Reference address :

ELPENOR - Home of the Greek Word

Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Alexander Schmemann

4. Byzantium (22 pages)













From Schmemann's A History of the Orthodox Church
Page 15

Nothing testifies so convincingly that the empire had now overcome the old poisons of pagan theocracy as the breakdown in official imperial art during this period.[27] Until the eighth century the forms of the ancient imperial cult were still predominant in likenesses of the emperor. Always he was the same emperor-conqueror and sovereign, knowing no restriction to his power, the personification of victory as he had been in pagan iconography. But pagan symbols of victory were replaced after Constantine by Christian ones. The empire conquered now under the sign of the Cross — ”In this sign conquer” — as it had conquered before under other emblems, but in its political consciousness it did not yet feel the victory of Christ over itself, and the old triumphal motifs gained ground in the official symbolism of the iconoclastic emperors. But now with the triumph of Orthodoxy we see a sudden change, almost a leap forward. “The overwhelming majority of the imperial portraits of this era,” writes Grabar, “belong to the type ‘The Emperor before Christ’ one that is very rare and exceptional in the pre-iconoclastic period.
The triumphal cycle yields to a cycle which glorifies first and foremost the emperor’s piety, and not his victory.”[28] It is no longer an image of the absolute sovereign of an empire, but an icon of the Byzantine theocracy.

Thus the triumph of Orthodoxy was not a mere return to Justinian’s formula, but represented an inner regeneration of it. The empire had been and remained holy, but the source of this sacred character had previously been the ancient and absolute conception of the state as the reflection on earth of divine order. Now it became the recognition of the empire as a handmaiden of Christ. This was set forth and made manifest in a variety of ways in Byzantine liturgy. For example, the Eucharistic prayer of the Liturgy of St.
Basil the Great includes the following:

Lord, think upon the mighty and Christ-loving Emperor whose reign upon earth Thou hast justified: gird him with the armament of truth and good will, shield him in the day of battle, strengthen his sinews, uplift his right hand, hold fast his realm, subject unto him all barbarous peoples that desire war, grant him a profound peace that cannot be taken away, declare to his heart the good of Thy Church and of all Thy people, so that in his peace we may live a tranquil and quiet life in all piety and purity . . .

It is evinced in the spirit of the Byzantine army, which now became the “Christ-loving army” defending the “domicile” of Christ — that is to say, defending the earthly mainstay of the Church; it is reflected in the ritual of the court, which was wholly directed toward expressing the mission of the empire. Christ was Pantocrator, Creator, and Lord, and before Him knelt with upraised hands and bowed head the Byzantine emperor — here was something new in the image of the empire, which became the spirit of its consciousness in the final epoch of its history.

One must not think this was only ideology; in its own way, it was very deeply reflected in psychology and everyday life — in the entirety of that genuinely Church-centered atmosphere in which Byzantine society lived and breathed. Of course, so many sins are connected with this Orthodox way of life and so much falsehood was hidden beneath its outward guise, that a modern reader of history, looking back, is tempted to see in it only hypocrisy — only the stifling atmosphere of an external ecclesiasticism and faith in ritual. But he would be forgetting the goodness and light that were thus introduced into Byzantine life in an age when, politically and socially, the world was still only beginning to discover the explosive force of the Gospel.
The ideals of mercy, love of poverty, and charity are not as sharply reflected in Byzantine chronicles as are the crimes by which political history was often made, and have therefore been ignored by historians. But one may speak, nevertheless, of a special sort of Byzantine humanism, linked undoubtedly to the feeling of Christ’s constant presence in the world in all His aspects: as King, Savior, Teacher, and Judge.


Previous Page / First / Next
Schmemann, A History of the Orthodox Church: Table of Contents

Cf.  Books for getting closer to Orthodox Christianity ||| Orthodox Images of the Christ ||| Byzantium : The Alternative History of Europe ||| Greek Orthodoxy - From Apostolic Times to the Present Day ||| A History of the Byzantine Empire ||| Videos about Byzantium and Orthodoxy ||| Aspects of Byzantium in Modern Popular Music ||| 3 Posts on the Fall of Byzantium  ||| Greek Literature / The New Testament

On Line Resources for Constantinople * On the future of the Ecumenical Patriarchate

Greek Forum : Make a question / Start a Discussion 

Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Learned Freeware

Reference address :