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Antioch (969–1268): Byzantine Provincial Art from Georgia and Greek Illuminated Manuscripts

Alexander L. Saminski, Andrei Rublev Museum of Early Russian Art, Moscow, Fellow 2004–2005

In 969, Byzantium reconquered Antioch after three centuries of Arab occupation. In 1268, it was captured and devastated by the Mamluks. There are reasons to believe that during these three centuries of renewed Byzantine rule the city may have become an important cultural center of the empire, as it had been before the Arab invasion. Our only source for evaluating Antiochene art is a few Georgian and Greek illuminated manuscripts. Georgia had been a part of the Patriarchate of Antioch since the fourth century. A multitude of Georgians lived in Antioch after the Byzantine victory side by side with the Greek population. Therefore Georgian manuscripts of attested Antiochene origin enable us to recognize their anonymous Greek relatives.

What, then, do these books tell us about the city’s cultural activity? First of all, statistical analysis reveals that the rise of the illuminated book in Antioch was very short-lived: for a period of 20 years after the middle of the eleventh century. Only then could Antioch proclaim herself as an artistic center of the Byzantine world. On the other hand, a fine miniature from a Gospel Lectionary in the Bibliothèque orientale in Beirut, painted between 1323 and 1344, testifies that occasional production of illuminated books persisted in the Antiochene Patriarchate even long after the devastation of the city.

Two exquisite manuscripts from 1054 with miniatures indistinguishable from those of Constantinople suggest that Hellenism flourished in Antioch once more as the culture of the upper classes, in this sense continuing a tradition interrupted by the Arab conquest. Other books exemplify a variety of styles corresponding to the aesthetics of different strata of Antiochene society; nevertheless, all of them were strongly influenced by the art of Constantinople. Instead of the expected stylistic consistency that would add one more local center to the general picture of Byzantine art, the manuscripts reveal the richness and diversity of Antochene culture, suggesting new and unknown aspects still to be discovered.

A hallmark of Antiochene book production seems to be the extraordinary miscellaneous character shared by all the manuscripts. This enables us to ascribe to Antioch a manuscript at the Walters in Baltimore (W 532), the Greek Gospel illuminated by Armenian Chalcedonian artists, and another one in the Great Lavra on Mt. Athos painted by a Melchite master, who was unfamiliar with the Greek language.