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Byzantium: Faith and Power, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
March 23 to July 4, 2004
(seen at the Press Preview: March 15, 2004)

When Michael VIII Palaeologos, general and emperor of the "Romans" (as the Greeks of Byzantium were called) entered Constantinople in procession on August 15, 1261 after 57 years during which the City was captive to the Latins who had taken the City in the 4th Crusade (1204) and divided up most of the Byzantine territory into feudal fiefdoms, he was greeted with jubilation. Two years earlier, the general had been crowned emperor in Nicaea, and now he was reclaiming the capital while raising the protectress of the City, the famous icon of the Panaghia Hodegetria, above his head in a bloodless victory celebration. Or so the scene depicted on a lead seal in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557) that was struck just after his entry would have us believe, although the large icon was a processional icon that normally would have preceded the emperor. Thus joyously, rather than in strife, began the reign of the dynasty of the Palaeologoi, the last emperors of Byzantium, an empire that at that moment had already existed 900 years. The dynasty was to last nearly another 200 years with diminishing territory and resources until Constantinople, then only a head without a body, fell to the Mehmet II, the Conquerer, Sultan of the Ottoman Turks on May 29, 1453.

Although founded on the ruins left by the departing Latins, much diminished military and political power and an economy beholden to the Genoese, Pisans and Venetians who controlled the commerce of the City, the years of the first two emperors, Manual VIII (1261-1282) and his son and successor Andronicus II (1282-1328), paradoxically experienced an efflorescence of cultural activity. In every realm of cultural endeavor-artistic, philosophical, scholarly, theological, and nationalistic (with a nostalgic turning toward the glories of the early days of the Empire and even toward the Hellenism of ancient Greece)-there seemed to be a new vitality, a new passion for the exquisite and for scholarly pursuits.

sakkos (embroidered liturgical outer garment)

The faith burned brightly, the glory faded and the power became an empty political gesture. Throughout most of the 14th century, rivalries among claimants to the thrown, coups and counter-coups, left the empire, or what little still remained of it, exhausted. Serbs and Bulgars from the West and North and Turks from the East gobbled up Byzantine territory and even threatened the extinction of Constantinople itself. Having lost Asia Minor, the main source of wheat and fighting men, the emperor called in the Turks to stem the Serb and Bulgar advances but then lost control of the situation, and the Turks established themselves first in Gallipoli and then set up their new capital at Adrianople in Thrace.

The invasion and conquests of Timur from Central Asia diverted the Ottomans and provided a respite for the Empire for nearly half a century, but the writing was on the wall; the fall was inevitable. The two last Palaeologoi on the throne were half-Serb, their mother, Helena Palaeologina, being of Serb origin. Zoe/Sophia, the daughter of the Palaeologan Despot of Mistra, an outpost of Byzantium, was sent as a bride to John III of Russia, a country that was to take up the Orthodox mantle as the "New Rome," for, after the fall, the Patriarch in Constantinople became a client of the Ottomans. Finally, Constantinople stood siege but could not withstand Mehmet II's armies more than two days. On the day of its fall, the cult icon of the Paneghia Hodegetria that had heretofore protected the City was destroyed.

Such is the historical background for the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first major exhibition of the Palaeologan period. Only the Met's resources and reputation could have gathered the over 350 items from 150 lending institutions and individuals from 27 countries that are in the exhibition. The largest number of contributors were the United States (22), Greece (19), Italy (18) and France (13). But even the smallest contributors: Austria, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, FYR-Macedonia, Lebanon, Liechtenstein, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland, and the Vatican, made significant additions. The catalogue acknowledges roughly 600 people who, in one way or another, helped make this exhibition possible. It is not surprising that the sponsors, with the exception of the National Endowment of the Arts, are all Greek or Greek-American: the Alpha Bank in Athens, the J. F. Costopoulos Foundation, the A. G. Leventis Foundation, and the Stavros S. Niarchos Foundation.

