Hazy View of Byzantine `Glory': Unfocused Show Shortchanges Powerful Works

Article excerpt

Among the more than 350 borrowed Byzantine Empire treasures at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art is the gleaming, vividly painted image of St. Gregory of Nazianzos. The earnest, gray-haired and bearded bishop leans over to pen one of his famous sermons. Like an evangelist, the fourth-century Gregory writes in his study, with Christ coaching him from above.

Created in the 12th century, when medieval scholars popularized Gregory's sermons, this manuscript page is an extraordinary piece in the plethora of important images in "The Glory of Byzantium" exhibit.

This huge show - global in the scope of its loans and expansive in the art displayed from Byzantine countries and territories - is at the museum through July 6. It will not travel.

While the painting honors the bishop in radiant colors, it's the fairytale-like architecture around him that amazes. The image seems like a fantasy of domes, pillars, towers and arches from some artist's imagination. Actually, as co-curator Helen Evans writes in the weighty catalog, it evokes a 12th-century monastery where Byzantine emperors were buried.

It's this mixture of fantasy and realism that characterizes the museum's impressive, one-of-a-kind exhibit. Surveying what is usually called the Second Golden Age of Byzantine civilization, from A.D. 843 to 1261, the show ranges widely over both time and space, extending south and west from the Mediterranean basin of Greece, Spain, North Africa and Italy, north to what would become Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Armenia and parts of Russia, and even farther afield to England, France and Denmark. The exhibit is the follow-up to the museum's 1977 landmark "Age of Spirituality," which focused on Byzantium's first centuries.

Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, established the capital of his Eastern Roman Empire at the provincial city of Byzantium on the Bosporus. He renamed the city Constantinople. From here, he and succeeding emperors ruled over what was venerated as the extension of the Roman Empire and the new center of Orthodox Christianity and civilization.

Also bordering on the fantastical is an early 13th-century icon showing Moses before the burning bush. Stopping to remove his sandals at God's command, Moses is a youthful, lithe figure who towers over a surreal, rocky landscape. With his unquestioning obedience to the voice of God, Moses sums up Byzantium's powerful religious faith.

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While the exhibit is titled "The Glory of Byzantium" and contains many wonderful objects ranging from tiny coins to monumental figures, the viewer will find it difficult to envision exactly what this glory was despite the number of exhibition objects.

Only in the richly illustrated catalog - in color - do we see the high, vaulted spaces of such Byzantine churches as Hosios Loukos in Phokis , Greece, and Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio in Palermo, Italy.

Churches in the 12th century were usually square, domed monuments with richly decorated interiors, much like Washington's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. …