Byzantium at the Metropolitan

By Wilkin, Karen | New Criterion, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Byzantium at the Metropolitan


Wilkin, Karen, New Criterion


It's hard to decide what is most remarkable about "Byzantium: Faith and Power, 1261-1557," at the Metropolitan Museum. (1) It's astonishing that the museum has once again assembled an extraordinary group of rarely or never-before-seen treasures--icons, manuscripts, textiles, architectural fragments, and more--many from obscure, remote collections in troubled places. (This is the third in the Met's series of exhibitions examining, chronologically, the achievements of the Eastern empire of Constantinople and the Greek Christian world.) Even more astonishing is that any of the diverse works in the show survived or that they were made in the first place, given the turbulent history of the period under review. The opulent survey encompasses the turbulent history of the final two centuries of the Byzantine empire and the first century of its posthumous influence. The starting date, 1261, marks the restoration of Greek political and religious power to the Eastern Christian world after the more than half-century of hated Frankish rule that followed the brutal sack of Constantinople by the Venetians during the Fourth Crusade. (It wasn't just the infidel that the crusaders went after. For evidence of Venetian looting, see, for starters, the four great bronze horses that until recently stood above the main portal of San Marco. For an immensely readable account of the complicated history of the Greek Christian empire, see John Julius Norwich's Short History of Byzantium.) The dosing date, 1557, more than a century after Constantinople definitively fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, marks the first local use of the term Byzantium and brackets what Helen C. Evans, the exhibition's curator, describes as the period when "the Ottoman Turks, Russia, and other western states sought to inherit the mantle of the New Rome, Constantinople, through their adaptation of its art and culture."

In the summer of 1261, an army sent by the Byzantine general, the emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, at last defeated the Franks--more or less by accident, but that's another matter. On August 15, the emperor entered Constantinople, bearing an icon of the Virgin Hodegetria--"she who points the way"--universally believed to have been painted by Saint Luke himself.

The two centuries following 1261 could be called a "Byzantine renaissance"--lower case "r" to separate it from the more or less contemporaneous burst of creativity in the Latin West--think of Italy in the trecento and quattrocento. The religious art of late Byzantium is conspicuously unmarked by the key element of most Renaissance art elsewhere: a fascination with the appearances of the natural world and with pagan Graeco-Roman prototypes. The formal, stylized ecclesiastical art of the "Byzantine renaissance" had enormous repercussions. Its distinctive manner was adopted and emulated throughout the Eastern Christian world, along with other aspects of Byzantine culture, as emblematic of civilization and power. Eventually, although for quite different reasons, the art of Byzantium made its influence felt in the Latin West, as well. By focusing on objects produced for the Greek Orthodox church, "Byzantium: Faith and Power" vividly brings to life the richness and variety of the late Byzantine tradition in all its aspects. Sections of the installation devoted to objects made in Constantinople, in the empire's provinces, and in far-flung, not quite assimilated regions document the permutations of the dominant manner, while a careful selection of works from still other sources bears witness to the influence of Byzantine style and substance beyond the boundaries of the Greek Christian world.

Seven years in the making, involving the participation of just about all the countries in the former Greek sphere, from Greece to the Balkans to Russia to Egypt, "Byzantium: Faith and Power" demanded time and concentration, not to mention diplomatic adroitness, from its organizers. Not surprisingly, then, the large, complicated exhibition they achieved demands time and concentration of the visitor. …

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