1557: A Space Odyssey


After drifting on cloud nine through the Metropolitan Museum’s glorious “Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261–1557),” captivated by some of the most transporting art ever made in the West, I came to the final gallery, where I was jarred by the sight of the exhibition’s first and only appearance of perspectival space. As my mind reeled and my eyes adjusted, I had a bittersweet revelation: In the three centuries covered by this show, space, formerly so erratic, was being codified. In that last, albeit magnificent, gallery (with works by van der Weyden, Van Eyck, Memling, and others), I knew I was leaving an age of magic for one of illusion.

Obviously, I adore the art that follows the advent of perspective. All great artists, even Canaletto, shaped the rules of space to fit their own needs, and Leonardo cooked up some of the weirdest space ever in his Last Supper. Yet that gallery at the Met is a psychic bombshell: Before around 1400 space was irregular, time was fluid. After that—following Brunelleschi, Alberti, et al.—space was standardized. Looking became more directed, supernatural time ebbed away.

It couldn’t have happened any other way. It must have been a huge, nearly erotic pleasure to take in space all at once, rather than sift endlessly through it. Perspective gave credence to the real world. The everyday turned more marvelous, atmosphere was delineated, space became voluptuous and not mainly miraculous, and artists began depicting things that could be seen rather than those that could not. Byzantine art basically told one religious story in many spaces. Perspective allowed many stories to be told in one space. This is a stunning shift. Seemingly overnight, trust replaced faith.

Yet it’s important to remember that perspectival space accounts for only a sliver of the whole history of art, and that this spatial prestidigitation was practiced in a relatively limited geographical region and for only a brief period of time. Perspective had been around for millennia; it just wasn’t of particular interest to audiences. Foreshortening appears in Greek vase painting. Egyptians experimented with it, and Roman murals often employ single-point and aerial perspective and depict circles as ellipses. Empirical perspective is as old as picture making. Regardless, after holding sway in the West, perspective began fading around the time Manet, the impressionists, and the post-impressionists undertook emulsifying it. Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and the cubists, Mondrian, Frida Kahlo, Florine Stettheimer, and all the rest finished the job, broke space up, and flattened it out again. Pollock annihilated it, Warhol freeze-dried it, and minimalism went back through the looking glass, treating space as phenomenon.

If you want a glimpse of what space and maybe even the self looked and felt like before Brunelleschi, go to the Met’s exhibition and prepare to behold the power of the transcendental. Here, in addition to carvings, illuminated manuscripts, liturgical objects, an extraordinary chandelier, and micromosaics—a fabulously fussy art form consisting of teeny colored stones embedded in beeswax—you will see many heartbreakingly beautiful painted icons. In almost all of them, the Virgin and Child are posed cheek-to-cheek, huddling or clinging to one another. She envelops him in elongated sheltering arms, one of which often juts from the bottom of the picture, while the other comes in from the side. She is everywhere at once and all-encompassing—a solar presence. He is a tiny cubistic vision who stupefyingly twists to face every direction simultaneously. Together, they are serene powerhouses of metaphysical solidity and formal invention. Each icon is distinct yet many look similar. That’s because Byzantine paintings were not to be admired as painting but as true portraits of deities. Byzantine icons weren’t just for looking at; they were intended to save souls or protect cities. Many still exert an almost primitive pull: Something primal in them speaks to something primal in us.

It’s hard to single anything out from an exhibition with over 350 objects, but tucked in a case is one of my top five favorite works in the museum’s collection: an astounding illuminated gospel from Ethiopia, made in the 14th century, that country’s golden age. This awe-inspiring book, which combines African religion, Christian theology, visionary depth, exquisite drawing, and extraordinary color, is open to an enthralling image of Christ’s soul ascending to heaven as witnessed by a row of sentinel-like apostles. In another gallery, a small tempera painting depicts 41 Roman martyrs voluntarily freezing to death in frigid river waters. Actually, there are only 40, as one soul retreats into a nearby hut for warmth.

Because your eyes can do all the work, the only background you need is to know that Byzantium was founded by Constantine in A.D. 330 , fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, was centered in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), and once stretched from Russia to North Africa. Had you lived there, you would have spoken Greek and said you lived in Basileia ton Rhomaion, the Empire of the Romans. The years covered in this exhibition mark the final flowering of this half-forgotten empire. Still, “Byzantium: Faith and Power” is so loaded with enchantment that it can make you understand what Baudelaire meant by “a dream from mortal hearts distilled from divine opium.”