Byzantine Creativity

Byzantium! The eastern roman capital, that survived until the Turks made it Istanbul.


Early Christians in the Thousand Year Empire

In Twentieth Century Poetry, it holds a beloved place.

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
from Byzantium, W.B. Yeats
That has in it the Sufic mysteries I spoke of yesterday. Today, let’s go north. Back in 2008, in the former coal mining city of Recklinghausen, in what is now Germany, I walked into the oldest house in town.

I was on my way to discover the Northern Orient on the via regia, the King’s Way, the Old Salt Road to Minsk. This “Northern Orient” was a concept I had invented on a previous trip to Dresden via Eisenach. I’d read about Islamic scholars, walking through town, in conversation with German monks, on their way to the Rhine, the great roman cathedral of Worms, and the University of Heidelberg, and back, and I saw this bath at the Wartburg Castle, ostensibly for knights who had returned from the Crusades.

P1170328_2The Wartburg is where Germany began in a song by the minstrel Walther von der Vogelweide:


I wanted to see more. Who wouldn’t!


“Go see the Russians,” an uncle told me. “Germany was once an eastern country. Our family has closer ties to Russia than to the West.” I did not understand that, coming from Kanada and all.


Home Sweet Home!

Or maybe I did. This is what I found, across from the Recklinghausen church, with pigeons pecking at the cobbles outside and old women shuffling past with mesh shopping bags, in a cold spring wind…



The Ikon Museum of Recklinghausen

I eventually worked out that the Northern Orient I had been searching for was modern, a re-creation of a dream that never was…

P1170329 … built within a dream that was heavily reconstructed itself. Look at the generations of reconstruction in the Wartburg facade below!P1170323


Still, the roots of those romanesque arches aren’t Western. Yes, they come from Rome, and Rome? It wasn’t a western state. It was a pan-Mediterranean culture, and so was  Germany until modern times.


Emperor Barbarossa’s Camelot in Gelnhausen, Hessen

This greatest of all German Emperors earned his glory by being an enforcer for the Pope against secessionist  German princes and died during an invasion of the Holy Land. His civilization was Roman, and Mediterranean, and included at its heart, the Orient: Byzantium.

Who wouldn’t want to follow that trail East!



Well, I didn’t find the northern orient I was looking for. It’s a dream of keeping something alive that is long gone. It is a beautiful and powerful social force. What I found in its place was something even more essential. I found Byzantium itself, right there in Recklinghausen. I found the Ikons.


Each ikon is painted 50 times — it’s a devotional practice — with wax or enamel. Because of bitter war in early Christian Byzantium over whether it was a sin or not to paint an image of God, who was, after all, nameless and unknowable and so could not be constrained into an image, the figures in icons are stock images, meant not to represent saints or holy men or Christ or Mary but to be symbolic representatives of belief, only. This got the images past the censors, and after Russia took up the craft …


… and much time passed, it became clear that the central image in the art of the Ikon was the image of resurrection, of life springing from the dead land, or Easter, as this ancient, pre-Christian motif, springing up in Christianity and renewed by it, is known in Christian tradition:


This force of contemplation lies behind each and every ikon.  Ikons don’t show Heaven and Earth divided, with spirits working as intermediaries, as Western images do …


The Crucifixion of St. Peter, Nathalie Motter Masselink

… but are Heaven revealed here and now without intermediary.


This is Not an Image of Heaven

In fact, it is not an image. It is a devotion that, matching the original saintly devotion (here of Mary and Jesus) is their presence.

The traditional, non representative forms of the figures fill the space the Western tradition fills with character and plot. There is no plot, or story, in the Byzantine, or Orthodox, tradition. There are moments of clarity and entrance. These resemble very closely the moments of appearing, disappearing and cascading wisdom and artfulness I spoke about yesterday in regards to my book of sufic verse, Two Minds,


There is, however, a difference, and that has to do with that notion of resurrection. It is at the centre of this art. I learned it by walking out the door of the Recklinghausen Ikon Museum, into that cold spring wind. For five minutes, I walked through a spiritual earth. Everything was bursting with this force: the old woman, the pigeons, the cobbles, the church wall, the weeds bursting between the stones, the weeds reaching up beneath the chain link fence across from the Kindergarten, the bell ringing on the church, clouds in the air, myself walking: it was all this force of becoming, but a becoming that had no direction, that was, that was there, present as it had always been present, and I had entered it. I was not to know that at that moment my life had changed. Everything that followed was an unfolding of this energy. I met many characters along the via regia: St. Elisabeth of Hungary, who served the poor in Eisenach…


… St. George and his dragon …


… Artemis…


 In the Byzantine Imagination, Words are Images.

(A glimpse into a poem I wrote after coming back from the via regia.)

