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    The Four Gospels with Portrait of the Evangelist Matthew, mid-10th century, tempera, gold, and ink on parchment, Athens, National Library of Greece, cod. 56

    Modeled on ancient portraits of philosophers, this image of Saint Matthew reflects Byzantium’s role as heir to the artistic traditions of classical antiquity. The furniture and writing implements, however, are those of Byzantine scribes. This Gospel book has been attributed to a scriptorium that also produced books by classical authors. Its style reflects the heightened interest in the art and literature of antiquity that occurred during the reign of the Macedonian dynasty (867 – 1056).

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    Portrait of Alcibiades, late 3rd–early 4th century, marble, stone, and glass tesserae, Sparta, Archaeological Museum

    This lively image of the Athenian statesman Alcibiades (c. 450–404 BC) comes from a luxurious villa where it once formed part of a floor mosaic depicting the nine muses and four ancient Greek lyric poets. Like Alcibiades, the poets all lived centuries before this mosaic was made, attesting to its owner’s keen interest in ancient Greek literature and history.

     

    Alcibiades was a famed apprentice to the philosopher Socrates. The artist imagined him as a restless spirit, conveyed through his questioning, perhaps skeptical gaze and the long hair that Alcibiades was reported to have kept even in old age. The mosaic of the personification of the sun in the first room of the exhibition comes from the same floor.

     

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    The Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil, 12th century, tempera, gold, and ink on parchment, Athens, National Library of Greece, cod. 2759

    Longer than 17 feet when unrolled, this scroll contains the secret prayers composed in the fourth century by the church father Basil of Caesarea. They are read in a low voice by the priest or bishop on special occasions such as Christmas and Lent. The frontispiece depicts a five-domed church, with the facade cut away to reveal an altar flanked by Basil and by John Chrysostom, who composed the liturgy used in regular church services. Images of Saints Peter and Paul appear above, set into a wall painted to imitate marble and surmounted by an image of the Virgin Mary in the apse.

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    Homer’s Iliad, late 15th century, ink on paper, Athens, National Library of Greece, cod. 1055

Intellectual Life

alcibades

Portrait of Alcibiades, late 3rd–early 4th century, marble, stone, and glass tesserae, Sparta, Archaeological Museum

Byzantium had an educated class that was unusually large for a premodern society, well above that postulated for Roman antiquity and medieval Western Europe. The huge Byzantine bureaucracy required a literate civil service to administer the business of the empire, collect taxes, and resolve legal disputes. Libraries of the literati contained works of ancient literature, philosophy, mathematics, and science. But because intellectual activity centered on elucidating Christian doctrine, the vast majority of surviving Byzantine books treat scripture, theology, liturgy, monasticism, and the lives of saints.

The Byzantines were proud of their ancient Greek heritage. Schoolchildren learned their letters not only from the Psalter, but also from Homer’s Iliad. The church father Basil of Caesarea (died 379) cautioned against writings by classical authors that conflicted with Christian teachings, but he urged his students to “embrace pagan wisdom” for its moral lessons: "For just as the bees know how to extract honey from flowers, those who look to such writers may derive profit for their souls."

Most of what survives of ancient Greek learning and literature is known from copies commissioned by Byzantine intellectuals. Without them, works by Homer, Sophocles, Socrates, Thucydides, Plato, Euripides, Euclid, and many others would be lost. The manuscripts of classical texts shown here acknowledge the importance of Byzantine scribes in transmitting ancient Greek knowledge to the Renaissance and modern era.

Banner photo by Velissarios Voutsas of the Church of the Virgin, 10th century, and the Church of Hosios Loukas, 11th century, Phokis, Greece