The Aesthetics of Orthodox Faith Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, March 23-July 4, 2004 Helen C. Evans, ed., Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), exh. cat. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 658 pp., 721 color ills., 146 b/w. $75.00; $50.00 (paper)
The last centuries of the Byzantine Empire have often been characterized as a period of decline. Internal political and religious fissures, a waning share in the Mediterranean economy, the loss of regional hegemony following the Fourth Crusade of 1204, and the confrontation with burgeoning states in surrounding territories can all be cited as reasons for the ultimate collapse of the empire to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. It is this complex period in world history that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, recently addressed in its exhibition Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), the third in a series of shows devoted to the formation, development, and dissolution of this remarkable empire.1 Rather than exploring the impact of the empire's political and economic fortunes on artistic and cultural developments, the Metropolitan Museum show, as its title suggests, focused instead on the religious matrix of Eastern Orthodoxy, which bound together the largely disparate cultures of the Balkans and Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia, as well as communities in the Near East. As a result, the visitor encountered a somewhat monolithic view of the Orthodox world that minimized differences in society and culture in order to construct a sense of common religious practice. In reality, many of the cultures included in the show prayed in different languages, did not share the same liturgical traditions, answered to different ecclesiastical authorities, and, in some cases, differed substantially on matters of doctrine. The exhibition featured icons as the most prominent manifestation of Orthodox Christianity, and the show's stress on the aesthetics of faith brought viewers face to face with the holiest of figures. Set against porridgecolored and greenish blue walls, these devotional objects were presented as works of art, largely decontextualized and subjected, many for the first time, to purely art historical appreciation and scrutiny. The two previous shows read Byzantine art through its cultural contexts; the framework of this one was different. With its emphasis on the aesthetics of painting over details of religious culture and historical context, this exhibition was designed to appeal to a mass, lay audience for which such concerns may have been deemed irrelevant, uninteresting, or perhaps even offensive.
The decision to take an aesthetic approach to the material signals the difficulties attached to the contextual study of Late Byzantine art and may reveal an attempt, moreover, to avoid certain political pitfalls. More than the art of the Early Christian and Middle Byzantine periods, works and monuments of the last centuries are closely associated with modern national, cultural, and religious identities. Even today, contemporary icon and church painters most often appropriate the style of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries for the creation of byzanlinizing, that is, Orthodox, devotional images. Most notably, in recent years, the apse of St. Demetrios in Thessalonike, a critical monument of the early Byzantine period, was painted in the Late Byzantine style, a jarring renovation widely criticized by Greek art historians and archaeologists, but one promoted by the city's church leaders. The nationalistic associations of Late Byzantine art has other repercussions, which are manifested in the authorship of the catalog. Unlike the periods highlighted in the first two Metropolitan exhibitions, which are intensely studied by American and Western European scholars, the Late Byzantine period remains, to a large extent, the research area of scholars living and trained in former imperial and neighboring territories. …