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The Spirit of the Byzantine Empire

The impressive grandeur and the vibrant charm of the Greek Middle Ages

By Giorgos Panagiotakis



It was the most powerful empire in Europe for centuries, a state bridging three continents and bringing together two cultures: that of the West and that of the East. It was created as the extension of the ancient Greco-Roman world around the 4th century AD and managed to hold its grounds throughout the Middle Ages. In the height of its glory, in the mid-6th century AD, its borders expanded from the Atlantic Ocean to Persia, and from North Africa to the Russian coastline. It was a blend of nations, cultures, languages and religions. A diverse country, which was crossed by ships and caravans of merchants. An essentially Greek empire, which was flourishing spiritually and economically and was characterized by a very particular, mystical fragrance.

The years of decline ultimately arrived. The mighty empire was weakened, it shrank and was eventually abolished. In 1453, its capital, Constantinople, fell into the hands of foreigners, but the spirit of the Byzantine Empire survived and with the help of artist and philosopher refugees it grafted on European thought and contributed to the Renaissance. Centuries later, this spirit lives on. It is among the founding materials of the contemporary Greek identity, having transpired in its tradition, its art, even its cuisine! Let's make an attempt to map it out, travelling from the Byzantium of the past all the way to nowadays.



Airy Temples and Floating Domes

The life of the Byzantines was intertwined with religion. Hence, besides being places of worship and symbols of strength and stability, the Christian churches were also places of social contact. A special ecclesiastical architecture was developed over the years, one which uniquely took advantage of natural materials and of the relationship between light and darkness. A key element is the dome, which seems to be floating over the believers, provoking devoutness and spiritual exaltation. As the light enters from above and is distributed among the various architectural elements, the volumes seem to dematerialize and the materials seem to lose their weight. All the while, the architects’ indifference towards symmetry attributes the touching warmth of human presence to the building.

Byzantine architecture is ever present in Greece today, as there are dozens of beautiful, small and large Byzantine churches that seem to ignore the passing of the centuries. Many of these are still operating as places of worship, while contemporary temples follow – more or less successfully – the same architectural style.


A Spiritual Painting

During Byzantine times, each orthodox Christian ought to have been struggling against the perishable matter in favor of spirituality. Byzantine painting followed in the same vein and was using symbolic imagery in an attempt to approach the divine. Religious images are marked by intense lines and an absurd, compressed perspective. The human figures are standing frontally, as if looking at the viewer in the eyes. As expected, they are always bony, emphasizing the superiority of the spirit over the flesh. Equivalent stylization is evident in the art of mosaics, which – as in the times of Greco-Roman antiquity – were also used in houses, for both practical and decorative purposes.

Byzantine art remains to this day unexpectedly present, not just at religious sites. Many artists were influenced by its symbols and sacramental charm, brilliant examples of which are paintings by Yannis Tsarouchis and large murals by Stelios Faitakis, an artist who started from street art and graffiti, and became one of the most famous and dynamic contemporary Greek creators.


The Strongholds of Faith

It is difficult to get a sense of the spirit of Byzantium unless one visits one of the numerous monasteries still operating in Greece – in Meteora, in Mount Athos and elsewhere. Built in isolated lands, on the tops of inaccessible mountains and in naturally fortified places, these striking edifices are still causing amazement and awe.

The reasons for a Byzantine citizen’s decision to withdraw from worldly life and follow the path of monasticism were varied. Some did so in an attempt to reach self-awareness, spiritual fulfilment and God. Others, in order to avoid conscription, taxation and poverty. Because monasteries, besides being strongholds of faith, were autonomous economic units functioning in a communal way. At the same time they contributed through an important social undertaking, since many of them were accommodating workhouses, orphanages, hospitals and libraries running text copying departments, thanks to which many cultural treasures of ancient Greek literature have been preserved.


