New and Old: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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New and Old: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, located in New York at Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street, remains without question America's greatest historical museum. Drawing an annual attendance of well over five million persons, it ranks as the single largest tourist attraction in New York City. No athletic stadium, nor even the Empire State Building, can surpass its attendance records and popularity for young and old alike, and the crowds who go there are obviously seeking education and not just entertainment. This review will touch merely the highlights of three of its collections that have recently been embellished with noteworthy additions and/or considerable rearrangement that render them of especial interest to readers of this journal. These are the New American Wing, the Jaharis Byzantine and Egyptian Collection, and the Medieval Galleries.

Immediately upon entering the expansive New American Wing and its Englehard Court, and passing a pair of staircases from the Chicago Stock Exchange (1893-94), one encounters the magnificent pulpit and choir rail from the former building of All Angels' Church (Episcopal, West End Avenue at 81st Street, now demolished). Here we see a limestone stairway of winged angels with musical instruments or other attributes, topped by a gigantic oaken pulpit with sounding board surmounted by a trumpeting angel, all by the Austrian-American artist Karl Bitter. Bitter's sculpture was notable at the World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago 1893), the St. Louis Exposition of 1904, and the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, and it was he who designed the great doors and tympanum of Trinity Church on Wall Street.

Not pausing on this visit to enter the stunning Frank Lloyd Wright room, the New York Gothic Revival Library (c. 1859), several other period rooms (on five floors), or the neoclassical facade of the Branch Bank of the United States (originally located on Wall Street) , the visitor to the second-floor gallery is impressed by the large and colorful stainedglass window of purple and gold removed from the organ loft of the Episcopal Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity, Brooklyn (where it had been obscured since 1926). The famous artist-brothers John and William Jay Bolton (who also designed the windows of Holy Apostles Church, New York City, and later became priests in the Church of England) designed the organ between 1843 and 1848. This is one of the first major figurai stained glass windows ever produced in the United States, depicting the prophetess Miriam (with tambourine) and Jubal, considered the father of music (with recorder) , standing beneath various musical instruments and notations.

Back near the museum's main entrance on the first floor, stooping to enter the space under the Grand Staircase, one comes upon the Jaharis Byzantine and Egyptian Collection, dimly lighted because of the fragility of its ancient textiles and other materials. This crypt-like space displays the art of Byzantine Egypt from 330 to 641/42 when Egypt fell to Islam, i.e. the period after 330 when the Emperor Constantine founded Constantinople upon the site of the ancient city of Byzantium, after which Egypt was firmly under Byzantine rule until the invasion of Islam. During the period 330-641/2 there developed a separate Coptic Church in Egypt that rejected the fourth ecumenical council of Chalcedon (451) and affirmed only "one nature" of Christ which was both divine and human, a position now generally known as "miaphysite" after the terminology of St. Cyril of Alexandria. Back in the later third century, it was in Egypt that the "Great Persecution" of the Emperor Diocletian was the most severe, with the result that the Coptic Church ever since has begun its calendar not from the birth of Christ or "Anno Domini," the year of the Lord, but from the first year of Diocletian's accession to the throne, 284, or "Anno Martyrii," the year of martyrdom. …