Saturday, 30 January 2010

Delacroix 'Taking of Constantinople by the Crusaders'

I thought I might blog about various masterpieces of western art, and the responses I find they provoke. I'll start with Delacroix's famous painting 'Taking of Constantinople by the Crusaders', also called 'The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople'. The painting was exhibited in the 1841 Salon. I have a special interest in the subject-matter of this one, being interested both in medieval Crusade history and in the Romantic movement.

The painting depicts a generic scene in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, in 1204. The Historian Sir Steven Runciman wrote in the 1930s that there 'never was a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.' The Crusades had been launched, in the first place, partly in the name of bolstering the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire against the Turkish threat. Just over a century later, an army of Crusaders captured and plundered the Byzantine capital- the Queen of Cities- the greatest metropolis in Christendom, and subjugated the people they were supposed to defend. The knights of the Fourth Crusade had ostensibly set out to recover the Holy City of Jerusalem (won for Christendom by their First Crusade ancestors, but lost to Saladin in the 1170s, and still in Muslim hands despite the best efforts of Richard I and the Third Crusade). The original strategy was to have been an attack on Egypt to weaken the Muslim power and to secure the return of Jerusalem. However the Crusaders first fell into debt to the Venetians and then became embroiled in a dynastic feud among the Byzantine royal house. The outcome of all this was the diversion of the Crusade and the capture and colonization of Constantinople. Famous relics and treasures were looted or lost as a result of the capture, and destructive fires raged. One of the Frankish Barons, Baldwin of Flanders, was duly crowned the first Emperor of a new Latin territory. This territory was not destined to prosper, and only distracted from the cause of the Crusades. The episode caused lasting resentment of the west by the Greek Christians. Though the Greeks temporarily recovered Constantinople they would never regain their previous strength or glory. The Fourth Crusade therefore contributed the final collapse of Eastern Christendom, which may account for the harsh verdict from Byzantine-admirer Runciman.
Delacroix's depiction of the scene is somewhat more ambiguous in its verdict. This is understandable given his nationality, and the fact that the Fourth Crusade was a largely French affair. His crusaders, in their theatrical panoply, and with their streaming banners, are undeniably triumphant in the scene- but, with their grim, shadowed faces, hardly seen heroic. The viewer's sympathy is with the frightened and desolate Greek citizens; much as it is in Massacre of Chios- an 1824 painting of a contemporary event, revealing of the artist's pro-Hellenism. As with this picture there is an almost sensual approach to the depicting of the female victims of the violence, which was also part of the Romantic/Orientalist approach, again evident in Delacroix's Sardanapolus. Sardanapolus is another piece of Byronic inspiration (where the dying despot looks on as his concubines- and his horses- are put to the sword). These death orgies are not exactly comfortable viewing, and yet they contain moving beauty as well as eroticism, and inspire pity. The combination of opulence, languor, drama, suffering and tragedy was a hallmark of Delacroix. The voluptuousness is also present in the Constantinople piece (for example the bare-backed woman mourning over the body of another female in the foreground), but the over-riding sense is of bitterness. The painting evokes a bitter episode, and therefore has to be a little repulsive. It may be remarked that the behaviour of the Crusaders in Constantinople was no worse than their forebears behaviour on the first Crusade, such as the massacres in Antioch and Jerusalem. The fact that the Fourth Crusade culminated in a great betrayal and an assault on fellow-Christians, however, somehow makes it stand out for its ignominy. As befits its subject, Delacroix's painting leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

The Fourth Crusade was called by Innocnet III (my least favourite Pope, with the possible exception of Clement V). In 1209, Innocent summoned the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars in Southern France. This campaign came to be dominated by Simon de Montfort, who had quit the Fourth Crusade after disagreeing with the decision to accack Zara for the Venetians, before the move on Constantinople. I have produced a painting of De Montfort at the siege of Carcassonne, which can be seen here...
Siege of Carcassonne CS by *dashinvaine on deviantART

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