputation of being excellent singers, and here was the proof, there were just so good that I was thinking it was a CD!  After the liturgy people were kissing the icons. All was very touching, I was moved by the music, liturgy, and by the solemn atmosphere. Something like in the videos below, specially the second one, the link.

The icon here is Christ Pantecrator, XXI c. by anonymous maker for tourist industry in Bulgaria, but I love it anyway!

Religions don't bother me, (unless there is some kind of abuse going on), but in general I find a lot of beauty in this kind of human involvement. The word religion comes form the words re-ligare, which means reconnect. I like this interpretation of the word's origins.

I will be writing more about Byzantine traditions, as they are important. They are part of Europe's cultural heritage, and without Byzantium there wouldn't be Italian Renaissance as we know it, nor it would there be European heritage as we know it. There the traditions of  Greece and Rome lived while in Western Europe it was a strong break. Not that ancient  philosophies were not read in the West during the Middle Ages, after all Latin Europe had medieval renaissances, but those parts of Europe were culturally developing in their own direction, and were much poorer.

Byzantine art was a mixture of classical Greek and Roman  traditions influenced by Eastern mysticism and love for imagination. Icons represented Jesus, or Mary, saints and angels, but also in its highly stylized canon there was representation of aesthetics and fashions of the imperial court. So, Jesus and Mary are dressed in robes of imperial purple, or the saints and angels depicted as dressed like important people of the imperial court. Icons didn't change much. Of course there are various schools of icon painting, and there also some influences among those schools which are more Westernized, but in general the icons are preserving the past very well, now and here. The tradition is followed rather strictly, and we can see how people were dressed long time ago, still can today see the stripes of fabric called loros still part of the garments, or see the color which are in the range of hue variations of real purple of Tyre. We can see how some courtiers looked like at the court of Constantinople, which was than the city of amazing luxury.

What fascinates me that when you look at the traditional icons or frescoes in Byzantine style and you see the liturgical garments used today, you recognize that some garment are very similar to what we see on the icons.Byzantine fashion of a millennium ago. I hope you will enjoy the beauty of the chants, and the visual part, and see similarities of the garments worn by the clergy mirroring the garments of the saints on the frescoes. It is like being among the people of Constantinople of old.

And take a loo at the fresco at 8:45, the creature with one face and six red wings with some writing (reads Cherubim) is an archaic depiction of a cherubim, one of the highest angels in angelic hierarchy. Stained glass window at 12: 25 shows also a cherubim or a seraph, those were often interchangeable. This is a sequence of very interesting and beautiful  pictures, not a liturgy video. Enjoy!

And just  in case you want more, here is another video! The piece sung here is Agni Parthene, a non-liturgical hymnopoem to Virgin Mary. Have blessed time!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Dragon of the Wawel Castle, Kracow, and some dragon examples

On the left is a snapshot from small part of the courtyard of  the Wawel Castle in Cracow. I revisited this city, I liked to go there since I was in my late teens. When I was a child, like every kid  I read the legend about the dragon, which is actually a founding myth of the city of Cracow. And the dragon's den is still there, the cave at the Wawel Castle Hill, open for the tourists to walk trough its dimly lit entrails, than coming out to the light at the other side, toward the Vistula River. It would be a perfect initiatory cave for pre-Christian pagan worship including symbolic death and rebirth. Only a part is open for tourists, the rest is the domain of the scientists, also the rare small animals living there.Would be also too difficult to pass through, even though the names such as "Coronation Hall" could be enticing.

In the founding legend the terrible dragon lived in this cave, and the voracious  beast terrorized the people who needed to give him lots of cattle as an offering every week. When the dragon wasn't satisfied, he used to devour humans also. The latest version, if I am right dating  from the XVI c. says that a clever shoemaker apprentice decided to slay the monster. No one really believed that he would come back alive, but he did. He filled a sheep skin with sulfur and gave to the hungry dragon. The beast devoured it in an instant, and felt very thirsty right away. The dragon went to the river and drunk, and drunk, but his thirst was not possible to quench. He drunk so much that his belly exploded, everyone was saved, and the courageous and the clever young man was elected the leader of the tribe. In the other version the savign hero, Krak, when he died after prosperous reign, thankful  people with their own hands and effort created a mount, still in Cracow, kurghan -type construction. But archeological excavation of the kurghan (usually a grave mount) didn't result in any finding of an ancient burial.

