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Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Arts & Letters

Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)


Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557) opened on March 15 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and closed on July 5. greekworks.com asked me, as the exhibition’s curator, to reflect on the exhibition for this issue and, especially, to compare the original vision of it with its final shape, scope, and purpose. To assess a complex project with which I have been involved for more than six years is difficult, but, in an effort to successfully answer the challenge of greekworks.com’s request, I have reviewed much of the paperwork involved in the development of Byzantium: Faith and Power. The earliest memo in the exhibition files is one I sent on November 14, 1998, to Mahrukh Tarapor, the Metropolitan Museum’s associate director for exhibitions, suggesting an exhibition whose “goal would be to present the last great flowering of the Byzantine tradition and its lasting impact on related artistic traditions.” I proposed that it be “a broad-based survey in the tradition of the Museum’s earlier exhibitions on Byzantium,” The Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century (1977-1978) and The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843-1261 (1997).

The argument for an exhibition on the last centuries of Byzantine culture was first made in the early 1990s when I presented the reasons for limiting the timeframe of The Glory of Byzantium to the middle Byzantine centuries. That exhibition, which I co-curated with William D. Wixom, then-head of the department of medieval art and the Cloisters, focused on issues of the quality and complexity of middle Byzantine art in which I had become interested during my dissertation research. The exhibition successfully sought to encourage recognition of the importance of the art of the Byzantine empire and of the Eastern Christian border states under its political or cultural dominance; the period examined began with the political revival following the end of the iconoclastic controversy and concluded with the occupation of Constantinople by the forces of the Fourth Crusade from 1204-1261. The stress on the arts of the empire, as opposed to those of its border regions, emphasized the exhibition’s view that the Christian East should not be considered as a culturally monolithic whole.

The Glory of Byzantium’s success encouraged Philippe de Montebello, the Metropolitan Museum’s director, to agree that an exhibition on late Byzantine art and culture would be of interest to the scholarly and general public. The brief description of Byzantium: Faith and Power that was approved in the initial planning stage stated that it:

will demonstrate the artistic and cultural importance of the last centuries of the state that called itself “the empire of the Romans.” Donor portraits will introduce the people of this world with the cultural and artistic importance of the era primarily being demonstrated through the arts created for the Orthodox church and for the churches of other East Christian states that aspired to be the heirs to the Empire’s power. The significance of its culture for the Islamic world and the Latin West will be explored, especially the importance of the Christian East in the development of the Renaissance. The exhibition will begin in 1261 when the empire’s capital Constantinople was restored to imperial rule and will conclude in the mid-sixteenth century, when the Empire that had fallen to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 was renamed “Byzantium,” the name by which it is still known today.

From the beginning, the exhibition took as its starting-point the moment of national revival heralded by the restoration of Byzantine control over Constantinople in 1261, the year in which Latin rule ended — and which had been the closing date of The Glory of Byzantium. Byzantium: Faith and Power’s concluding date, 1557, was selected to show that the arts of the Christian East continued in the Byzantine tradition well after Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, especially in works for the Orthodox church. Robert Nelson of the University of Chicago reminded me that Georg Ostrogorski, in the introduction to his History of the Byzantine State, noted that the term “Byzantium” was coined in the mid-sixteenth century by Hieronymus Wolf, the Fugger family’s librarian in Augsburg, to replace the state’s official appellation, “empire of the Romans.” The new name, based on that of the ancient Greek town on which Constantinople was built, reflected the importance of Greek culture to the state but neglected its role as heir to the Roman world, which was also critical to its identity. In researching Wolf, it appeared that he first used “Byzantium” in one of his works’ titles in 1557 — which thus became the exhibition’s closing date. By encompassing the period from 1261 to 1557, Byzantium: Faith and Power demonstrated that the state’s political decline did not mark the end of artistic and cultural innovations, but rather that Constantinople (as well as the empire’s border regions that sought to supplant it during these centuries) used often-innovative artistic concepts and patronage to express their religious ideas and political ambitions.1

Reviewing the exhibition database of over 1,000 works, the bibliography used, and notes from conversations with colleagues — most especially Robert Nelson and Annemarie Weyl Carr of Southern Methodist University, both of whom offered critical assistance to the project — I now realize that the exhibition as presented in the museum’s galleries was remarkably like that described in the first formal proposals. During its development, two outstanding young scholars worked as research associates on the project. First, Robert Hallman, then of New York University and, later, Sarah Brooks of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, made valuable additions to the exhibition’s contents. Beatrice Spengos of the Courtauld and Annie Labatt of the University of Chicago assisted them most effectively as research assistants.

