Going to Byzantium: Art and Spirituality Converge in the Met's Dazzling Exhibit of Byzantine Art

By Giles, Patrick | National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 2004 | Go to article overview

Going to Byzantium: Art and Spirituality Converge in the Met's Dazzling Exhibit of Byzantine Art


Giles, Patrick, National Catholic Reporter


One of the largest, most demanding exhibitions I have ever seen, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)," is also the quietest. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the galleries were as silent as any church.

Why the hush? Certainly it was stimulated by the art, all of it religious in origin and style. It's not appropriate to tell jokes in front of an icon of the Dormition (the laying-out of the deceased Mary) or the Anastasis (the harrowing of Hell, Christ pulling Adam and Eve from death). Chatting about where you should lunch before a 14th-century mosaic icon holding a hundred fragments of saints is also not acceptable, even in New York. (Unfortunately, the museum doesn't list which saints' remains are included; perhaps no one knows.) As viewers reflect on the more than 350 icons, altar linens, vestments, jewelry, ceramics, coins, frescoes, manuscripts and reliquaries on view, a stunned amazement seems to deepen into intent, even devout, concentration. "Byzantium" feels like an immersion into a part of your own faith and family you previously knew little about.

"Did you learn about any of this in school?" one woman, obviously brought up Catholic, whispered to a friend. "I don't even remember hearing 'Byzantium' at Holy Cross," was the answer. Their experience isn't atypical. In 13 years of Catholic education, I can recall only one teacher who censured student essays for their "Byzantine complexity" and another who read us William Butler Yeats' poem "Sailing to Byzantium." Neither mention told me much about this civilization that ruled Christianity, preserving ancient Greek and Roman culture for the West, as well as leaving us its own unparalleled cultural bounty.

Once the holiest city in Christendom, hailed as "Heaven on earth" and "the envy of the world," Constantinople, founded in 330 A.D. by Emperor Constantine the Great, was called basileia ton Rhomaion, empire of the Romans, by its citizens. Eighty-eight emperors ruled over, and millions of true believers lived in Constantinople, the busiest city and seaport of its day and capital of Byzantium. (The term "Byzantium" was coined by a scholar more than a century after the fall of the empire.) Western witnesses to Constantinople's weekly processions in which royals and subjects prayed and sang while carrying their holiest icons, or who attended services at the resplendent cathedral Hagia Sophia, now a mosque, reported on the opulent reverence bedazzling Byzantine life. "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth," 10th-century emissaries from Prince Vladimir of Russia wrote home, "for on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty and we are at a loss to describe it." (Prince Vladimir joined the Byzantine church, bringing his country along with him.)

Byzantine Christianity is also the lost relative of Roman Catholicism--lost when Byzantium lived (longstanding rivalry between the two Christian outposts led to the Great Schism of 1058), and lost because of centuries of misperception and neglect in history books. Many Catholics were taught that Rome was the only historical seat of Christianity. Byzantium, when mentioned at all, was a curiosity whose denizens spoke Greek rather than Latin, overindulged in fine silks and spices, and idolized strange-looking mosaics and paintings. Edward Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, found Byzantines barbarian and perverted, a judgment Europe accepted until the late 19th century when painters rediscovered Byzantine art and historians began to unearth its true history--a task that continues and from which this exhibit profits so remarkably.

The Metropolitan Museum's latest offering is the third in a series that has taken a quarter-century to complete. The museum's 1977 exhibit The Age of Spirituality covered the civilization's inception; 1997's The Glory of Byzantium brought the empire to its climax, from the conclusion of the Iconoclasm in 843 to Constantinople's invasion by Venetian sailors and European Crusaders in 1206. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Going to Byzantium: Art and Spirituality Converge in the Met's Dazzling Exhibit of Byzantine Art
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.