“A series of one thousand years of crime, weakness, iniquity, and lack of character”: that is how Georg Hegel described the history of the Byzantine Empire. This image still exists – if there is an image at all, because the western world has almost forgotten Byzantium. In our schools, there is hardly any attention paid to the medieval empire, and in our daily conversation “Byzantine” is almost synonym to luxury, decadence, splendor, corruption, and overcomplexity.
One example may suffice: during last year’s primaries, the Republican candidate Herman Cain called for abolishing America’s “Byzantine tax system”. As a matter of fact, the Byzantines knew only two taxes: a poll tax and a land tax. Compared to this, Cain’s own 9/9/9 plan was quite, eh, Byzantine.
My fascination for Byzantium started when a friend took me to the Byzantine Museum in Thessaloniki. Since then, I have visited several other museums, churches, castles, and other monuments, in Istanbul, Greece, Syria, Israel, Italy, and Turkey. I have read several sources and once made a detour to Manzikert. So, it was inevitable that I would visit the exhibition “Das goldene Byzanz” in the Renaissance castle of Schallaburg in Austria, along the road from Munich to Vienna.
I do not regret it. There are beautiful animations, nice models (of a ship, for example), and good maps. The first thing you see is an engine that used a water-mill to saw natural stone. The number of objects is not very large, but they have been chosen well: beautiful busts, icons, and manuscripts.
Not just Byzantine objects, by the way. Sassanian, Arabian, Slavonic, and Turkish objects show Byzantium’s relations to surrounding nations. You will see both objects from daily and courtly life, although the stress is on the latter. (The title “Golden Byzantium” illustrates this.) The final room illustrates Byzantine influence on western civilization, and was the one room that might have been better: there is more to say about the subject and we also must say more about it. The catalog, on the other hand, is a good one.
If I may offer one point of criticism: the castle is a bit too small and dark for this exhibition. During my visit, two groups occupied entire rooms, making it difficult for other visitors to enjoy the many, many beautiful objects, which are certainly worth a detour.