Sunday, December 6, 2015

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis, Occasio Praeceps...

This post was inspired by the exhibit Life is Short, Art Long: The Art of Healing in Byzantium at Pera Museum in Istanbul in 2015.
Hippocrates holding open the page that displays the first lines of his Aphorisms:
"Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting."
Our world is sick and in need of serious healing...
Not a day goes by when we do not encounter another atrocity where innocent lives are taken due to pointless acts of aggression in the name of religion, greed or even 15 minutes of fame. Divisive politics that encourage racism, sexism, intolerance and hatred for views and people other than their own, only aggravates the situation even more. While a multitude of psychopathic terrorist groups are wreaking havoc in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and Asia, mass-shootings are becoming a weekly occurrence in America. Combined with the tragic fate of the refugees trying to escape from war-torn countries facing death, humiliation and rejection, it is almost hard to believe we live in a civilized, advanced world.

Upper Jaw of one of the three Serpent's heads from the Delphic Column at Constantinople, Hippodrome                
(Istanbul Archaeology Museums)
While the governments, armies and politicians seem to be powerless or unwilling to solve any of these problems, the ordinary citizens have become spectators recalling the crowds at public executions from bygone eras. We are all glued to our computer screens, following the latest breaking news, minute by minute, as it unfolds before our eyes, riveted yet helpless to do anything about it.

Oil Lamp in the Shape of a Sandaled Right Foot, 1st-2nd cent.
(Istanbul Archaeology Museums)

But what is the ordinary citizen of the world to do? Do we cower and hide, do we take to the streets and protest, do we "follow" and "share" the news... can we combat the violence and senseless killings or the venom spewed on tv screens by hate-mongers with any of these? I fear not but giving up is not an option.  We have to find the strength and, in the apt words of Margaret Mead, ways of "cherishing the life of the world."

Works of Hippocrates, ca. 1338 (text), 1341-1345 (illuminations)
(Paris, Bibliothèque national de France)          
Provenance: Istanbul, Topkapi Palace Library
At times like these, it can be hard to go back to one's normal life. Focusing on interests that are not related to the events taking place all around us may seems disrespectful and insensitive.  As much as I love art and culture, I worry it may seem frivolous at a time when human lives are being extinguished by ideologies as well as deadly weapons. Some may question the emphasis we put on saving antiquitites and mourning the destruction of cultural heritage sites when the annihilation of millions of people are at stake.

Sarcophagus Facade with the Healing of the Blind Man, Late 4th- early 5th Century
(Istanbul Archaeology Museums)
Knowledge is power and garnering more insight about "the other" may be the only way to greater compassion and tolerance. Art and culture as the manifestations of societies past and present help to demonstrate our similarities as well as the fascinating differences that make this world a better, more interesting place. Knowledge about the past is fundamental in understanding the multidimensional present and art, cultural artifacts and heritage sites are humanity's connection to our world.

Medallion with the Healing Miracles of Christ, 6th - early 7th century
(Istanbul Archaeology Museums)
As an art historian interested in the art and culture of civilizations past and present, I feel it is my duty to share the knowledge I garner in order to bring about a greater understanding of our world and the people in it. Having said all that, this is my defiance,  my protest, my activism against a world being taken over by violence, prejudice, bigotry, and gross injustice... As in the words of the 4th century B.C.E. Greek physician, Hippocrates... "Ars Longa, Vita Brevis, Occasio Praeceps..."  Art is long, Life Short, Opportunity Fleeting... The opening lines of of his Aphorisms, the author was probably referring to the fleetingness of one's life in comparison to the longevity of their art (life's work). We should all take this to heart, no matter what we do. In order to combat ignorance, extremism and intolerance induced violence I propose we go on learning and sharing that knowledge.

Icon of the physician saints Kosmas and Damian, Last quarter of 14th century
(Kastoria, Byzantine Museum)
The young saints, standing on either side of their mother, Theodote, hold a lancet 
in one hand and a case for medical instruments in the other. 
The images I include with this post are from an exhibition held earlier this year at Pera Museum in Istanbul, Life is Short, Art Long: The Art of Healing in Byzantium. This exhibition encompassing a timeline from Late Antiquity to Late Byzantine period demonstrated the coexistence of magic, faith and rational medicine at the same time in Byzantium. The objects on display had as wide a range as the methods used for healing, from the 2,500 year old serpent's head from the Serpent's Column to icons of saints, reliquaries, and amulets to medical equipment, plants and ancient and medieval manuscripts. These objects used in "the art of healing" not only administered health but also hope. I think art may do the same for us today.
The  cock-headed, snake-legged being often identified as Abrasax is among the most popular images found on magical gems of the third and fourth centuries. Abrasax is the manifestation of a transcending impersonal divinity serving as a conduit of divine power. The seven letters in "Abrasax" have a numerical value that adds up to the magic number 365, enhancing the being's solar element.  *
Intaglio with Abrasax, 3rd - 4th Century
(Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France)

The Magic of King Solomon 
Jewish belief holds that a seal ring engraved with the name of God bestowed on the wise biblical King Solomon the power to subjugate and control demons. On late antique and medieval amulets, Solomon is often depicted as a victorious horseman spearing a female demon. Hematite, a mineral form of iron oxid these amulets were associated with uterine health as well as treating gastric problems. *

Amulet with Solomon, Christ Emmanuel,
and cosmic symbols, 6th - 7th century
(Bibliothèque nationale de France)
Intaglio of Solomon on horseback piercing
a female demon, 4th - 5th century
(Bibliothèque nationale de France)

The foot shape was used as a talisman and invested with the powers of protection, prosperity, and good fortune. Stamps of this type may have been printed on blessed bread or on clay vessels with the purpose of attracting divine blessings. *

Terracotta Bread Stamp for Blessings Distributed at Church, 6th century
Bronze Foot-shaped stamp, 6th-7th century
(Istanbul Archaeological Museums)

Double-sided icon of the Virgin Hodegetria and St. Theodore Teron
Constantinople, Late 14th century
(Istanbul, Greek Patriarchate)

Poorly preserved front side of this processional icon show the fragmentary features of the Hodegetria and child with two angels above. This image refers to the wonder-working prototype housed in the Hodegon Monastery, which had a spring used in curing of the blind. Palaiotologan emperors expressed their devotion to the Hodegetria icon, the protector of Constantinople. 
 On the other side of the icon, showing the holy warrior on his white mount piercing the dragon, bears witness to the creative skills and innovative tendency of the Constantinopolitan artist, who also betrays an interest in Western references. St. Theodore's victory against the dragon held universal appeal and offered deliverance from all manner of suffering.
The icon is one of the rare representations of late 14th century icon painting in the imperial capital and still preserved in the city where it was made. *

* Exhibition Labels,  Life is Short, Art Long: The Art of Healing in Byzantium,  Pera Museum, Istanbul, 11 February - 26 April 2015 (link)


  1. Thanks for this, Sedef - I definitely have the same struggle! You may have done what I thought it was impossible to do - to start writing on my blog again - with the goal of continuing the learn and share. Keep on writing, sister!

    1. make that "- inspired me to start writing on my blog again" (even editors need editors!) :)

    2. Thank you Karen, I will be looking out for your posts. This will be our contribution to the peace effort. :)


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