This exhibition originated in a desire to show something of the character and extent of the Early Christian and Byzantine art to be found in American collections and museums. As is so often the case in this country, the enrichment of the museums has been due in large part to the enthusiasm and initiative of great private collectors--in the past, Henry Walters, J. P. Morgan, Henry Freer, John Garrett-- more recently, the Honorable Robert Woods Bliss and Mrs. Bliss, and Robert Garrett. While retaining the essential character of the event as an exhibition of American holdings, we have included certain objects from abroad, very few in number but of great importance, in order to present phases of the development insufficiently represented in collections here.
The exhibition is greatly enhanced in importance by its correlation with the notable international assembly of scholars for the Conference on Research in the Arts at Princeton University, as part of the observance of that Institution's two-hundreth anniversary, and also with the annual spring conference in Byzantine studies held at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington. We are very much indebted to Professor A. M. Friend, Jr. for his enthusiastic cooperation in making such correlation possible. The opening of this exhibition is to be attended officially by the distinguished participants in these conferences. Thus, the two foremost American centers of Byzantine studies are brought together in Baltimore, which likewise is a center for such research by virtue of the Early Christian and Byzantine collections of the Walters Art Gallery, and the distinguished group of mosaics from Antioch at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Because of the presence of such collections in Baltimore, it is hoped that this exhibition will serve to increase the pride of the public in their possessions, as well as an understanding of their significance in the history of culture.
For scholars the occasion may possibly prove a landmark, such as was the exhibition of Byzantine Art held in Paris in 1931. The impetus given to research by that event has resulted in tremendous activity and many discoveries during the past fifteen years. Perhaps the time has come, in view of this production, to take stock, to reexamine certain old conventions of dating and attribution, to look at everything with a fresh eye. It is for this reason that the exhibition resembles European ones in its wide range and inclusiveness. Objects were not selected in order to prove a point, but because the times produced them and therefore they must be considered. Masterpieces will not be found lacking, but humble objects, so often ignored, are here also, as part of the picture.
The century following the triumph of Christianity witnessed some of the greatest changes the civilized world had ever seen. These were not limited to moral and political values, but affected art as well. In this period are to be found the seeds of the art of later centuries. Because of the essentially transitional character of the epoch, the exhibition includes, among objects dating from the fourth and fifth centuries, non-Christian as well as obviously Christian works. For these are documents of the survival of paganism well into the Christian era, in many parts of the old Roman world, and of the continuance of pagan motifs as decoration, even when the content no longer has any significance.
Because the present state of our knowledge makes specific attribution of place of origin and even dating highly controversial, it has seemed best to group the material into the various fields of craftsmanship, rather than to attempt chronological or regional organization.