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A Shared History: The Orthodox Church's Byzantine Heritage

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Just over one year ago, teachers and students from Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary embarked on a very special trip away from the confines of the classroom. Although the various airline tickets were marked "Istanbul, Turkey", the intrepid travelers actually went on a journey to Constantinople, New Rome, heart of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. Aptly named the "Byzantine Heritage Tour", the trip-cum-pilgrimage was undertaken by the teacher and students of HTS's revived Byzantine History course, taught by Fr. Dcn. Andrei Psarev, who succinctly explains the importance and relevance of studying Byzantine History: "we study Byzantine imperial history because without it we cannot understand the history of the Church that brought Christianity to Rus."

Although the City has long fallen, and the Empire no longer stands guard over those lands, the unique culture that developed the milieu of the Roman East is still prevalent wherever an Orthodox Christian may find himself. Byzantine (more traditionally "Roman" after Romiosini/Ρωμηοσύνη) culture is a blend of classical Hellenistic and Roman cultures, and Hebrew and Syriac influences from the East. Amidst this melting pot spread the Orthodox Christian faith, which became incarnate in the prevailing culture.


We are constantly reminded of our Byzantine heritage when we worship: our Divine Liturgy and the services of the liturgical cycle, as celebrated in the vast majority of Orthodox monasteries, cathedrals and parishes, are according to the rites that developed in this culture; our prayers are, for the most part, written by the saints who were glorified amidst this culture; our vestments reflect the majesty of the imperial court which ruled this culture; our iconography is the art form perfected in this culture; our liturgical chant (with notable exceptions) is that which echoed throughout the hallowed temples of this culture; our church architecture is based on, or derives from, the magnificent monuments built by this culture; our theology is articulated in the philosophical language of this culture.



Constantinople itself stood as an icon of this culture, so imbued with the spirit of the Christian faith, where all things, whether they be architecture, art, literature, or music, where all offered to, and influenced by, the worship of the All-Holy Trinity and the Incarnate God-Man, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Great Church of the Divine Wisdom is the apex of this and still stands today as a witness to the glory that was Constantinople.

The intellectual climate of the Empire was one in which classical Hellenistic philosophy met with Christian theology, producing some of the greatest minds in the Church. The Church Fathers, such as Saint Athanasios the Great, the Three Holy Hierarchs, Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory the Theologian, and Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Kyrill of Alexandria, Saint Maximos the Confessor, Saint Photios the Great and Saint Gregory Palamas, all fused the very best of Hellenistic philosophy with the divinely-revealed truths of the Christian faith. To this day, the writings of these Fathers form the very core of Orthodox theological literature.

The theology of the Church is given voice by its hymnography, and brought to life in its iconography. These art forms were developed and perfected by saints living in the monasteries of Byzantium. Most notably, the lyrical Saints, Romanos the Melodist, John of Damascus, Andrew of Crete, and Joseph, Cosmas and Kassiani the Hymnographers, who composed large portions of our church services. The art of iconography, a tradition passed down from the Holy Apostle Luke, was brought to great spiritual heights through the efforts of iconographers such as Saint Lazaros of Constantinople, who defended the tradition during the iconoclast period, and was passed on to the Russian church, which in turn produced the revered iconographers, Saints Alypy of the Kiev Caves and Andrei Rublev. Despite the traditional art form falling out of favour in later centuries, due to the influence of Western artistic styles, Byzantine iconography made a return to prominence in the 20th century through the work of revered icongraphers such as Photios Kontoglou in Greece and Jordanville's own Archimandrite Cyprian.

The evidence of Byzantine art and architecture spans the breadth of the Roman Empire's cultural influence, and remains its most visible presence. Wherever the Orthodox Christian faith spread, with it went the inheritance of Christian Rome. Whether you find yourself in Mount Athos, Greece, Cyprus, or the Holy Land, the heartlands of traditional Byzantine architecture, the furthest reaches of the Empire, such as Italy and France, or the nations evangelised by the Byzantine saints, such as Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and Rus, you will find the ubiquitous presence of Byzantine-style churches, mosaics and icons. These are not only the ancient churches from the imperial period, but also newer churches built according to the Neo-Byzantine architectural style:

Sofia, Bulgaria: A glimpse of ancient and neo-Byzantine architecture side by side. Hagia Sofia Cathedral (4th c.) and Saint Alexander Nevsky Sobor (19th c.)

