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Video transcript

(jazzy music) Female 1: Here we are at the British Museum. We are looking at the Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, which was made in about 1450 in Istanbul not Constantinople, although it was Constantinople then. Female 2: At the time, yes. Female 1: Because we're still in the time of the Byzantine Empire when this was made. I think what always grabs me the first about looking at icons is the contrast of the colors against the gold background. Female 2: Yes. Female 1: It makes the colors seem that much more vibrant, but also it draws your attention to the gold background itself. Female 2: The gold, of course, is the spiritual. It's the heaven. It's what you're not supposed to represent. When you're looking Byzantine art we must remember that what happened was at the period otherwise known as Iconoclasm where there was a war fought over images. Image producing became completely illegal. People went around destroying icons, images, church imagery. There was a good 150 years where people couldn't make art. They fought wars for it and they destroyed art, because they felt that you shouldn't be representing Christ in any way because of "Thou shalt not worship false idols" in the Bible. Female 1: So not that different from the Islamic idea of not representing figural folks. Female 2: The same idea from the same book, same words, exactly. What we have in this icon is very interesting. It doesn't function simply like the traditional kind of icon where you look at it and you're worshiping through it, you're meditating on it and having it as a channel to the figure represented on the panel. This has also got some commentary about the history of icons itself. The name of this, of course, is the Triumph of Orthodoxy. It's split into two registers. If you look at the upper one, quite obviously there's an icon within an icon in the middle. It's being held by two angels surrounded in red material. Female 1: If they've been destroying images for a good long time there, then here is not only an image, but they're showing an image within the image. So they're kind of emphasizing that it's okay now to paint these images again. Female 2: To the left-hand side we've got the empress, Theodora. Her name is written above her there, identifying who she is. On the lower register we have a whole list of figures there. You've got priests and monks and there's one single woman on the left-hand side as well. Female 1: She's holding a little tiny image. It looks like it's Christ in there, I think. Female 2: Yeah, because you can see it's got the cross nimbus. That's not just a normal halo. It's got the cross in the background so that's how you know that's definitely Christ. Female 1: We've got lots of images within images here. Female 2: And this is an icon made in the 1400s with a load of people and an empress from 800. Why are they looking back? What are they doing? Female 1: Yeah, and it seems like the emphasis really is on that tradition of image making and putting Theodora in there makes sense because she's the one who was responsible for bringing back the tradition of image making. Female 2: She's restored image making. She was the one that brought back the Triumph of Orthodoxy, the fact that we could worship images again. It's interesting because the image in the icon within the icon there that the angels are holding is one of a type called the Hodegetria. It means, basically, she who shows the way. You see the way she's holding her hand and she's pointing to her son, the Christ child on her lap. Look at her face. She's sorrowful. She's very sad. With her hand, you see, she's pointing to him and her face is jumping ahead to what she knows is going to happen next, that he's going to be crucified. Female 1: It is a very common type of Virgin and Child that you see in icon paintings specifically. Female 2: And it's very important because the original version of this, they say, was painted by St. Luke from life, from Mary. Female 1: St. Luke the evangelist, of the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This is Luke. Female 2: Yes, and he's the patron saint of painters now because of this. They said that this particular icon, the original one, that they said that St. Luke had painted was kept in Constantinople. They did lots and lots of copies of that icon. Each icon you copied would be exactly the same, more or less, but it would take the inherent property of the original one, that power, that St. Luke had put into it. The lower register, then, if we're looking at the top one that's celebrating the empress who brought this back on the upper register, to the lower register, we have this whole array, as we said before, of monks and saints and the lady on the left-hand side. They are all people who are martyred in the cause of trying to protect imagery during the Iconoclastic years. Female 1: They've all got these lovely beards, except for, of course, our one lady on the end. But look at all their robes as well, the vertical lines of all these robes, kind of putting them into rank and really kind of making a unit of them. Like look at all of the many people who've been martyred for this important cause. Female 2: So the question, again, then is why in 1400 are they looking back to a scene from 843 that they've kind of composed? Because we know actually that maybe not all those martyrs would have been born at that time. Some of the them were martyred later on. Why would they do that in 1400? Female 1: Well, let's think about what was happening with the Byzantine Empire at the time. Female 2: It had reduced. They inherited the Roman Empire. It was vast. It reduced now to just basically the area we now call modern-day Turkey. Of course the Islamic people had been coming across and barraging them. Their faith doesn't use imagery and they're battering these people. They've run out of wealth, They've run out of money at the Byzantine Empire. They're going around and they're even coming to the courts in the West of France, traveling great distances asking for support and money to help them fight these armies. And they say no! Female 1: This is in a way, maybe, trying to connect to a previous time in the Byzantine Empire's past where they were stronger. Female 2: And the image saved them. With having all the help removed from them and other powers in Europe saying, "No, we're not helping you, we're not giving "you money, we're not supporting you," they go back to that, "Well, we better just try the images again." They make their special image with an image of triumph for power and glory in the hope that that will save them from the onslaught. Female 1: It doesn't really work, sadly. Female 2: No. Female 1: The Byzantine Empire doesn't really survive. I'm struck by that emphasis on the power of image making and images themselves, because as art historians that's something we kind of continue to believe to this day. Female 2: And the power that drove people to kill each other because of the power of the image. (jazzy music)