The older version of the legend, not much known, as was less flattering.This relation dates from the XII c. and was written down by Kadlubek, the early chronicler, and  involves two sons of the tribal leader Krak. The brothers killed the terrorizing beast the same way as the shoemaker's apprentice did, but one of the brothers killed the other, hungry for power. As he returned he told his father that the brother was killed by the dragon, and as a hero he became the new tribal leader. But in two years the fratricide was revealed, and he was expelled from the community. Wanda  the princes became the ruler instead, and she also lead army to battle against invading Germanic powers. The legendary Wanda and the versions of the legends about her was used as argument supporting the reign of some of the female monarchs in Poland, but sadly  also became a part of anti- German sentiments fueling XIX c. Polish nationalism.
Sebastian Münster, woodcut, Cosmographia Universalis, 1544
 Wawel Hill was inhabited already during the stone age, and pagan temple was close to the Vistula river.Cracow was  neighbouring the Moravenses terra Moravia, the short-lived Kingdom of Moravia. First mention about Cracow as a city comes form X c. and the city than was ruled by one of the Přemyslids, a cruel prince who was indeed charged with fratricide.He was the descendant of legendary princes Libuse, and here we come to another ancestor named Krak.  Krak, or Krok was also mentioned in Czech chronicles as father of three daughters, one of them, Libuse became the legendary founder of city of Prague. She was also the matriarch of the Přemyslid dynasty which ruled until XIV. c. and had a flaming she-eagle as their family crest. Prague is still the capital of the Czech Republic, Cracow was the capital of Poland until the end of XVI c. when Warsaw became a seat of Polish kings and place where they were elected.

In general in early history Cracow was thriving, until the ravages of the war with Sweden which was called the Deluge, as created as much destruction as WW II, and big parts of the Wawel Castle were burned and looted. Some parts of the buildings at the Wawel Hill were not  rebuilt anymore, but still the place has a lot to offer. It was a castle of proud monarch who wanted to show their glory. Wawel Castle was occupied by the Nazis, and in German  also can be described as Wawelburg, (Wawelthe name, Burg is castle, German combined words). But is not the same as the Wawelburg  the rumored place of the Holy Grail of also rumored Nazi mysticism. But Wawel Castle has visitors who are searching for the energy of the mystical stone, to the annoyance of the Wawel Castle personnel.

Dragon legends were common in Europe, (and not only there). The dragon of Wawel Castle is one of the main figures in the founding myth, and three is also the theory that Kadlubek just wrote his version of the legend about Alexander the Great battling a dragon, as this legend was very popular during the Middle Ages.Kadlubek was educated in Italy and France, where the legend was popular, known as The Romance about Alexander the Great, based on writing by pseudo-Callistenes. So, we don't know if this was truly a legend in local oral tradition, or Kadlubek's embellishment.

The old  architectural details of the Wawel castle show dragons, also two churches at the Wawel Hill  were dedicated to St George and St Michael, the known in Christian legends as dragon slayers.Churches were not rebuild anymore, just parts of the walls are still remaining. And at the entrance to the Wawel Cathedral, on the left,  are hanging  bones of a mammoth and a whale which were presented and believed through the ages as the true and real  bones of the dragon himself- until the development of more modern of sciences. The pictures of St George and St Margaret, both victorious over dragons, are also present. Dragon was a symbol of evil,  in iconography. But the Slavic dragons also have their peculiarities, and while for ex. the crest of Moscow has St George slaying dragon,  another Slavic capital, Ljubljana has a protective dragon in its crest.  Also quite a number of cities have dragons in their crests, not slayed, just being themselves, as they were also believed to be benevolent.
A heraldic dragon, but not a viwern
But also Arthurian legends were adapted in Poland, and wivern the green dragon of King Arthur becomes the heraldic animal of the Piast  princes of Czersk, visible on seals, crests of cities and towns, also appears on coins. This article is in Polish, but shows the crests with the green wivern. See wiverns in Poland.  Czersk line of Piasts died out in XVI c. Unusual phenomenon in heraldry, as the dragon as such was clearly a negative symbol then. Dragon appeared also as crest of the voivods of Transylvania during the XIV c.

 According to scholar from Maria Sklodowska-Curie University in Lublin, Wojciech Gorczak, Polish heraldic symbols are not well known in Europe, and a common misconception is that the wiverns  appear only in the heraldry of  British Isles, as connected to the Arthurian legends. Gorczak quotes sources where the King Arthur is called "the highest dragon," and of course the dragon is the symbol of the ruler himself. So, quite positive. But also dragon in the same form, but different color as King Arthur's is the symbol of the Mazovian Piasts of Czersk, and became also a territorial symbol.Gall the Anonymous, the chronicler used the word draco-dragon, describing the ruler of Czersk. In Europe only in the Arthurian legends the ruler is described as dragon in a positive manner (King Arthur as dragon) and the Piasts of Czersk. By the way, the Excalibur-like sword is included in the Polish verion too.

In addition Gorczak found that in the old chronicles form the XIII c. are quite number of similarities with the Arthurian legends, and the Grail story.  Presence of Holy Grail legend and place bound with it I mentioned only shortly before in another post. It seems that Poland had a phase of adaptation of Arthurian legends, and some real historical rulers were personifications of common ideas of the romance literature. If you are interested to know more, here is the article by above mentioned scholar, in Polish. Google translator makes funny mistakes, like for example making Industry from the name Przemysl, or Monet is instead of coins, but Polish is complicated. It is easy to understand what the article is about. Interesting how the stories were adapted. Interesting how the rulers were eager to present themselves, or the chroniclers were eager to present them as fitting the ideal of the Arthurian romance.