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BYZANTIUM carried along the world of antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages. As it guarded the gates of the two continents and the two seas, as it was at the center of the eddies of the fallen civilization, it fed its violent and troubled life with the slow death struggles of the ancient peoples. For a thousand years it defended, against the human inundations from the north, the east, and the west, the spirit of law that was Rome, the habits of trade, of politics, and of speculation of the Greeks, and the cruel luxury of the monarchies of the Orient.

The cult of wisdom would doubtless not have felt itself very much at ease under the cupola of Saint Sophia; Athens would not have recognized, in the stiff idols that decorated that church, the freedom of her religious naturalism, nor her respect for the living form in the atrocious mutilations that Byzantine justice inflicted on the condemned. The uncompromising realism of Assyria would have found no savor in the images of the books of prayer, and the kings of Nineveh would not have comprehended the revolutions fomented in the hippodrome and the changes of government effected in the antechamber or the bedroom where the purple of the Empire was forever dyeing itself with fresh blood. The Rome of the Republic would not have recognized its legionaries in those fat soldiers cuirassed with gold; it would not have tolerated the continual retreating of law before imperial caprice or the intrigues of the eunuchs. However, under the fermentation of the vices, the orgy of the games, the cries of the massacres, and the convulsive autocracy that was obliged to obey the orders of the populace, the law of Rome was here, the opulence of Babylon, the curiosity of Athens—and the only focus of light in the dark night round about.

Christianity, which the Greeks of Rome were propagating in the night of the catacombs by means of the image, could not purify or extinguish the light that came from the roaring fire, which was burning away all that remained of the sap of the ancient world in the poisoned fruits. The crowds that had responded to the appeal of the apostles of Galilee had rendered possible, through the renunciation of their revolutionary instinct, the coming of a social régime harder than its predecessor; and the Byzantine autocrat, in order to assure to himself their support, adopted the letter of the new order and enjoined the priests to change the names of their gods. That was all. The Sophists had misled the philosophic spirit. The Byzantine concilia codified sophism.

The schism of 1054, which separated the Church of the Orient from the Pope, was the consecration of the political schism which had been separating the Orient from the Occident since the division of the Empire. Each half of the ancient world, thenceforward, took its course alone toward transformation and recasting. The mold of Rome is offered to the barbarians at the risk of being broken under the pressure of their desires. Hellenism modified by Asia dominates the Orient through Constantinople until the Orient enslaves it through Stamboul. The orthodox icons are to represent the dying Greek idolatry as the Catholic icons, some centuries later, will represent Latin idolatry in its rebirth.

When we open one of those psalters that the Greek monks illuminated in the depths of their cloisters, between the sixth and the tenth century, we soon see it was of the dying idol of Greece that Christianity had asked the consecration of its own life. The whole history of the Jewish people is conveyed in these illuminations and takes on, under the names of the new divinities, the appearances of Greek mythology. David is Heracles when he fights, and Orpheus when he sings. The great goddess, with her beautiful arms, her beautiful face and breast, is always there in the idyllic landscape of the Alexandrian romances. At the time when Byzantium was young, Alexandria was still alive, and the growth of the one and the decline of the other mingle their voices confusedly. Asia, through Sassanian Persia, transmits to Byzantium the spirit of the high plateaus and the land of the rivers. But because of its Greek character, the city is above all sensitive to what the artists of the delta of the Nile have to offer it. They create the image of Hellenized Egypt—that profound portrait in which one looks into the limitless depths of the eyes that have lost their health; and with this revelation the Greco-Egyptian artists teach the decorative industries, mosaics, and painting, such as we see in the garlands of foliage, of fruits, of amours, and of animals that the painters of Pompeii also used to decorate their walls. [For the multiple origins of art of Byzantium, see the Manuel d’art byzantin, by Charles Diehl.]

In the illuminations of the manuscripts there is evidently nothing left of the freshness of the world that once went mad with the joy of its self-discovery. But it is the Greek spirit that is here. Man approaches the god with a free attitude; all of life finds its goal in him, as in a center of attraction, and the organization of life is a natural one and well balanced in its elements. If this spirit is less apparent in the great painted idols and in the shining mosaics that decorate the convents and churches from top to bottom, it is because there is less of suppleness in the material, because the surfaces to be covered make severer demands, because a decorative scheme is more necessary, and because the artist is under closer surveillance. Sometimes, upon contact with the soil of Italy, at Ravenna, especially, the images turn into pictures full of movement, and figures pass among the trees, among the herds, on the sea, or on the shore. Almost always they are stiff, ranged in parallel lines, and possessing no more of the humanity of the Greeks than that expressed in the timid inclinations they make, one toward another, bending their heads and necks as if to recall the undulation of the great wave that once flowed over the pediments of the old temples. And yet, the soul of antiquity survives in the great, simple gestures, the silence, the calm glances, the indefinable nobility and majesty that descend from the agony of the past. The soul of antiquity survives through their mere existence, because the people can pray before them, because they have invaded the altar, the chapels, and the reliquaries with the gold and the silver and the ivory from which they are cut and the jewels with which they are incrusted. During a century and a half of imperial ordinances, of ecclesiastical interdicts, of revolts and carnage, when the great sculptures of Asia and Greece lie broken in the sanctuaries everywhere, no menace, no persecution will drive them out entirely. Dogmatic in their immobility, Asiatic in their material, they remain Greek before all else, because they express something which, while it may be transformed, vitiated, bastardized, cannot disappear—the instinct which urges a people to demand from the forms of nature the education of its spirit.

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