The famous mosaics of Ravenna, Italy.

Greece's oldest church: The Rotonda of Saint George in Thessaloniki, once again used as a church.

Byzantium lives on: The Katholikon at Karyes on Mount Athos, the living centre of the Byzantine tradition.

Byzantine heritage of Serbia: the oldest church in Serbia, dedicated to Saint Peter.

When Rome was in Rus: the 8th century church of Saint John the Baptist in Kerch, Crimea.

Evolving tradition: Hagia Sofia cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine, Hagia Sofia cathedral, Novgorod (both 11th c.) and Uspensky Sobor in Vladimir (12th c.)

Russia makes the tradition its own: Russia's unique take on the Byzantine style, exemplified by the churches of Saint Basil in Moscow (16th c.), Transfiguration on Kizhi (17th c.) and Saints Peter and Paul in Peterhof (20th c.) Although not technically classical Byzantine style, the influence is evident.

From East to West: Neo-Byzantine churches in Greece (Saint Andreas Cathedral in Patras, 20th c.), France (Saint Mary Cathedral in Marseille, 19th c.) and Great Britain (Westminster Cathedral of the Most Precious Blood in London, 20th c.), showing the universal appeal of Byzantine architecture even in non-Orthodox contexts.

A we can see, not only do the externals of the Orthodox Church and its traditions maintain continuity with the ancient Byzantine world in which the Church grew and developed, but its entire theological and cosmological worldview is also firmly rooted in the thought of the Byzantine world. The culture of the Christian East was a 'total package' consisting of faith, art, poetry, architecture, song, and philosophy, all inspired and informed and shaped by the Orthodox faith. This culture, Byzantine culture, was a precious treasure freely distributed to those who would receive it, as did the Slavs and others who accepted the Orthodox faith. Some, such as Serbia and Bulgaria, have maintained this tradition more or less as they received it, while others, such as Russia, have developed the tradition and made it their own, by fusing their own local culture with that received from Byzantium.

In our own time, the Orthodox Church remains the sole repository of this treasury, its worldly component having faded long ago with the fall of the Empire. In Orthodox societies, and in Orthodox parishes outside of the traditional heartlands of the faith, Byzantine culture survives in the ecclesiastical arts of iconography and chanting, and most importantly, in the theology of the Church, which is the Christian East's greatest contribution to the world.

By understanding Byzantine history, we understand our own history as Orthodox Christians, a history now shared by people spread over the entire face of the earth, a history that can still be lived and experienced in the Orthodox Church.

Below we share some of the best resources for discovering more about Byzantine History and culture:

Byzantine History

A History of Byzantium - the standard textbook for the HTS Byzantine History course

The Lost World of Byzantium

A History of the Byzantine Empire: Volume IVolume II

The End of Byzantium

Nicaea: A Byzantine Capital and Its Praises

Constantine the Ethnomartyr: Last Emperor of Byzantium

Byzantium and Orthodoxy

The Byzantine Legacy in the Orthodox Church

Byzantine Liturgical Reform: A Study of Liturgical Change in the Byzantine Tradition

Byzantium and Russia

The Legacy of St. Vladimir: Byzantium, Russia, America

Byzantium and the Slavs

Byzantium and the Rise of Russia: A Study of Byzantino-Russian Relations in the Fourteenth Century

Byzantine Theology and Fathers

Byzantine Fathers and Theologians (An Encyclopedic Survey)

Crisis in Byzantium: The Filioque Controversy in the Patriarchate of Gregory II of Cyprus

The Old Testament in Byzantium

The Byzantine Saint

Justinian the Great: The Emperor and Saint

Byzantine Sacred Art

Byzantine Sacred Art: Selected Writings of the Contemporary Icon Painter Photios Kontoglou on the Sacred Arts

Byzantine Thought and Art: A Collection of Essays

Byzantine Church Architecture

Byzantine Churches of Greece and Cyprus

Byzantine Churches of Thessaloniki

Byzantine Chant

Guide to Byzantine Iconography, Vol. IVol. II

Byzantine Philosophy

We will have a special guest post on the blog next week, with a special focus on Byzantine and Orthodox Philosophy, from the former instructor in Philosophy at Holy Trinity Seminary, Mr. Cyprian Fennema.


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