ORTHODOXY. An ancient Greek manuscript, source of collaboration with Rome
A treasure of dialogue
The Apostolic Vatican Library and the Apostolic Diaconate of the Church of Greece are working on the publication of the facsimile of the Menology of Basil II, an absolute masterpiece of the art of Byzantine illumination
by Francesco D’Aiuto
Not just any manuscript, that is true. Indeed, it could be said, the “prince” of Greek manuscripts, and the absolute masterpiece of the art of Byzantine illumination. An “imperial” book, in the first place, that was copied by hand – more than four hundred years before the invention of the printing press – and sumptuously illustrated for Basil II: the emperor who, reigning between 976 and 1025, was the last representative in Constantinople of the glorious Macedonian dynasty that held power between the mid 9th century and the middle of the 11th, raising the Empire of Byzantium, then a great Mediterranean power, to its peak.
A book, in short, that belonged to a great power of the time, and was directly commissioned by it. And yet it is a “church” book, indeed a strictly liturgical manuscript. With the customary blend and overlapping of levels, religious and profane, typical of the Greek Middle Ages: between the Kingdom of Heaven and that imperial territory, with universalist pretensions, that aimed to be the image in the visible world of the heavenly realm. Because in Byzantium the emperor was the figure and representative of God on earth.
It is no accident, therefore, that with this manuscript the emperor Basil got himself made a high luxury copy of the Synassarion: that is of the liturgical book that contains short information on the saints of the day, destined to be read daily in the rites of the “early riser” (the órthros, in Greek). A manuscript, therefore, that belongs to a particular, and abundant, class of witnesses to the Byzantine liturgy. And yet there are many aspects that render this manuscript a unique, and quite extraordinary, exemplar.
Vatican Apostolic Library, Vat. gr. 1613, f. 152: Saints Cosmas and Damian, doctors, receiving the case of instruments from heaven
In the first place, the immediate testimony that it offers us on the figure of the ruler who commissioned it, Basil II. The historical sources – first of all the Chronographia that was written some decades later by the unscrupulous courtier Michele Psello – present us a Basil who is an ascetic of government. What comes out of it is the portrait of a strict and pragmatic emperor, rough-edged. A man deeply engaged in the administration of the State, and implacable in conflict: a man who has passed into history, for good reason, as the “exterminator of the Bulgarians” (or Bulgaroktónos) par excellence. A man, on the contrary, little interested – so we are told – in literature, above all in the flowery rhetoric dominant in his day, and little fond of the arts in general. Nevertheless the Menology in the Vatican Library, apart from revealing to us, in so far as that is possible, his religious feeling, also shows – one might say – sensibility to art and the beautiful.
And this brings us to the second exceptional element of our manuscript: it is, in fact, the most richly illuminated Byzantine book known. Every saint, every liturgical feast in the Synassarion has a corresponding illumination in the manuscript. In this species of “picture gallery in a single book”, half of each page is occupied by a wide format illuminated scene (18x12 cm approximately), while the rest of the space is reserved to the relative written text. The surviving illuminations number all of 430: nevertheless they represent only the saints celebrated from September to February (the first six months of the Byzantine calendar, that began with 1 September and finished at 31 August). There must have existed, in fact, a second volume of the Menology, with the months from March to August, enriched with as many hundreds of precious illuminations: a volume that must have disappeared at a time we can’t specify, and in unknown circumstances. Probably in the convulsed and tormented final centuries of Byzantium. Perhaps, who knows, at the moment of the ruinous taking of Constantinople, when the capital of the Empire fell into the hands of the Turks in 1453.
But the lively interest of Basil II for the arts seems attested not only by the great number of illuminations in the manuscript, nor only by their excellent quality, that sets them at the peak of Byzantine painting. Another exclusive feature of this manuscript consists in the fact that alongside each of the illuminations one can read the “signature”, that is the name of the painter who executed it. Not, however, written by the artist himself, but noted by the hand of an anonymous calligrapher.
This is a unique case with Byzantium, where the artists nearly always hid in total anonymity. Out of a form of ceremonious humility, especially if monks or clerics. Or, more often, because there was enormous social difference separating the artists from the commissioners of the art work, who were generally of aristocratic rank, when not quite, as in this case, imperial. This feature also – the wish to record the names of the painters – seems to testify to a personal and quite unconventional interest on the part of Basil II in art and artists.
This unusual concern for individual painters allows us, therefore, once in a long while, knowledge of their names. Thus we know that the manuscript – or at least the first volume, the only one to come down to us – was worked on by eight artists, headed by a Pantaleone who must have been the most renowned painter of his time, whose name resounds in the contemporary literary sources also. And thanks to the “signatures” we can pick out, in these illuminations, the particularities of the pictorial style of each of the artists involved. We can therefore form a precise idea of the co-existence of partly different tendencies and talents – even within the substantial unity of style – in a single, extraordinary painting workshop in the Constantinople of the year Thousand.
