Hidden Sanctuary Of Byzantine Art

A closed-off dark age church in Rome reveals the true majesty of an often under-appreciated Byzantine tradition

Art Critique
A reflection of the eternal world: The Virgin at Santa Maria Antiqua 

Giorgio Vasari, the 16th-century painter and writer whose views on art have done so much to shape our own, dismissed Byzantine painting as a mere prelude to the development of the art of the Renaissance. Vasari derisively described the Italian predecessors of Giotto as exponents of the maniera Greca, the Greek style of painting that he regarded as simply incompetent: the figures were flat, and looked as if they were on standing on their tiptoes, because the artists didn’t understand perspective, and hadn’t worked out how to create the illusion of a three-dimensional object on a flat surface.

Byzantine painting has never quite shaken off Vasari’s stigma, even though there have been some heroic attempts to show that its artists shouldn’t be condemned for not having discovered perspective. They did not aim at accurate representation of people or things: theirs was an art that tried to reflect the eternal world of the spirit, a realm not governed by the rules that restrict the solid objects of this world. Greek painters, certainly from the sixth to the ninth centuries, saw their art as a means by which the viewer could be encouraged to contemplate heaven and its inhabitants. It was not aiming at an accurate depiction of the natural world, but at an evocation of the celestial one.

Still, even for those who recognise and respect its aims, it is very hard to appreciate Byzantine painting dating from the early middle ages, principally because there is so little of it left: most of it was destroyed by the iconoclasts. The iconoclasts took the idea that art should not involve the accurate representation of people in the physical world to its logical conclusion: they abolished any representation of people at all. Taking their cue from the Second Commandment that prohibits “graven images”, the iconoclasts’ first major outburst of “image smashing” was between 737 and 787. You can destroy a great deal of art if you and an army of followers are devoted to getting rid of every religious image that can be found. That’s what the zealots of the Byzantine empire did. Even after that rage of anti-image fever had passed, there were still enough images left to provoke another explosion of iconoclasm, between 814 and 842. By the time the second phase was over, Byzantine painting had, at least as it existed in the lands controlled by the emperor of Byzantium, been almost completely destroyed.

Greek painters had, however, also worked in Italy for the Catholic Church. Almost all of their work has been destroyed as well, not by iconoclasm, a movement that never took hold in Italy, but by later artists. When Vasari wrote The Lives of the Artists in the mid-16th century, almost every patron shared his view that Byzantine painting was irredeemably backward. Far from encouraging contemplation of the next world, most churchmen felt that its technical shortcomings-the stiff, weightless figures floating in mid-air and their cartoon-like poses-prevented it from performing any serious religious function. They had no compunction about tearing down walls, indeed whole churches, containing Byzantine frescos. When Rome was rebuilt over the three centuries from 1400 to 1700, practically all Greek painting in the eternal city perished; no one thought any of it was worth preserving. The same process happened all over Italy, with the result that there is none left. There are some spectacular Byzantine mosaics-which are harder to destroy than frescos-but with the exception of small icons painted on wood, Byzantine paintings from the first 500 years of the Byzantine empire have all but disappeared.

There is one extraordinary exception. The Church of Santa Maria Antiqua in the forum in Rome was buried by a landslide after an earthquake in 847. Some of the precious relics it contained were retrieved, and moved to a new church, Santa Maria Nuova, near the Arch of Titus. Santa Maria Antiqua was then completely forgotten. Almost 800 years later, in 1617, a church in the baroque style, with a convent attached, was built where Santa Maria Antiqua had once stood. In 1702, a group of builders started digging in the garden of the convent in an attempt to salvage ancient blocks of marble. They came across what turned out to be the ruins of the apse wall of Santa Maria Antiqua-but although the discovery generated some enthusiasm from locals, Pope Clement XI, who had authority over the land, wasn’t in the least interested. He ordered the site to be filled in. That put an end to any attempt to excavate the medieval building. Two hundred years later, archaeologists excavating under the forum decided it was time to see if they could identify Santa Maria Antiqua: its existence was known not just from the episode in the 18th century, but from a guidebook to Rome for pilgrims written in the eighth century. The archaeologists started digging underneath the Baroque church, and were astonished by what they found: there were classical pillars and arches, but most amazing of all, there were walls covered with more than 200 square metres of early Byzantine frescos. They appreciated the extreme rarity of those pictures, and in a reversal of the practice of previous centuries, the Baroque church was demolished so that the medieval one could be brought to light.    

And what a church it is. It was constructed using what had probably originally been a very grand vestibule that the emperor Domitian built between 81 and 96 AD for the entrance to his palace on the Palatine hill. Its conversion to a church took place during the sixth century. Rome’s population was by then a small fraction of what it had been at the height of the pagan empire — it had been sacked several times by various different armies, including Ostrogoths and Vandals — and the forum was turning from the vibrant centre of the world’s greatest city into a malarial marsh. Over the course of the next 300 years, the walls of the church would be frescoed several times: one part of the apse wall has seven different layers of fresco, each one corresponding to a different decorative scheme.

The first two layers belong to the pre-Christian period. There is then a layer of fresco depicting the Virgin in the guise of a Byzantine empress, with a crown and jewels of a kind similar to those found in the portrait of the empress Theodora in the early sixth-century mosaics in the church of San   Vitale in Ravenna. Perhaps the most remarkable frescos, here and elsewhere in Santa Maria Antiqua, date from the first half of the seventh century. The remnants of images datable to this period — they include a figure identified with the Virgin, and “Solomone”, the mother of Maccabees — do not have the characteristics thought to be typical of Byzantine art. Far from being stiff and two-dimensional, they are vivacious and naturalistic, and seem to have been painted rapidly, with prominent brushstrokes and subtle gradations of shading that create the impression of movement. They were commissioned by Pope Martin I, whose pontificate lasted from 649 to 653.

