Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The Religious Relationship between Byzantium and the West

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During the Late Byzantine period, church authorities made efforts to unify the Latin and Greek churches. After the Fourth Crusade of 1204, the break between the two churches was considered definitive. For two centuries, various attempts were made to reconcile the breach, but the Latin domination of Byzantium and certain theological issues rendered these aspirations ineffective. In 1274, Michael VIII Palaiologos and Pope Gregory X held the Council of Lyon to discuss a formal union. Michael's representatives swore obedience to the Roman church and its faith. While politically useful, great resistance within the Byzantine population spurred repudiation of the settlement eleven years later. Another meeting occurred in 1438, when Pope Eugenius IV met with Emperor John VIII Palaiologos. The emperor brought with him the most esteemed Byzantine intellectuals of the day, including Joseph II and Bessarion, who would remain in Italy promoting the cause of union after being ordained a Roman cardinal. Meeting in Ferrara until an outbreak of the plague forced the assembly to move to Florence, the members debated issues such as primal papacy and purgatory. Political as well as theological issues were at stake. The papacy hoped for political subordination of the Byzantine empire. The Byzantines wanted military aid against the Turks. The union decree of the July 6, 1439, proved ephemeral and, after the collapse of the empire, the Byzantine church renounced the agreement.


While attempts at official union between the churches were not wholly successful, compromise and exchange were widespread in the arts.

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While attempts at official union between the churches were not wholly successful, compromise and exchange were widespread in the arts. Byzantine and Western artists adopted styles and compositions from each other in both monumental decorations and panel painting. One center of artistic exchange was the city of Candia, the capital of Venetian-owned Crete. The icon of Christ Bearing the Cross (29.158.746) by Nicolaos Tzafouris reveals a great mixture and exchange of artistic ideas. For example, the artist signs his name in Latin but writes the title of the scene in Greek. The rock formations are typically Byzantine, while the iconography of the scene is distinctly Italian.

Annie Labatt
Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art