The exhibition’s extensive database confirmed that the late Byzantine era’s greatest surviving works were created for religious use. The extant portable arts of the secular Byzantine sphere were primarily limited to donor portraits on religious works, coins, and medals. These secular images were used, as originally planned, to introduce the museum’s larger, non-Orthodox public to the peoples populating the late Byzantine sphere and to the power of the states they represented. Placed in the first gallery, they were associated with three monumental double-sided icons that were meant to lead the viewer into the world of faith. Six subsequent galleries focused on religion, following the themes developed in the catalogue’s major essays: sculpture, liturgical furnishings, manuscripts, personal devotional items (especially miniature mosaics), textiles, and icons. Special attention was devoted to works and iconographic types developed within the late Byzantine and early post-Byzantine centuries. The world of faith climaxed in a gallery devoted exclusively to the forty-two works lent by the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine at Sinai, an ancient Orthodox center that was in close contact with the Islamic world and the Latin West during the late Byzantine era.2

The last three galleries explored relations between the Byzantine sphere and its neighbors to the east and west. The Islamic gallery focused on the artistic interaction with Islamic states and on Christians under Islamic rule. The two Western galleries presented works related to the role of the new mendicant orders in the exchange of images between the Byzantine sphere and the West, the importance of Venice in the artistic currents of the era, the exchange of scholarly texts between Byzantium and the West, and the impact of Byzantine iconography on the works of the Northern Renaissance, which developed in the region that was the home of the Latin rulers of Constantinople. For all galleries, dated works of art were selected as often as possible, so that comparisons of styles and cultural differences could be based on solid evidence.

Byzantium: Faith and Power is the first major exhibition to focus exclusively on the late Byzantine era and to include the geographical areas of Constantinople, the limited territories under Byzantine rule, and those states of the Christian East within the sphere of Byzantine religious or political influence. Loans were anticipated from all major centers of the Byzantine empire, as well as from major institutions in Europe and the United States. Ultimately, 123 institutions in nearly thirty countries lent more than 350 works. Many major works came from Greece through the generous support of its institutions and the staff of the Greek ministry of culture, especially Isidoros Kakoris, including the magnificent epitaphios of Thessalonike (from that city’s Museum of Byzantine Culture) and the unique lead seal of Michael VIII Palaiologos (from the Numismatic Museum in Athens). Regrettably, the monasteries on Mount Athos, one of the most important theological centers for the many peoples of the Orthodox world during the exhibition’s timeframe, ultimately declined to participate. A careful reader will understand the importance of the Holy Mountain from the catalogue text and the works originally from there in the exhibition, such as the icons lent by the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. The site’s real importance, however, would have been better understood if the original plans for a gallery devoted to works of the Holy Mountain and a separate catalogue essay on its importance had succeeded.

As Byzantium: Faith and Power explored a relatively new area of intense scholarly interest, its catalogue was designed to represent approaches to late Byzantine art as understood in many centers of Byzantine studies. Scholars from countries later established in territories that were once part of the Byzantine sphere provided texts reflecting current opinions in their academic communities. In many cases, curators from the exhibition’s lending institutions contributed catalogue entries that provided interesting new evidence on the condition and provenance of their works. The authors of the essays were selected for their established expertise in their fields. Alice Mary Talbot of Dumbarton Oaks, Slobodan Curcic of Princeton University, Anna Ballian of the Benaki Museum, Annemarie Weyl Carr, Arne Effenberger, director of the Bode Museum in Berlin, Jannic Durand of the Louvre, John Lowden of the Courtauld, Scott Redford of Georgetown University, Thelma K. Thomas of the University of Michigan, Anne Derbes of Hood College, Amy Neff of the University of Tennessee, Maria Georgopoulou of Yale University, Robert Nelson, and Maryan W. Ainsworth of the department of European paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, all provided new insights on their topics. Two outstanding junior scholars — Sarah Brooks and Warren Woodfin of Princeton University — whose recently defended dissertations were significant for the late Byzantine period, revisited their research in catalogue essays. His Eminence Archbishop Damianos, abbot of Saint Catherine, generously provided religious insight into the meaning of icons. In total, over a hundred scholars from fourteen countries contributed to the catalogue; the diversity of opinions they represent should encourage reconsideration of the late Byzantine era similar to that which followed in the wake of The Age of Spirituality and The Glory of Byzantium. I hope that Antony Cutler is correct in believing that the catalogue “will remain, long and inevitably, the standard reference work on the art of a later, enlarged Byzantium.”3

The exhibition’s stunningly beautiful installation brought the greatness of late Byzantine art and culture so convincingly to life that one reviewer was moved to write, “Western civilization has always regarded Athens and Rome as progenitors of its government, humanistic values, and art. But a ground-breaking exhibition…at the Metropolitan Museum of Art…elevate[d] the Byzantine capital of Constantinople to this elite status.”4 For this accomplishment, we have to thank the museum’s exhibition designer, Michael Batista, and graphics designer Sophia Geronimus. As planned from the beginning, large wall labels defined the contents of each gallery. Individual labels stressed the importance of the more than 350 works on display to the exhibition. These texts drew upon the information in the catalogue, and on additional research by the many experts on Byzantium and the Latin West who worked on the installation. To keep the exhibition’s many labels to a limited word count that allowed viewers the time to read them, choices had to be made concerning the information most essential for understanding the late Byzantine era. This resulted, at times, in the elimination of important additional material. A partial solution for the excised texts was found in the exhibition’s reading room, in which catalogues were available for those who wished to learn more about an object. (The reading room also offered an opportunity for a major label on the importance of libraries and literacy in the Byzantine sphere.)