Martin I succeeded in angering the Byzantine emperor Constans by condemning as heretical doctrines to which Constans was committed. Constans had Martin deposed, arrested, imprisoned and then exiled to the Crimea. The figures from this period are a beautiful reminder that the traditions of painting that came down from the ancient world, and whose distant origins can be seen in the wall paintings of villas in Pompeii, did not disappear quickly, but lasted for centuries.

Half a century after Martin was deposed, Pope John VII, who reigned for just two years between 705 and 707, had one of the two chapels on either side of the church’s apse frescoed. The images depict a group of Egyptian physicians who were not allowed to charge their patients for their cures. They were originally pagan medicine men until co-opted by the Bishop of Alexandria sometime in the seventh century. In the frescos, they are given the attributes of traditional Christian saints, including halos. Between them is an image of Christ, who is depicted, unusually, with a large and thick beard. These pictures were thought to have prodigious powers to cure diseases. Sick people who were beyond hope of any other remedy spent the night in front of them awaiting a miracle. Presumably, some did indeed enjoy a miraculous recovery: this is the only part of the church that seems to have been used after the earthquake buried it. 

The artists themselves were probably from the Eastern Mediterranean. The inscriptions identifying the saints are all in the Greek alphabet, and the plaster was mixed with straw rather than sand, which was a characteristic of painters from the Near East.

Forty years later, between 741 and 752, the chapel on the other side of the apse was decorated — but this time the artists were probably from Rome, or at least Italy, rather than from the East. The inscriptions are in Latin, not Greek: one of them, instead of giving the figures a name, as is usual, disarmingly describes the image of four saints as being of “sanctus ignotus”. The pope at the time was Zacharius, but the man who paid for the paintings was Theodotus, who was Zacharius’s ambassador to the Franks.   Theodotus ensured that he was depicted on the chapel’s west wall, with his wife and two sons, next to the Virgin and infant Jesus. 

The centre of the chapel is an extraordinary fresco of the crucifixion, in which Christ, dolefully staring into the distance, is depicted fully clothed rather than naked. There are also pictures of grisly martyrdoms, including that of St Quiricus, who was only three years old when he was killed with his mother during the persecution of Christians ordered by the Roman emperor Diocletian. They underwent various horrible tortures together, including being whipped, having nails hammered into their heads, and boiled in a cooking pot, all of which they survived, before the infant Quiricus was finally killed by being smashed against marble steps. His mother was decapitated. It is all lovingly depicted on one of the walls of the Chapel of Theodotus.

These pictures are strikingly powerful. All the same, it is impossible not to notice that a certain coarsening in painting took place over the course of the eighth century. The gradual transformation from the diaphanous figures of the seventh century to the stiffer and less lifelike ones in the Chapel of Theodotus provides some support for the view that at least part of the explanation for the stilted way later Byzantine artists painted is that they lacked the technical skills to produce naturalistic images.

The later pictures from the first half of the ninth century continue the evolution into the rigidly hieratic images that Vasari identified with the maniera greca. There are a number of biblical scenes, but as the painting gets less and less naturalistic, it is increasingly difficult to work out what they depict. The most impressive pictures from the later period are the lines of imposing saints surrounding a seated, and very regal, Christ. He has Greek saints standing on his right and Latin ones on his left.

Santa Maria Antiqua’s frescos are unique: although they are badly damaged, and only part of what was painted has survived the 1,200 years that has elapsed since most of the church disappeared under falling rocks, there is nowhere else that preserves such a rich collection of paintings from the early middle ages. That period, with its obsession with eternity and its conviction that nothing happened without divine intervention, now seems much more remote than antiquity. Santa Maria Antiqua conveys the sheer strangeness of that world. Standing in front of its images, you get a sense of the time when invisible and magical powers dominated everything else.

The frescos are being restored with exemplary care and expertise by a team led by Werner Schmid. He has been working on the church and its art for more than a decade. Much of Dr Schmid’s labour has been devoted to undoing the effects of the last century’s restorations. For instance, it used to be thought that the best way to protect frescos was to detach them from the walls on which they were painted. But that can cause very serious damage. The 20th-century restorers also surrounded the frescos with cement — a procedure whose merits are now contested, but which, in this case, Dr Schmid believes was effective in preserving the paintings. “If they hadn’t used it,” he told me, “we would probably now have much less.”

Santa Maria Antiqua’s greatest tragedy, however, is that it has been closed for so long: it is almost 40 years since it was open to the public, and it is still closed now. When I visited, a single bad-tempered custodian with nothing to do tried to stop me entering, and then attempted to kick me out when he wanted to go to lunch. Fortunately, Dr Schmid was able to intervene. He is doing everything he can to ensure that one day it will be possible for anyone to visit Santa Maria Antiqua — as is Dr Giuseppi Moranti of the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma, which has overall responsibility for the site. The plan is to open the church for guided visits by the end of 2013, although given the history of the project, it would not be surprising if there were further delays. But I cannot overstate what a wonderful experience visiting it is. And if you contact the Soprintendenza, they may let you in. Failing that, you could always try praying to St Quiricus for a miracle.