The Sound of Byzantium

Byzantine music was of two kinds. First of all, there were religious hymns and poems set to music that were being chanted at churches without any instruments. This unique musical genre is strictly vocal; the melody is subjugated to speech and it evocatively echoes inside the churches. Both the poetic meter and intonation are greatly reminiscent of the choruses of ancient tragedies. Religious music was developed alongside secular music. It therefore constituted the continuation of ancient tradition. There were wedding, love as well as laudatory chants honouring the emperor or the border guards. They were all performed with the accompaniment of stringed, wind and percussion musical instruments during festivities and all sorts of gatherings.

Both Byzantine genres have survived in modern times. Religious hymns are heard at churches even now and secular Byzantine music has evolved into folklore songs – the cornerstone of Greek folk tradition.


Living in the Byzantine Empire

The daily life of a citizen of the Byzantine Empire directly depended on social order. However, despite the huge differences and strict hierarchy, boundaries between the classes were not hermetically sealed. In fact, if one was lucky – and scheming – enough, it was possible to ascend even to the throne! The most famed example of this was Theodora (6th century AD), a humble dancer who succeeded in becoming the wife of Justinian and an Empress.

In Byzantium, there was organized education functioning on tuition fees. The children were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, as well as the Homeric epics. Women were clearly enjoying fewer rights than men. However, from the 11th century they had access to education and the opportunity to be involved in public affairs.

The Byzantines were sports enthusiasts and very fond of chariot races in particular. They would also frequent taverns and enjoy watching popular spectacles involving acrobats and trained animals. On religious holidays they used to organize fairs, something that still happens in modern Greece.



The Unparalleled Byzantine Style

Byzantine attire was influenced by the East and the West alike. A very specific style was eventually created, one that can be described as conservative and imposing. The fabrics were made of cotton, linen, wool or silk. At times the Byzantines had a preference for monochromes; at other times they preferred multicoloured clothing with bold designs. Yet purple, that deep red colour, was a prerogative of only emperors and princes. The bourgeois were wearing a long tunic with many folds, while female fashion required an additional cloak that covered the head as well.

The elegance of the Byzantine style has had an impact on renowned contemporary designers. In 2011, for example, Karl Lagerfeld created Chanel’s impressive Paris-Byzance collection following his trip to Ravenna, Italy, where he had seen Byzantine mosaics depicting Empress Theodora. Similar influences are to be found in more recent collections by Valentino and Dolce & Gabbana.



Precious Accessories

Lords and wealthy townsfolk used to overload themselves with expensive jewellery in an attempt to demonstrate their prosperity. Some of these indicated high official posts or signalled important events, such as a birth or a wedding. Necklaces, bracelets and rings were worn everyday, while gemstones were often embroidered on tunics. Female elegance required golden earrings, brooches and ornate golden nets on the hair.

Byzantine miniature art reached its peak when perfecting the multicoloured enclosed enamel technique thanks to which the artisans were able to carry out complex representations. The famous wristbands of Thessaloniki, which can be admired in the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki, were created with this technique. The Byzantine tradition is also reflected in contemporary Greek jewellery, with the Byzantine collections by the Ilias Lalaounis jewellery house being among the most distinct examples.


The Flavours of Byzantium

The bilateral connection of Byzantium with ancient and contemporary Greece is also evident in the diet, which was basically Mediterranean. Excluding poultry which were in relative abundance, the consumption of meat, particularly by the low classes, was probably rare. Instead, pulses, vegetables, cereals, cheese and in coastal areas fish would be part of everyday meals.

The pig slaughter (“choirosfagia”) took place once a year, in winter. That is the collective slaughter of domesticated pigs so as to procure sausages and cooking fat for the entirety of the year. Spices were of great value and salt in particular, because it was used to preserve meat. The genuine salt pasted meat of the Byzantine cuisine has survived to this day in the form of the Cretan “apaki” and the famous “syglino” from Mani.

Another dish that can be found everywhere in Greece is “sfougato”. This is an omelet in which the eggs are mixed with sautéed herbs and tomato, offering a taste which runs through the centuries and brings a genuine Byzantine aroma to our palate.