Byzantium: Faith and Power is the third of the Met's exhibitions to present the riches of the Byzantine Empire. It was curated by Helen C. Evans, the Met's Curator of Medieval Art and the Cloisters abetted by Mahrukh Tarapor, Associate Director for Exhibitions. It was preceded in 1977 by The Age of Spirituality which focused on the earliest period, from the foundation of Constantinople by the Emperor Constantine through the age of Justinian (when the church of Aghia Sophia, one of the world's architectural marvels, was built) and ending with the return to images following the Iconoclastic Controversy; the second was The Glory of Byzantium, A. D. 843-1261 that, in 1997, presented the periods of the Macedonian and Comnenian dynasties, the apogee of the Empire's glory and power, to the end of Latin rule in Constantinople.

choros (over 1100 pieces)

If anything, the present exhibition is too ambitious, though one would not have wanted any less even if it means returning for a second and third viewing. Indeed, much is underrepresented or left out (most secular objects, larger mosaics, wall painting, architecture, which is dealt with in the catalogue, and the interrelationship of icons in context). The focus is on the riches of the Orthodox Church as well as on devotional works of smaller size (icons and illuminated manuscripts). The exhibition begins with a gallery of donor portraits including coins and lead seals. It proceeds to major icons and masterpieces of liturgical embroidered silk textiles, including a sacco (outer vestment) lent by the Vatican that is dazzling. Richly ornamental metalwork is represented by a magnificent cast copper alloy choros (chandelier) at eye level and silver and gilt revetments [metal coverings] on icons, reliquaries and book covers. One gallery features private devotional icons on a smaller scale than those created for the Church; some of these miniature mosaic icons of glass, precious metals and gemstones are so exquisitely refined that, except on close examination, they give the impression of being miniature paintings.

Icons are the centerpiece of the exhibition as they are so numerous compared to any other genre, because they are diverse in size (from 3 inches to more than 10 feet in height) and origin (Crete, Bulgaria, Russia, Thessalonika, Thessaly, Kastoria, Serbia, etc.) and because the "Faith and Power" of the exhibition's title is embodied in the icons themselves. During the decline of the Empire and even after its fall, icons continued to be produced (and for a while mass produced and exported to western Europe) in Crete (under Venetian rule), in the Sinai, on Mt. Athos, and elsewhere in the Balkans and Russia. The exhibition presents that range.

One cannot understand the exhibition in depth or evaluate it without reference to the catalogue, an oversized more than 650-page scholarly publication. Following chapters that parallel the exhibition plan by dealing in turn with various genres: sculpture, liturgical implements, icons, precious-metal revetments, manuscript illumination, and liturgical textiles, there are two sections dealing with St. Cyril's Belozersk Monastery in Russia and St. Catherine's Monastery in the Egyptian Sinai. St Catherine's has a special room devoted to it with 40 icons (that have left the monastery for the first time, a quid pro quo for the Met's aid in constructing an extension for the monastery's museum).

The last rooms of the exhibition and the last six chapters of the catalogue (cat.# 243-356) present Byzantium in relationship to other societies: the Islamic world; Christian communities in the Middle East; Italy and the mendicant orders; Venice; the rebirth of learning in Italy and France; and the effect of icons on North Renaissance artists. This review cannot deal with each, but the last, which I found most surprising, demands some recognition as it sheds light on how important this kind of exhibition can be in stimulating insights and further research.

The exhibition includes fifteenth century Flemish paintings by Rogier van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck, Simon Marmion, Robert Campin, Master of the Legend of St. Ursula, Hans Memling, Dieric Bouts, Gerard David, Jan Gossaert and lesser luminaries who were influenced by Byzantine icons. Yes, Byzantine icons! I pick just one painting to exemplify the point. It also happens to be one of my most favorite paintings in the world: "St. Luke Drawing the Virgin" by Rogier van der Weyden from the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. (I used to visit the painting nearly once a week during the three years I lived in Boston.) The theme of St. Luke drawing the Virgin probably originated in Byzantium in the 6th century. But one need not reach so far back into the past. The Virgin is the "Galaktotrophousa," breast-feeding the Christ child. Van der Weyden's is one of the earliest known depictions in the North of this Byzantine image, where it subsequently became enormously popular. Some Flemish painters chose to use a deliberately archaic mode (a la facon grece) in imitation of a timeless icon; most, however, used a Byzantine motif but integrated it into Flemish style and contemporary life so that its Byzantine origin is fully disguised to the uninitiated. The catalogue explicates these and many other aspects of the commerce in icons and their influence in Flanders, though few icons survived the depredations of time and zealotry.

Fifteen themes or chapters follow the catalogue's introduction by Helen C. Evans, the curator of the exhibition and editor of the volume. Each provides its own introduction and catalogue entries and endnotes. Each is replete with illustrative figures and catalogue plates. There are 18 full-page color frontispieces, more than 205 figures (black-and-white and color), over 355 catalogue color illustrations, many full-page, and scholarly apparatus at the end: endnotes (14 pages), bibliography (34 pages of small type in 3 column a page format), glossary, and index (12 pages).

Aside from the catalogue, the exhibition is accompanied by a series of lectures, films and a scholarly symposium.


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