The exhibition installation and catalogue were supplemented by a symposium, performances of Byzantine music, lectures, public gallery tours, films, a Website, and an audio guide, all of which, taken together, fulfilled our desire to expand the exhibition’s content. Sarah Brooks organized the Website, which has already been recognized for its excellence by PBS. It includes short thematic essays, maps, and an extensive glossary of terms, and it will remain accessible at www.metmuseum.org for many years. Sarah Brooks will also edit the symposium’s papers, tentatively scheduled for publication in 2005, which fulfilled expectations that they would complement the catalogue by offering valuable additional insights on late Byzantine economics, scientific and artistic exchange, and historical interpretation. The outstanding lecture series held in conjunction with the exhibition successfully presented additional information on topics as varied as the conservation (including removal of earlier botched restorations) of a mosaic icon of the Virgin and Child in the exhibition (Icon with the Virgin Eleousa), details of late Byzantine iconography, images of John VIII Palaiologos in Italian art, and diplomatic exchange. Several of the lectures are expected to be published in various scholarly journals.

In this review of the project, it is impossible to name all who were of critical importance to it, but it is essential to recognize that many made valuable contributions to the process. Philippe de Montebello believed that the museum should support yet another exhibition on Byzantine art and culture, a subject not traditionally considered popular with a wide audience. Mahrukh Tarapor was instrumental in successfully realizing the exhibition’s concept by working tirelessly to arrange critical loans. Without their belief that the museum should seek to inform the public about the late Byzantine centuries, the exhibition would not have occurred. Cynthia Clark most effectively coordinated the editing of the catalogue for the museum’s editorial department, headed by John O’Neill. Among the individuals included in the catalogue’s acknowledgments (which cover six pages of very small print) are those without whom many key works would not have come to New York, as well as those who assisted in all phases of the project — and include a new generation of scholars who participated in various aspects of it. I hope that the exhibition was a step in furthering their careers.

Byzantium: Faith and Power was also able to accomplish so many of its goals because of generous funding. Without the exceptional support of Alpha Bank, and additional sponsorship provided by the J. F. Costopoulos Foundation, the A. G. Leventis Foundation, and the Stavros S. Niarchos Foundation, the exhibition could not have been as comprehensive as it was. Additional support provided by the National Endowment for the Arts recognized the exhibition’s importance. The indemnity granted by the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities was most significant in obtaining insurance for the majority of the loans. And The Hagop Kevorkian Fund funded the exhibition’s symposium.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art hoped that Byzantium: Faith and Power would bring recognition to the importance of the last Byzantine centuries — a goal that the largely positive reviews to date and this special issue of greekworks.com suggest was accomplished. It also hoped that the exhibition would encourage further scholarly study and more exhibitions on various aspects of this important era. Already, the works from the monastery of Saint Catherine are in Greece for an exhibition at the Benaki Museum; it’s wished that other exhibitions will follow. Now is the time to continue to review and consider the exhibition, its catalogue, Website, symposium, and the critical responses that Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557) has inspired to date.

1. See the exhibition catalogue for my essay, with further discussion of the opening and closing dates and for all other references to its text: Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), ed. Helen C. Evans, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, New Haven, 2004.

2. See Pilgrimage to Sinai: Treasures from the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, ed. Anastasia Drandaki, exhibition catalogue, July 20-September 26, 2004, Benaki Museum, 2004; and Helen C. Evans, “Chalice of Charles VI,” Faith and Power, cat. no. 41, pp. 198-201.

3. Antony Cutler, “Byzantium,” The Burlington Magazine, Volume CXLVI, No. 1216, July 2004, pp. 496-497.

4. Carol Strickland, “East and West meet at Met: an exhibition opening Monday showcases Byzantium’s influence on the West,” The Christian Science Monitor, March 22, 2004. For other major reviews, see Michael Kimmelman, “Art Review: Decay and Glory: Back to Byzantium,” The New York Times, Friday, March 26, 2004, pp. E33 and #41; Jed Perl, “Good as Gold,” The New Republic Online, May 13, 2004; Peter Schjeldahl, “Striking Gold: The final installment of the Met’s Byzantine shows,” The New Yorker, May 17, 2004, pp. 100-101; Edward N. Luttwak, “The triumph of Byzantine art and intellectual consequence: Culture the Conqueror,” The Times Literary Supplement, May 21, 2004, pp. 16-18; Ingrid Rowland, “Eastern Glory,” The New York Review of Books, May 27, 2004, pp. 23-25; and Karen Wilkin, “Byzantium at the Metropolitan,” The New Criterion, June 2004, pp. 37-42.

Helen C. Evans is the curator for early Christian and Byzantine art at the department of medieval art and the Cloisters of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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