Byzantium (part II)

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They are Greek, also, because, despite their fixed attitudes, despite the barbarous splendor that surrounds them and stiffens them, they radiate a profound sense of harmony. They are the troubled instinct, the living seed of a magnificent flower at the bottom of a plague-ridden pool; their fearful splendor is that of those blue or green flies incased in shining metal that breed on rotting meat. The spirit of Phidias has returned to earth and found its way to the charnel house, where life is blindly asserting itself anew. The whole glorious life that hung suspended in the pediments of the temples, swinging from one horizon to another, seems to have gathered itself in the depths of these Byzantine images. Even the formation of the heads denotes atrophy; life wells up in the great eyes that look out into space, into the darkness, and into the decomposition and the morbid fever in the soul of the people. The inner spirit of the time makes its true appearance as these strange beings look down from their walls and try, in the prodigious fermentation that is taking place in man's consciousness, to reconcentrate the energy scattered piecemeal over all the pathways of the mind by the decadence of Hellas. The Byzantine idols have regained the immobility of the statues which, before the time of Myron and Phidias, characterized the concentration of all Hellenic effort as it prepared its conquest of an imposing and fugitive equilibrium. But the calm of the Dorians and the smile of the Ionians have left them. A dread anxiety dwells in their fixed eyes and around them; instead of the great daylight and the limpid space, there accumulates, in the darkness of the chapels, those magic phosphorescences that steal over heaps of waste and over poisoned waters. The world of Greece, despoiled of the rhythm which had risen so quickly from the depths of its desires to the summit of its will, returns to its origins, to demand of an intoxication, in barbarous harmonies, the meaning of its new presentiments. In the penumbra, inflamed by the heavy glow that falls from the mosaics, one sees but vaguely the motionless processions that carry one —as across a long forgetfulness—back to Panathenaic friezes, and one would imagine oneself in the heart of a Hindu temple all covered with peacock tails petrified in the light. Never did the heavens or the waters have these blue, concentrated, opaque depths, knowing no other limits than the smoky dream that extends them to the infinite. The reds and the greens had never shone with a more liquid splendor to dye the fields of the earth and the broad mirrors of the sea. Never had fire and gold mingled more harmoniously to give an added glory to darkening suns or to envelop prayer in greater voluptuousness. All the colors of the universe seem reduced to a few essential hues, deepened, intensified, made somber through being piled up in limpid glazes and through crystallizing in space the vague harmonies that float across our minds and harass our desires.
Seen through the reddish mist caused by the incense and the ten thousand lighted candles, the Christ Pantocrator, the Virgin, the apostles, and the saints crowned with gold and dressed in shining robes, seemed far away. High up, the great flattened cupola held the nascent dream within the temple, which the half cupolas at the angles and the three terminal apses connected with the soil by a series of wavelike steps—as the foothills of a mountain chain lead from the peaks to the plain. In the ancient temple everything combined to associate the meaning of its external form with the line of the mountains and the surrounding horizons; now it had turned inward, and Greek naturalism was brutally accommodated to the taste of peoples who had been enervated by Oriental life. Whatever the gathered force on the outside of Saint Sophia, whatever the weight of its round domes, it was by the luxury within that it held the crowds and stupefied the travelers to Constantinople who spread afar the glory of the Greek Empire.

Never did material luxury such as this bind popular sentiment to the letter of a religion which claimed to represent pure spirit. The veined marbles, the polychromed mosaics, the great paintings on the vaults and the walls, the pendentives which permitted the heavy circle of the cupola with its constellations to be inscribed exactly in the square of the building, the silver barrier of the sanctuary, the altar of gold, the tribune of gold, the six thousand candlesticks of gold, the swarm of incrusted gems which covered the gold of the tribune and the altar with a stream of sparks, the censers, crosses, enameled statues, reliquaries, tiaras, and diadems, the rigid, embossed robes in which living idols—the emperor and the patriarch—were held motionless: the whole was like an enormous sphere of diamond, shot through by flames, a resplendent vision suspended from garlands of light. The promised paradises were realized here below.

And yet when the temple is quite bare, as at Périgueux, for example, or when the mosaics, by their tone, are so incorporated in the edifice that, in the warm and reddish penumbra, one sees nothing but what properly belongs to the thick walls, the sturdy and massive pillars, nothing but curving lines, vaults, arches, and semicircles, a strange sense of harmony comes upon one little by little. The virtue of numbers, that mysterious power that is ever present and active in great architecture, on which all the masters depend for authority, which they always invoke and never formulate—the virtue of numbers is imposed with a formidable, monotonous, and musical authority. Yes, the flattened cupola prevents the dream from rising, but the dream turns and re-turns upon itself unceasingly, in closed coils, in a moving geometry that reproduces, summarizes, petrifies the gravitation of the heavens. The golden spheres turn in their round. Sophistics, which had taken refuge in the councils, and mathematics, which had been exiled, fuse in a pure flash, to inclose architecture in the obedient orbit of the silent worlds.

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