The Mosaics at Chora

Everyone wants creativity, but everyone knows that it just not just “happen.”  Creative acts need a physical context (i.e. time, skill, etc.), but they also need a spiritual context.  That is, for human beings to see things in new ways they need the inner spiritual freedom that allows them to see in the first place.

Idolatry comes in many forms, but within Christian communities it will almost always take an indirect path and have an indirect manifestation.  We can idolize the past, or idolize institutions, for example. The Byzantine empire (ca. 330-1453 A.D.) gave much to the idea of civilization.  We can find evidence of its vitality in its unique artistic and architectural contributions.  They had a significant impact on the development of Russia outside their borders.  But, as a “grafted” branch onto the Roman tree, they persisted in an irrational attachment to Rome’s imperial idea long after things in Italy showed that the emperor had no clothes.  One could call it idolization of the past perceived glories of Rome, but they did not merely copy Rome’s culture.  They blended with their eastern surroundings and invented something new.  I think instead they stand accused of attachment to the institution of the emperor, or at least the idea of empire itself.

In another post we looked at how this idea led them into a foolish war against their Bulgarian neighbors, a conflict which took their eyes off more pressing concern of the rise of Islam.  They never fully recovered from this mistake.

The truth of the failure of the imperial idea became obvious to the eastern church by the 14th century.  The Islamic handwriting was on the wall to any person who had eyes.  The Byzantine Empire’s time was at hand.  Unfortunately, the eastern church’s realization of their failed investment in the institution of the emperor was too little, too late.  But as they freed themselves spiritually from their attachment to the emperor, they simultaneously created some of the most magnificent art ever done in the eastern iconographic style in the monastery at Chora, right near the beating heart of Byzantium, just outside Constantinople.


To my western eyes this may not seem that impressive.  But if we travel to Mt. Athos in Greece and observe contemporary works to those at Chora we see a difference in the examples below. . .


At Chora we see power in the images and a subtle touch only possible with a freed mind.  At Athos I don’t see quite see the same inner depth.

The reason for these differences might be the persistence of the idolization of an institution.  In Greece during the 14th century they still put their heart into the imperial treasure.   Perhaps their physical distance from the emperor made their hearts all the fonder, more fond than they should have been.  Though the monks in Constantinople were about to be engulfed, they may have had more inner freedom than those in Greece.

For the record, I am no art critic, and so would welcome any thoughts from more discerning eyes than my own.