British Museum Icon Catalogue

Introduction to the British Museum’s collection of Byzantine and Greek icons

Well represented in the collections of the British Museum is the art of the empire centered on Constantinople between 330 and 1453. This society, which saw itself as the continuation of the Roman Empire in the eastern regions of the Mediterranean, was established in this city by the Emperor Constantine the Great (324–337) who re-dedicated the previous city of Byzantium in his own name, the city of Constantine, and who extended the walls and developed the site. It was further enlarged under the Emperor Theodosius the Great (379–395), and then massively rebuilt in the 6th century under the Emperor Justinian the Great (527–565). Subsequent emperors continued the status of the city as a Roman capital, but one where the state religion was Christianity, and from 1054 when there was a break with the Catholic Church at Rome, as an Orthodox Christian state. This long-lasting empire fell to the advance of the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The name Constantinople was dropped in the 1920s, and it is now officially known as Istanbul. The period from 330 to 1453 is now generally known as the Byzantine Empire, and the main language of its literature and people was Greek. Much of the art that has survived from this period is its religious Christian art, and much money and attention were lavished on this production. A feature of this art was the attempt to represent and symbolise Christian truths and church doctrines in a form which avoided ephemeral and short-lived fashions and fads, and which consequently pleased and enlightened generations of viewers. This art supported the faith of its viewers over the centuries. Even after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the forms of this art lived on in Orthodox communities, not only in the regions of the empire but further afield in countries like Russia which adopted Orthodoxy. The British Museum collection includes important icons produced by the artists of the island of Crete, which was under Venetian control from the early 13th century up to 1669. These icons are distinctive for their synthesis of traditional Byzantine forms with the new ideas of painting in Renaissance Italy.

Byzantine art in the British Museum is represented in many media, in ivory, glass, gold, gold enamel, precious metalwork, and of course in clay and base metals. Its politics are represented in the coin collection. But it is also represented in one form, painted icons, which is now seen as one of the most representative forms of the culture. It is the use of icons in the church which distinguishes Orthodoxy from other Christian communities. They were used as decoration on the walls, on the screens in front of the altar, and for veneration at the entrance to the church and at various other prominent positions. Their subjects were appropriate for showing the narratives of the Christian story, of the saints and predominantly of the images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, Mother of God.

The collection of icons painted in egg tempera on wood in the British Museum has come together piecemeal. The first recorded icon in the ensemble arrived by chance, and not design, with a collection of manuscripts from a Coptic monastery between Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt, and was not even published for over 50 years. It was recognised by the curator, O.M. Dalton, as an important Byzantine work, but it was another fifty years before its correct date was established. Even now, this 14th-century Byzantine panel with four church festival scenes is a puzzle, as it is not established where it was made (probably Constantinople or northern Greece), how it was first used, or how it came to be found in a Coptic monastery in Egypt in the middle of the 19th century.

The majority of the icons in the British Museum have come as gifts or bequests, and in this respect, they reflect the taste and interests of the various donors. One, the icon with St Jerome, has a fascinating modern history. It was acquired by the famous Victorian connoisseur John Ruskin (1819–1900) in the 19th century, was later donated to the National Gallery in 1922, and subsequently was transferred to the British Museum in 1994. It has only recently been identified as a work by a 15th-century Cretan-trained artist, who may have painted it in Venice. Another icon was picked up on a First World War battlefield in northern Greece, and given to the museum by a soldier in the British Army. Other collectors who donated to the British Museum offer equally interesting profiles of acquisition. A substantial number of the icons in the collection were produced in Russia, and they are valuable as important witnesses of the character and quality of Russian icon-painting, which was first closely based on Byzantine models, but which over the centuries developed its own distinctive styles and forms (see the web introduction to A Catalogue of the Russian Icons in the British Museum by Yury Bobrov).

In the 1980s, the British Museum on the initiative of the curator David Buckton purchased a number of important Byzantine icons, dating from the 14th century (St Peter, St John the Baptist, and the Triumph of Orthodoxy), as well as a Crusader icon of the mid-13th century (St George). All these icons have been extensively researched by scholars and have been exhibited in several international exhibitions. The extent of the collecting of objects from Byzantium in the British Museum as well as in other museums and private collections in the UK was demonstrated in an exhibition at the British Museum in 1994. The catalogue of this exhibition, Byzantium. Treasures of Byzantine Art and Culture from British Collections was edited by David Buckton. This is a major documentation and synthesis of knowledge about Byzantine art in the UK, including where and when it was acquired. The aim of the web catalogue is to bring up to date the state of knowledge about the icons in the British Museum as it stands in 2016. The purpose is to make available the empirical information about these icons, and to add to this with interpretive studies of their production and the meaning of the imagery. The intention is to update the information when it is online. The curators of this web catalogue are Professor Robin Cormack; Professor Maria Vassilaki; Dr Eleni Dimitriadou; and (in one entry) Dr Dimitra Kotoula. They wish to thank Christopher Entwistle for his help and contributions to this research.

Robin Cormack