It was a pressing matter to encourage the publication of a modern unabridged photo reproduction of such a valuable manuscript: a facsimile, as the professionals say. And not only in order to disseminate knowledge.
Like very many other manuscripts from the mid Byzantine period, the Menology also suffers from delicate problems of conservation, in particular of pigments. Despite the employment of the most advanced methods, the processes of decay, though very slow, are sometimes difficult to combat effectively and above all in a way that will prevent the manuscript from suffering other harmful “collateral effects” in the future. Often degradation can be slowed down, but not stopped entirely.
The reproduction in facsimile is, in this sense, an important help to conservation. It documents photographically, using the most advanced techniques of digital reproduction, the present state. Above all, it will make the need for direct consultation of the original, now already restricted to indispensable research, very much rarer, thus keeping the manuscript in better conditions for future generations. Meanwhile, the hundreds of exemplars of the facsimile that have been printed, and that will be largely distributed among the greater libraries of record and research centers throughout the world, will certainly give new impetus to the study of this masterpiece, whose many secrets are very far from being all exhausted.
Vatican Apostolic Library, Vat. gr. 1613, f. 237: Saint Daniel Stylites, ascetic, on his column
From a book jealously reserved to the powerful sovereign who ordered its creation, today the Menology has become, through its facsimile copies, a common heritage of mankind. In this period of ours dominated by the re-productibility of art, the refinement of photographic techniques and printing enables the creation of “copies” so perfect that only few experts would know how to distinguish them from the original. This is also thanks to the great technological competence and craftsmanship of the Spanish publishing house assigned to the project, the Testimonio Compañia Editorial, specializing now for some time in similar publications.
But these delicate “replicas” of the precious manuscript are not intended only for the purpose of studies: above all they are the sign of a renewed sharing between the Churches of East and West of the memory of a common, millennial treasure of holiness. The hundreds of saints – martyrs, monks, bishops, simple laity – who are portrayed in the gallery of sacred images in the Menology are not, in fact, the objects of the veneration of the Greek Church only, but of the universal Church. Because this precious book was written and illuminated only some decades before the schism between Constantinople and Rome occurred in 1054, which then remained lasting. That separation and opposition between Catholicism and Orthodoxy in doctrinal and disciplinary matters, on the basis of which a veritable wall of hatred would be built by subsequent events: one thinks of the seizure and sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders, the hated “Latins”, in 1204. A hostility that was never again to be overcome despite the different attempts made by the two sides up to the precarious “union” decreed by the Council of Florence (1439), and afterwards. With consequences that have continued to weigh heavily on the relations between the Petrine See and the Orthodox world up to today.
If set against the background of this millennial history then, the collaboration initiated today between the Apostolic Diaconate of the Church of Greece and the Apostolic Vatican Library for the joint production of the facsimile of this manuscript, is therefore, an event of deep significance. It is a sign of recovered mutual faith, amidst the inevitable difficulties. It is the testimony, in any case, of the continuity and vivacity of a dialogue that the last decades have seen refurbished: through the merit of churchmen who, on both sides, maintain that the overcoming of the ancient “scandal” of separation is a necessary precondition for giving to the Gospel universally credible testimony today.
The climate of cordiality and openness, the confident dialogue established in the collaboration between the parties involved in the long-term project – begun in 2002 – found their complete expression in the ceremony of the first official presentation of the completed facsimile on November 16 of last year in Athens. A ceremony that, in an atmosphere of fraternity that fed hopes, saw gathered around the facsimile, among the other ecclesiastical and lay authorities, the archbishop of Athens and of all Greece, His Beatitude Christodoulos, and the librarian and archivist of the Holy Roman Church, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran.
And already the next meeting is expected, and the next step on the path of dialogue. The presentation – organized this time in Rome, for the late spring of 2007 – of the volume of studies and commentary accompanying the facsimile of the Menology. A volume that, in these very months, is growing out of the original research of an équipe of experts: art historians, philologists, liturgists, restorers, all called to collaborate with their skills on a vast project of interdisciplinary study. In a research initiative that is also, necessarily, of international standard, seeing that experienced experts from Italy and Greece especially, but also from Russia and the United States, are involved.
Study and research recognize no geopolitical borders, nor confessional enclosure. They can instead, in their way, help to overcome misunderstandings and ancient quarrels in other sectors. Because the path of dialogue can pass today also through studies. And through the pages of a Greek manuscript of a thousand years ago.