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. …