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Byzantine Art Exhibit Opens in New York - 2002-11-09


A new exhibition of post-Byzantine art at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York showcases a frequently overlooked body of Greek art, and features works never before seen in the United States.

Constantinople present day Istanbul, fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, a watershed event of the Middle Ages, marking the end of the Byzantine Empire. All of what is today Greece remained subject to foreign domination until the Greek War of Independence of 1821-1827, which resulted in a free Greek State.

The exhibition at the Onassis Foundation, called "Post Byzantium: The Greek Renaissance", celebrates the art created by Byzantine artists during this four-century-long "occupation".

The work of this period, sometimes called "Byzantine after Byzantine", is little known, particularly to the non-Greek public. Art historians have typically focused their attention to the art of the 15th to 18th Century on the Renaissance in Western Europe.

Stelio Papadimitriou, President of the Onassis Foundation, says he believes the reasons for this oversight are largely political.

"Western art was holding the power, and could promote itself," he said. "The Greeks, after the fall of Byzantium, were subjected to the Turkish, Ottoman Empire for half a millennium, 500 Years. Greek language was banished, Greek art was excluded and thrown out into the outskirts of mainland Greece. It was persecuted."

Mr. Papadimitriou says that Western artists as recent as Pablo Picasso "owe a great debt" to the Byzantine tradition.

Despite "persecution", Byzantine artists remained active and, in large part, unchanged after the fall. Like Byzantine Art, Post-Byzantine art is Christian devotional. Under Ottoman rule, the Eastern Orthodox Church continued to serve as a cohesive social and cultural institution, and made sure that artistic production remained reverent of Christ's teachings.

The New York exhibition's 54 icons, triptychs, wall paintings, textiles, and books include a wooden benediction cross from the 18th Century just 33 centimeters in height inlaid with tiny, intricately detailed carvings of Christ on the cross surrounded by his disciples, and then adorned with silver gilt and precious stones.

An eight-centimeter-tall gilded-silver triptych, an ornamental box that opens to three panels, features minute carvings of the Virgin Mary that, one imagines, must have heavily taxed the artist's eyes. The gold embroidered ecclesiastical garments on hand are equally impressive.

Greek art historian Professor Dimitri Catsarelias says the connection between Post-Byzantine work and the Renaissance art it spawned is obvious.

"In these artifacts you can see all of the characteristics of the Renaissance. Most of the icons are from Crete, and the society of Crete was a Venetian society, a society under the Italian renaissance," Professor Catsarelias said. "They use all of the techniques of the Renaissance."

In fact, Byzantine writers and artists had begun gathering in Italy well before 1453, and Venice came to be known as "the second Byzantium".

Although much of the exhibit was displayed in Italy a few years ago, it has rarely been seen outside Greece and never before appeared in the United States. Professor Catsarelias says the exhibition title, "The Greek Renaissance" has a dual meaning. It refers both to the survival of Byzantine tradition after the fall of Constantinople and to its current "revival" in the eyes of the world's public.

Byron Polydoras, a member of the Greek Parliament in New York for the opening of the exhibition, believes it is important for the exhibit to reach a larger audience because it clearly illustrates that much of the world's population has similar cultural origins.

"From Constantinople after the fall, great volumes of spirit, mind, culture, and thought came to Western Europe, and this spiritual material was the ground on which the Renaissance of western Europe in Italy and in other countries came up," Mr. Polydoras said. "So we can say that it is cultural diplomacy to discuss at this exhibition, the common roots of the universal culture. The points of meeting, the common system of reference. I feel, as a politician, that we need to find points of meeting instead of points of difference."

The pieces in the exhibit are on loan from the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens, Greece, and will be on display in New York until early next year.

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