A new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is perhaps the largest show ever assembled of late-Byzantine art, with works created in the medieval empire that extended from what is now Russia and Ukraine, to the Balkan states, to Turkey, Greece and Egypt. Byzantium: Faith and Power is on view through July 4.
Byzantium, the eastern half of the Roman Empire, has been called the most brilliant of medieval civilizations. At its height, the thousand-year Byzantine empire encompassed lands ranging from what is now Russia to Egypt. Its capital was Constantinople, the ?New Rome? ? the city that is now Istanbul, Turkey. Founded upon Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the works created by Byzantium?s far-flung artists were in the service of that mystical faith.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art?s vast new show of late-Byzantine art begins in 1261 and ends in 1557, a century after Byzantium had fallen to the Ottoman Turks. ?What we have done,? says curator Helen Evans, ?is to bring together not only the art of the empire itself, but from all its immediate rivals, to show us how they are competing for political authority, they patronize the arts and create magnificent works of art ?most of which that survive are for the church.?
The show includes 350 paintings, mosaics, decorated manuscripts, and works in textiles, gemstones, and precious metals, even some architectural relics. Many have rarely been seen in public or never shown outside the churches or monasteries where they?ve been preserved.
?We?ve worked in one way or another on this show for seven years,? Ms. Evans says. ?We?ve borrowed from nearly 30 countries. We?ve borrowed from 123 institutions. The countries we?ve borrowed from range from Egypt in the south to Russia in the north, from Syria, to England. We have a number of works from countries that were central to the imperial Byzantine state: from modern Greece, from modern Turkey, from the states in the Balkans, Serbia, Bulgaria.?
Byzantine art looks away from the natural world, attempting instead to represent what?s eternal, divine and unchanging. The signal pieces in the show are icons, religious images thought to be holy in themselves, that are meant to be venerated. They may be icons of individual saints, like Saint Theodosia, or Russia?s patron saints, Boris and Gleb.
Ms. Evans describes one such icon, a large red and gold painting of the two saints made in the 14th century. ?This [is a] marvelous image of the two men standing with their crosses of martyrdom and their swords protecting Rus,? and dressed in robes that refer to the Byzantine world of the court, particularly the red shoes that are the Byzantine symbol of the royal family,? she explains.
Gold and gold paint were often used in the creation of this art, for light was thought to signify divine presence. Most often, the figures shown include Mary, the mother of Christ, and Jesus himself ? both as an infant and man. More than 40 precious icons and other objects were lent by the ancient Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai, Egypt. They?re displayed in a gallery specially built to resemble the sixth-century church where they usually hang.
In the 300 years covered by the Met exhibition, Serbia?s kingdom emerged as a major power in the Byzantine sphere. Serbia and Montenegro?s Museum in Belgrade, as well as the Serbian Orthodox Church, have lent a number of major pieces to the Met show, says Ms. Evans.
?Monumental and important works that speak for this culture at its peak, and also speak for the whole of the Byzantine sphere," she says. "This rosette window is an architectural fragment, as the label shows, from a large building ? so that people coming to the show have a sense of the scale of the architecture of the period, they don?t see Byzantium as only small and delicate objects.?
Byzantine art also influenced ? and was influenced by ? Islamic culture. And as the last two galleries of the Met show illustrate, western European art of the Renaissance was in turn influenced by the Byzantine aesthetic ? as can be seen in the work of El Greco, a Spanish artist, born in Crete, who began as an icon painter.