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Divine decoration

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Byzantium Rediscovered: The Byzantine Revival in Europe and America By J B Bullen. Phaidon, 2003. 240pp. ú45

Eric Gill's views on the decoration of Westminster Cathedral, opened in 1902 but still awaiting, over 30 years later, the lining of rich mosaics that its architect J F Bentley intended, were typically straightforward.

'How beautiful the cathedral would look whitewashed, ' he said.

During the century following its completion, Westminster Cathedral has inspired admiration from many who would shudder to think of its noble, concrete-vaulted interior concealed by decoration (though the side chapels have mostly received their mosaic cladding, with varying degrees of success).

Bentley's vision was, however, of a church in the spirit of Ravenna and Venice.

Its style was, he wrote, 'early Christian Byzantine - the same in which St Sophia at Constantinople is built'. The brick and concrete internal frame, almost Brutalist in its austerity, was there to be embellished by generations to come.

Bentley (a Goth by conviction) was directed to the Byzantine style by his client, Cardinal Vaughan, for a number of reasons.

Economy counted for a lot, but equally, as J B Bullen comments, there was the belief that the cathedral, close to Westminster Abbey, occupied by the Anglicans, would 'in its allusions to an even more ancient and venerable past? have pulled the historical rug from beneath their feet'.

Over-inflated, perhaps, by Phaidon's lavish packaging (though the illustrations are generally excellent), Byzantium Rediscovered is nonetheless a useful book, bringing together the fruits of much scholarly research (including work by its author) and tracing the influence of Byzantinism internationally.

In Britain, the Gothic Revival was, in part, a conservative and nationalistic movement, which in the aftermath of the French Revolution sought inspiration in native models as opposed to the 'international style' of Classicism. By the 1850s, however, GE Street, having travelled extensively in Italy, condemned the 'cold, colourless, insipid' character of much recent architecture in England - 'our people have no conception of the necessity of obtaining rich colour and no sufficient love for it when successfully obtained, ' he argued.

In England, at least, the taste for the Byzantine had its roots in the work of Street, Butterfield and that most exotic and eclectic ofGoths, William Burges. There had been earlier experiments in the Romanesque and 'Early Christian' styles - Sara Losh's church at Wreay, Cumbria, for example, or the basilican church at Wilton, Wiltshire.

(For some reason, its architect, T H Wyatt, escapes Bullen's notice. ) But the decisive influence was, of course, that of Ruskin - the source of inspiration for Morris, Lethaby and the Arts and Crafts, with its interest in Byzantium as a vigorous alternative to the stale politeness of much Gothic and 'Queen Anne' work. There was a sensuality and exoticism about the Byzantine that challenged academic traditions and found its finest expression in the work of Henry Wilson, whose baldachino in St Bartholomew's, Brighton, is one of the most sensational pieces of church furnishing in Britain.

The Gothic Revival had shallower roots in France, where Paul Abadie's great basilica of Sacre Coeur on the hill of Montmartre drew on Southern French and Oriental, as well as Byzantine, sources, and Vaudoyer's Romano-Byzantine shrine of Notre Dame de la Garde dominates the skyline above Marseilles. In Germany, the search for pure and primitive artistic models generated not only the Nazarene school of painting but also exercises in Early Christian architecture by Klenze, Persius and others - the 1880s throne room at Ludwig II's Neuschwanstein resembles a Norman chapel in Sicily.

Bullen's discussion of the relationship between Byzantinism and the work of Ludwig's great protÚgÚ, Richard Wagner, is informed and there are illuminating, if brief, excursions into the fields of painting and literature. By the end of the 19th century, western European travellers and scholars had opened up the cultures of the Near and Middle East to a wide public. The Byzantine Revival, as Bullen says, had an 'underground life' that extended across the cultural spectrum.

Architecturally, Byzantinism found its most extensive expression in North America.

E A Freeman thought H H Richardson's New York Capitol at Albany, NY, 'worthy to stand in Ragusa'. In America, the Byzantine style had no confessional undertones - it could be used for Methodist churches, Catholic shrines or synagogues. In the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany, however, it found an artist with the ability to merge Byzantine and Art Nouveau to staggering effect and a clientele with the ability to fund decorative projects that, in sheer self-indulgence and excess, might have appealed to the Empress Theodora herself.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist

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