David Talbot Rice:    Art of the Byzantine Era, p/b, London, Thames & Hudson, 1963  

David Talbot Rice
Art of the Byzantine Era

The study of Byzantine art and culture in situ is a demanding one requiring research in remote areas of the south Balkans, modern  Constantinople (Istanbul) in Turkey, Trebizon and especially the rock churches of ancient Cappodocia and Cicilia, the Peloponese peninsula in Southern Greece, the monastic communities in the mountains of northern Greece, Egypt, Ravenna, the tufa monuments and churches of ancient Armenia and Georgia and the ancient churches of Macedonia and Bulgaria, and the beautiful remaining Byzantine churches and monuments at Cefalu, Monreale and Palermo in Sicily.

David Talbot Rice was educated at Rugby, a friend of Evelyn Waugh, Harold Acton and other members of the “bright young things” who were later to be “found” in Brideshead Revisited. He was also an outstanding archaeologist and art critic, a founding lecturer of the Courtauld Institute in London and Professor of Fine Art at Edinburgh University for many years. He has published widely in the areas of Western and Eastern art contributed numerous articles to specialised journals. 

This book covers largely the period from the reign of Justinian 1 (527-565) to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The task of locating the stunning artwork of the Byzantine era was made much harder by the sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusaders when much of the artistic glory of the capital was carted off to Venice, Spain, museums and places unknown. In addition many of the magnificently crafted Byzantine churches were converted into mosques under Islamic rule at various stages and many other fine churches were destroyed in wars of various periods. The standard procedure in converting churches to mosques was to cover up Christian artwork with white plaster. Repair and removal of the plaster, when possible, was difficult and resulted in much chipping of the original work.  Nevertheless much remains to be seen and studied today and this book contains 247 photographic plates, many in full colour. 

The result is an exciting journey through 1200 years of Christian artwork portraying the Christian story  in powerful and moving images of exceptional sophistication. The awesome figure of Christ the almighty staring down from beneath the vast dome of the Hagia Sophia of the cathedral in Cefalu Sicily is haunting and powerful, never to be forgotten. Equally entrancing are the personalities from the Christian story found in the midst of quite formal Byzantine artworks. These portray deep faith and an understanding of events happening to real people even in such a stylized art form. I found this accessible book deeply moving and spiritually encouraging. It is a Christian story that has been neglected.  5 stars.

Wayne Meeks: The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, p/b, New Haven/London, Yale University Press, 1983.   

Wayne Meeks
The First Urban Christians

C S Lewis wrote that for every new book you read, you should read two old ones. Meeks’ book is now 39 years old but he fact that it is still in print demonstrates the value and strength of his sociological and historical analysis of the “first urban Christians”.  From Jesus’ original  rural Galilean disciples and their converts, the Christian faith exploded mightily in the Roman towns and cities of Asia Minor. This explosion was largely due to the exploits, energy, argument and spiritual power of the Apostle Paul, converted by Jesus himself in a vision on the Emmaus Rd to Damascus, filled with a Jewish fire to destroy Christians!

Meeks has assembled a vast array of sociological tools to analyse how this amazing new religion flourished in the midst of and under the nose of the massive power of the Roman empire. Armed with a bibliography of well over 700 volumes of secondary research, the indefatigable Meeks has opened up for his readers, with exceptional care, science, Biblical analysis and historical data of all sorts, the world of First Century urban (Pauline) Christians. With impressive and not boring clarity (unusual in most sociological works I have studied!), Meeks uncovers topics such as :

  • The urban environment in which Paul and his fellow workers evangelised; 
  • The social level of the earliest Christian converts…wealth, security, employment etc;
  • The formation of Christian “ekklesia” compared with equivalent Roman voluntary associations, philosophical and rhetorical schools and the Jewish synagogues;
  • The peculiar language of “belonging” in the early churches eg  the elect, called to be saints, loved and known by God, beloved, children of God, adopted, believers, those ‘in Christ’, a family,  brothers and sisters, brotherly affection.
  • Issues of Governance in the early urban churches…dealing with conflict, letters and visits, the confusion in Corinth including leadership challenges, relationships with fellow workers and warrants for authority.
  • Rituals and how they developed especially baptism and The Lord’s Supper
  • Patterns of belief including the notion of “One God, One Lord, One Body; the place of apocalyptic and managing innovation; the reality of the crucified Messiah and the notion of resurrection; the question of evil and its reversal.

Meeks concludes his work with a brief summary of correlations…the early Pauline Christians believed in one God, creator of the universe and ultimate judge of all human actions, attributing titles and functions to the crucified and resurrected Messiah Jesus titles and functions that in the Jewish tradition were attributed only to God. This one God of the Christians is personal and active, demanding a high level of commitment. The Pauline view is eschatological leading to the final judgement of both humans and cosmic powers. Pauline Christians believe in Jesus the Messiah, son of God, crucified but raised from the dead, and exalted to reign with God in heaven. These believers from all strata and status in Roman society met regularly together maintaining their rituals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, stressing symbols of unity, equality and love. 

Reading this book gave me a strong sense of the purpose and clarity of meaning of Paul’s Epistles in the New Testament. It is a remarkable achievement well deserving of its continuing reprints.  5 stars

Thomas Mann: Death in Venice, Trans. H.T. Lowe-Porter, Ringwood, Penguin/Martin Secker & Warburg, 1985 (1912)  

Thomas Mann
Death in Venice

German novelist and Nobel Prizewinner for his book The Magic Mountain, wrote this short novel in 1912.  The key character, Gustave von Aschenbach, highly regarded and serious author breaks his normal holiday routine and travels to Venice for the summer instead of his usual mountain retreat.  He is nearing the end of his career and not in strong health.  In the dining room of his hotel on his first night he is stunned by the natural beauty and bearing of a young German boy, also holidaying in Venice with his mother, governess and four sisters. Gustave becomes obsessed with this boy to the eventually of manically following him around Venice

Gustave never speaks to the boy Tadzio but the lad is aware of his interest and does not discourage him. At the same time in the heat of the sirocco scorching summer wind, cholera grips the city and the vast majority of tourists leave Venice. Denying reason, Gustave’s passion keeps him in Venice and his illness and intense passion lead to his death.  The short novel is gripping in its intensity of description not just of his passion for Tadzio but also the lavish description of the best  and the worst of early C20th Venice. 

Thomas Mann himself, although happily married with five impressive children, was on his own admission deeply attracted to beautiful young men.  A significant feature is the way Mann describes the passion of Gustave through the ancient antics of the Greek gods and goddesses. The novelette builds to a very dramatic conclusion and is impossible not to finish.  4 stars.