Gabriel Millet (1867–1953) established Byzantine art history and archaeology as an academic field in France at the turn of the twentieth century. Trained in classics and history, he was hired at the École française d’Athènes (1891) and eventually appointed to the École pratique des Hautes Études in charge of teaching “Byzantine Christianity” (1899). His career culminated in his election to the Collège de France (1926) and the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (1929), the highest academic distinctions in France, which greatly contributed to strengthening the field.
Prompted to study the afterlife of Hellenism in the Christian Roman Empire by Théophile Homolle, his mentor at the École française d’Athènes, Millet developed his area of study in the wake of a series of classicists who first explored medieval Greece, such as Charles Diehl, Charles Bayet and Paul Perdrizet; he was strongly influenced by the Russian school of Byzantine art history—in particular, by Nikodim Pavlovitch Kondakov. Millet’s scholarship is associated with some of the most significant sites of the Byzantine world such as the Byzantine city of Mistra and the monastery of Daphni near Athens; the city of Trebizond, for which he gathered the first systematic record of the Byzantine monuments after his fieldwork in 1893; and the monastic peninsula of Mount Athos where he carried several expeditions. He also established the framework for the study of the religious architecture and painting of medieval Serbia. In his seminal works, both published in 1916, Recherches sur l’iconographie de l’évangile and l’École grecque dans l’architecture byzantine, Millet attempted the first global approaches to Byzantine iconography and church building. Although these publications are now outdated in many respects, they still provide valuable observations and visual documentation of sites and places.
Millet proved extremely active and productive in recording the arts of medieval Byzantium. The photographs that form the core of his Byzantine and Christian collection attest to his enduring passion for the camera and reflect the broad network of scholars and artists who contributed views from all over the Mediterranean and the Near East. More importantly, they illustrate an encyclopedic and systematic approach to the arts of the Byzantine world and its comprehensive study within the context of European civilization. Photography was Millet’s primary medium for study, publication, and teaching, but it was constrained by the process’s uncertainties and the unavailability of color. Photographs often provided the source of drawings in which scholars—mainly Sophie Millet, the scholar’s wife and lifetime companion—rendered images of damaged, obscure, or complex subjects in an informative and legible way in support of the author’s study.
Millet visited Istanbul but has not carried any fieldwork in Turkey except from his first expedition in Trebizond. He has not photographed the monuments of the Byzantine capital but photographs were supplied thanks to his network and the support of the EPHE. Thus, the Collection holds a series of prints from the most renown professional photographers of the Ottoman Empire, Abdullah Frères, Sébah & Joaillier, Guillaume Berggren. After the acquisition of a first set bequeathed by the reverend Louis Petit between 1901 and 1903, Millet purchased two lots of prints from the Sébah between 1907 and 1909. Apart from views of former Byzantine churches, these prints comprise pictures of the mosaics of the Chora Monastery that come to supplement photographs by Nikodim Kondakov, while a series of glass plates by General de Beylié record views of neighborhoods with civilian and domestic architecture.
Ioanna Rapti, Directeur d’études, Section des Sciences Religieuses, École Pratique des Hautes-Études (EPHE)
*This article is published in From Istanbul to Byzantium: Paths to Rediscovery, 1800-1955 exhibition catalogue.