Saturday, July 27, 2013


I have a confession to make. I am furtively and when no one is looking, a Byzantinophile to such an extent, that I await with immeasurable longing, the unmarbling of the last Emperor Constantine Palaeologus. His return will be heralded by the half-cooked fish that escaped the monkish frying pan during the Fall of the City, faithfully submitting himself to the completion of the process. At that time, all the stern, uncompromisingly monolithic looking queens immortalised in gilded mosaic upon the hallowed walls of Saint Sophia will emerge from their millennium of immurement, and will join a solemn procession through the city of Constantinople, faithfully following the strictures pertaining to protocol as set out in their infinite minuteness by Emperor Constantine Porfyrogenitos, in his handbook of court ritual: The Book of Ceremonies. Reaching the ruins of the royal palace of Bucoleon, they will ensconce themselves therein, there to be worshipped by the adoring populace.
            Ever wondered why Byzantine princesses are invariably depicted with a halo? Granted they are not saints and indeed, some of their lives are decidedly unsaintly but that seems not to be the point. Rather, one would be forgiven for thinking that they bear the nimbus because they are supposed to be worshipped. Take for instance the famous mosaic depiction of Byzantine Empress Theodora, upon the walls of the basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. There she stands, resplendent in her jewelled tiara, from which long strings of pearls cascade, holding a chalice which she hands to one of her attendants. She is impassive, imposing, immovably serene, the epitome of power, haughty and ineffably beautiful. Instead of staring at her, you feel as if she is staring at you with her inexpressive, omniscient, never faltering eyes, boring deep into your soul and compelling you to divulge your deepest, darkest secrets, exposing them to the scrutiny of her unrelenting gaze. In short she is awesome.

            This is not so bad, for a girl who, if the muckraking historian Procopius’ “Secret History” is to be believed, started off life as a prostitute, where she achieved success by finding ingenious uses for various orifices. It is this girl then, who ended up not only ruling an empire, her steely resolve causing her husband Justinian to stand his ground during the Nika riots that saw the old St Sophia burn to the ground, but also determining the religious development of Byzantium. An avid promoter of Monophysitism, her secret patronage along with the activism of Jacob Baradeus, are considered the only reason why this heresy survived Orthodox opposition. This is ironic, considering that Theodora, has been made a saint of the Orthodox church. Perhaps this is because during her reign the increase of the rights of women in the Empire was so substantial. This ice queen had laws passed that prohibited forced prostitution and closed brothels. She created a convent on the Asian side of the Dardanelles called the Metanoia or Repentance, where ex-prostitutes could support themselves. She also expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, instituted the death penalty for rape, forbade exposure of unwanted infants, gave mothers some guardianship rights over their children, and forbade the killing of a wife who committed adultery. I refer to and repeat the last sentence of the previous paragraph: She was awesome.
            Another Byzantine Empress who became a saint is portrayed on the walls of the upper gallery of Saint Sophia. Empress Irene, who was Hungarian, is portrayed in all of her regalia but uniquely, with thick plaited blonde tresses and rouged cheeks. Of all the depictions of Byzantine women, hers is perhaps the most human. Her downcast gaze and sad demeanour, a far cry from the power of Theodora still commands the respect commensurate of one who built hospitals as well as homes for the aged and the mentally ill. She also oversaw the construction of the Pantocrator Monastery in Constantinople, which stands, as well as commissioning the much venerated Vladimir icon of the Panayia. After the death of her husband, this sad and saintly Empress entered a convent.  On her deathbed, she took the name “Xene” meaning foreigner and would seem she never felt at home in the strange Greek environment, and perhaps was even homesick for her native Hungary. Hers is a kindly visage, which still strangely compels adoration.

In close proximity to Empress Irene’s mosaic, one can find that of the lovesick Empress Zoe, who exhausted various husbands and lovers in her quest for affection and to perpetuate her dynasty. The mosaic of her husband next to her is not original. When one looks carefully, one can see that his face has been superimposed upon the mosaic face of her previous husband. Zoe’s face too, luminous and downcast, is also superimposed upon that of her hated sister. It has the airbrushed quality of an ageing beauty who cannot come to terms with her perceived diminution in looks, which is understandable considering that she was a renowned beauty in her time, Michael Psellos in his Chronographia commenting that "every part of her was firm and in good condition." Aware of her charms, she meant to keep and use them for as long as possible. With typical Byzantine ingenuity, she had many rooms in her chambers converted into laboratories for the preparation of secret ointments, and she was able to keep her face free of wrinkles until she was sixty – a secret that L’Oreal would kill for today. Fifty when she first married, despite her age, she married twice more but seemed to be unable to find true love, hence the rather forlorn expression on her face. Nonetheless, her mosaic depiction, which sees her dressed in stunningly adorned fabrics inspires breathtaking reverence.
            It is this reverence, awe and adoration inspired by our Byzantine goddesses that seems to have influenced Dolce and Gabbana’s autumnal Byzantine collection. Here insipid expressionless and decidedly thinner goddesses than those of times Byzantine strut their stuff on the catwalk, adorned with beautiful regal tiaras, part saint, part principessa, huge cross earrings, and “delightfully playful” shoes, that variously incorporate rich byzantine purple or  red velvet, baroque carved platforms, and golden cage heels entwined with little floral buds. Drawing on the workmanship and allure of the painstakingly produced Byzantine mosaics, the aforementioned designers have used them for their vision of elaborately gilded and embroidered glamour. Our modern day goddesses however, can be distinguished from their Byzantine counterparts in that they seem to bear likenesses of Byzantine Empresses and saints upon their personages and fashion accessories, something that would have been unthinkable to the original protectresses of power. On the other hand, each of our modern Byzantine queens does have the blank, awesome gaze of a Theodora, and one wonders what would transpire if these mosaic-clad, tiara wearing beauties were set loose among the scholars, theologians and rulers of the world.
A parody of the conflict between iconodules, iconophiles and iconoclasts, icon-worshipers, icon-lovers and icon-destroyers seems apt in this regard and it is quite possible that Dolce and Gabbana is making a feminist point by translating the female form into that of a living icon, to be both worshipped and objectified. Are we, in keeping with iconophilic theology, supposed to worship the icon itself, or the form that the icon represents? Or are we in fact, supposed to worship the exquisite handbag that bears the image of the empress and thus becomes the icon. It is all rather confusing and not a little seductively blasphemous.
There is a story behind those female forms that adorn the garments of their models, one of passion, power, pain and the progression of a one thousand year old civilization whose effects and undertones are still with us today. Dolce Gabbana’s new creations evoke a lost world that still fills many with interminable longing. Yet if they think that they are being original, let them think again. The Byzantines invented the fashion show back in the 830’s by Emperor Theophilos, who held a fashion show of beauties in his palace, in order to choose a wife. One of the main contestants, Kassiani, was turned down for being too witty. Denied the title of Empress, she became, what else? A Saint. Theophilos’ final choice, as Empress, Theodora, ended up defeating those who fought against icons, and also became a Saint. No doubt Dolce and Gabbana’s inspired collection is a commentary on this, fashion shows, and much, much more.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 27 July 2013