The exhibition called Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557) , at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, encompasses some 350 objects from approximately 30 countries, including Greece, Bulgaria, Egypt, France, Italy, Romania, Russia, Turkey, Serbia and Montenegro, and Macedonia. This is almost too much geography for most of us to comprehend in a single exhibition, even one as large as this, and obstacles to comprehension may be compounded by the fact that the very name Byzantium is less likely to evoke a historical time and place than a realm of myth, poetry and imagination.
For many of us in the West, anyway, the idea of the Roman Empire that we carry in our heads from the reading of history and literature does not extend to the alternate “Rome” that was reestablished as Constantinople-Byzantium-in 1261. Ours is the earlier Rome of the Caesars, of Horace, Cicero and Virgil’s Aeneid , a pre-Christian Rome, whose art belongs to the Western classical tradition of Greco-Roman antiquity, with its intense preoccupation with earthly life and its pantheon of gods and goddesses whose appetites and misadventures bear little resemblance to the lives of Christian saints.
Byzantine art was born of the break with that tradition, when this second capital of the Empire was established in Constantinople and the ecclesiastical mysticism of the Eastern Orthodox Church determined every aspect of culture and life. As a consequence of this fateful shift, it became the function of art to serve a purely sacerdotal vision. Nature, including the human body, was radically devalued in favor of an iconography of unearthly decorative opulence focused on the lives of saints.
Thus icon painting, one of the glories of Byzantine art that is lavishly represented in the current exhibition, is not to be construed as a form of portraiture as we understand portraiture today, despite the concentration on facial expression, but as an object of worship and an aid to the soul’s salvation. As Annemarie Weyl Carr writes in the catalog of the exhibition, “The icon has a double definition. The primary one is functional: icons are images venerated as holy in the Orthodox Church. But to modern viewers the icon also implies a specific form: icons are panel paintings on the golden ground.”
The use of gold and other precious metals, which in the arts of secular Western cultures is likely to denote social status, if not indeed a profligate ostentation, is more likely in Orthodox Christian imagery to serve a religious function: In Byzantine art, light is thought to represent the presence of the Holy Spirit. Hence the gold and silver threads that are woven into certain ecclesiastical textiles, which are almost as dazzling as the golden ground of the icon paintings.
As to exactly why, even as late as the 21st century, Byzantine art has remained obscure and mysterious relative to comparable artistic achievements in the West, an explanation offered in 1929 by the English writer Robert Byron in The Byzantine Achievement: An Historical Perspective, A.D. 330-1453 , may still be relevant. “Byzantine art,” Byron wrote, “has suffered a twofold misfortune: only in the present century has a revived affinity, born of the escape from the trammels of classicism, trained the critical eye once more to its appreciation; and even in this age of prodigious communication, its memorials remain for the most part singularly inaccessible, either fortified against wheeled traffic by the mountainous coasts of the East Mediterranean, or, in such localities as Constantinople and Kiev, necessitating, in their inspection, an expenditure of time and money that the ordinary traveler cannot afford. Italy, profuse in tourist facilities, provides an exception, but one which, by itself, can convey only a one-sided impression of the art in question.”
In this respect, the recent efforts of the Metropolitan Museum to provide its public with a deeper understanding of Byzantine art is truly unprecedented. Byzantium: Faith and Power is the third and most ambitious of these recent surveys of Byzantine art, and must surely be the best introduction to the subject ever attempted; its hefty catalog will remain a frequently consulted work of reference for many years to come.
The exhibition is not to be missed. Whether it’s an exhibition likely to be adored is another matter. The religious zeal fundamental to Byzantine art is inimical to the spirit of modernity, and it may be difficult for some people to isolate, so to speak, the purely aesthetic appeal of the arts that are encompassed in this very large show.
Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557) remains on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 4, 2004.