Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Byzantine attitude to beauty - Steven Runciman


From The Byzantine Civilization by Steven Runciman, 1933


They loved beautiful scenery. Gardens and parks and flowers were a delight to them (...) and they would build their monasteries on sites commanding the loveliest views that they could find.

Their buildings, their stuffs, their books, all reflected the same yearning for beauty, but a beauty not quite of this earth.

Beauty had an inner meaning to them. It helped their mystical contemplation; it was part of the glory of God.


Life was drab and ugly; but the worshipper, the citizen in Saint Sophia or the hermit on Mount Athos was away from it all.

The human architecture of the Cathedral and the divine architecture of the Mountain alike raised him out of the ordinary world and made him closer to God and True Reality.

To the Byzantine beauty and religion went hand in hand, to their mutual advantage.


The alliance is the better understood when we remember the background to Byzantine life. The Byzantines lived in a hard and unreliable world. Beyond the frontiers roamed the barbarians, and all too often they would burst in across the provinces or over the sea, and their hordes would reach the gates of the capital itself. 


Beset by dangers and uncertainty, the Byzantine could scarcely fail to be suspicious, to have nerves that flared easily into fury or panic.

He inevitably sought comfort in ultra-mundane things, in union with God and the hope of eternal life.

He knew existence to be sad.

The simple laughter and happiness of the pagans was lost. Byzantine wit was acid; its humour found expression in mockery and sarcasm.


Indeed life seemed a mockery.

This great Empire, the last home of civilization in a dark stormy world, was continually tottering before the barbarians, and recovering only to meet a fresh attack.

For centuries the great City stood inviolate, to be in foreign eyes a symbol of eternal power and riches. But the Byzantines knew the end would come some day, that one of these onslaughts would triumph.

The prophecies written all over Constantinople on columns or in wise books told the same story, of the days when there would be no more Emperors, the last days of the city, the last days of civilisation.


Summary comment: We now live long after the end of civilisation. We live in an increasingly hard and unreliable world, and barbarians roam among us and around us. We know existence to be sad. We know that the simple laughter and happiness of the pagans is lost. Beset by dangers and uncertainty, we must seek comfort, not in worldly distractions, but in ultra-mundane things; in a beauty not quite of this earth to help our mystical contemplation; in union with God and the hope of eternal life.