…the Muse Clio and her entourage…



… a dryad …


Erfurt Cathedral

… Barbarossa …



… a toppled old fool …


Paul von Hindenburg, Where the Russians Buried Him in 1945 Kyffhäuser

No one wants him back. Not even the Neo-Nazis who come in tour busses to this place.

… and many many others, including, of course, Khedr …


Some of these characters were living momentarily within statues. Many others, for which I have no photographs, were people, including Artemis, St. George’s Dragon and the Devil in his red sports car in the tangled alleys of Bautzen. I asked a poet I know from the East, if this was just my recognition, through family memory, of Eastern visual metaphors, or if it was the East itself. “It is,” she said, “the way it is for all people on earth except for those who live in the West. This is the human experience.” I asked, “Why is it different in the West?” She answered, “Because it’s too busy. There are too many distractions.” In other words, the structures of the self and the thought in the West block the riches of living at one with the world. There are sure lots of these distractions.


Buchenwald Memorial on “The Road of Blood” Above Weimar

Far too many distractions.



How’s a sleeping emperor supposed to think?

Distractions that turn stories of mercy into stories of individual human suffering.


Calderon’s “St. Elizabeth of Hungary”

After the arrival of humanism, the roses of her miracle are gone. What is left is disrespectful, physical, and cruel.

One painter who made the transition from East to West is Marc Chagall, who fled the Russian Revolution for Paris, adapted the non-linear narrative structures of ikons to French Art, et voilà!

chagall-rain-1911 An Old Testament Idyll

Marc- Adam and Eve


Christ Announcing Apocalypse

Those are my titles, but you get the drift. Objects appear in these paintings after the manner of the sacred figures in an ikon…


… arranged not by a conception of “nature” or “natural space” or “physical perspective”, but by an arrangement of “spiritual perspective.” This iconic world is relational, and the spatial relationships between objects in it, or people, or figures from folk tale, have life to the degree to which they approach a story that is already present and is everywhere, such as, I would like to point out, this moment (not this spot) in Yellowstone…

P2060135 copy … and this one ….cupped … and this one in Blackfoot Country to the North.P2070538

There are hundreds of millions of these moments in every space, or hundreds of millions of these spaces in every moment.


Paradis, Jena

An old etching lives on.

Their story of total presence is a human story. What humans walk through when walking through presence like this is themselves, but that self is far more than human.


Christian Showing Me the Way through a Cherry Orchard in the Zurich Overland

It is bursting to life in every moment, from a well of energy, that consists mostly of rest and expectation. One has to be open to the energy that is given…


Cistern Spring, Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone

… and one must give thanks. In the Recklinghausen Ikon Museum, these mysteries are revealed in light. It was a way of celebrating the return of the town’s sons and fathers from imprisonment in Russia in 1956, a commemoration of the town’s daily rise from the darkness of the coal mines, and of its reconstruction from the ruins of 1945. In the Ikons’ natural environment, they live in darkness. Candle light catches their gold, they flicker with the life of light, and draw you to it.


In the Byzantine way, and the way that became the Northern Orient, the sufferings and punishment of St. Elizabeth (for giving her food to poor and denying her own body, which was slated for the king’s bed, while she was in widow’s grief after her husband was killed in Barbarossa’s senseless and bungled Crusade) takes on this form:


St. Elizabeth’s Chamber in the Wartburg

Sure, it’s a 19th century embellishment, but that’s the wrong way to look at it. It is a space of honour, in which energy can gather, be concentrated, and from which it can be carried away, and from which the energy never dissipates. It is not a mystery but it is mystery, like this:


Mare, Reykjanes, Ísland

That is a unified conception of word, image, thought, body, space, time, life, earth and transcendence. These are valuable forces. They are the forces of growth, renewal and becoming. They are not to be scoffed at. The via regia leads to the Byzantine expression of this energy, at the crossroads of East and West. Here are two images of this ancient European road, with differing views of what it created.


Via Regia near Marienstern Convent, Saxony

That is not land you’re looking at there. It is a way.


Via Regia, Downtown Naumburg, Saxon-Anhalt

That is not a city you are looking at there. It is a road.

It was a long journey for me to realize that as artful as the reconstructions of the Wartburg were in the 19th century, the gesture of coming home from the Crusades, of being home and opening all the world from there, was of more value than the physical story the Crusades told and tried to enact, and did more for people and the earth. One enters the space by paying attention. Until then, one walks on. At some point, every pilgrim must stop walking.


Sacred Celtic Forest Above the Rhine

The old language of the trees is still spoken here. Each footstep is taken through it. It goes on speaking once one has passed, just like a sufic poem or an Orthodox ikon, or a continual offer to stay with the life of the world.

A true pilgrim stays.


Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875-1926, Rauron Village Church, Valais

Thank you.


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