Beyond the Met Staircase Lies the Byzantine Glory

I have never cared much for what art museums call “orientation” galleries. With their plethora of video and computer images, their stocks of well-worn art-historical clichés and their breezy reduction of complex aesthetic and historical issues to a few easily grasped labels and formulas, they have always struck me as a poor way to introduce museum visitors-especially first-time visitors-to great works of art.

People go to art museums, after all, to see the real thing, the actual objects, which can be seen nowhere else. Why, then, should it be thought wise to offer such visitors a technologically produced counterfeit of such objects before they have even encountered the works of art they have come to see? More often than not, the unintended consequence of such “orientation” programs is aesthetically deleterious. The art object, when actually seen, enters the mind as a mere illustration of one of those easily grasped labels and formulas. By such well-intended devices, the capacity of the art object to speak for itself is gently subverted.

Mercifully, there is no orientation room in the new Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries for Byzantine Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Visitors immediately confront the actual objects when they pass from the museum’s Great Hall into the capacious galleries flanking the Grand Staircase. And what objects they are-nearly 700 of them, mostly small in size but vast in the range of aesthetic, historical and religious experience they encompass. There are intelligent wall texts to answer the obvious questions of history and geography, but these are discreetly left to the individual visitors to ponder or skip as they wish. The art itself is clearly and beautifully presented at every turn, which is no small feat in an installation as intellectually daunting as this one.

For it needs to be understood that “Byzantine” is a very inexact term to describe the variety of objects, styles and periods that are brought together in the new Jaharis Galleries. Certain styles of mosaic and icon painting, which is what many think of as Byzantine art, are only a small part of the story that is told in this collection. The historical period covered here is enormous, and crucial to our understanding of Western cultural tradition. It extends from the decline of the Roman Empire and the transfer of its capital to Constantinople in the year 330 to the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. In other words, from the end of classical antiquity to the dawn of the Renaissance.

Thus, in the new Jaharis Galleries, remnants of classical antiquity co-exist with examples of early Christian art. Art of the Bronze and Iron ages in northern Europe is seen in the company of objects that commemorate Jewish Biblical tradition and others that reflect Islamic influence. Art once thought to be “pagan,” “barbaric” or otherwise impious takes its place alongside expressions of intense Christian piety. Works from Germany, England, Ireland and Scandinavia share attention with the cultural and religious conventions of Mediterranean civilization.

The diversity of media encompassed in this collection is equally daunting. If you have never before paid much attention to the aesthetics of medieval ivory carving and its influence on later Christian painting, the Jaharis Galleries is a good place to begin your understanding of this medium. Thanks to a 1917 bequest from J.P. Morgan, the Met has long had an extraordinary collection of works in this medium, and added to it on this occasion are three masterpieces from the State Museum in Berlin. Marvelous examples of stone and wood carving also abound, as well as gold jewelry, mosaic, icon painting, textiles and even a container made of silver gilt that was once claimed to be the Holy Grail.

To give the public a coherent and pleasurable account of such a wide-ranging collection of objects, styles and images in such a limited space must have presented formidable problems for both the curatorial and the design staffs at the Met, yet they have turned this challenge into a triumph. The really stunning coup de théâtre in the Jaharis Galleries is, however, architectural. The space that has been reclaimed from a storage area underneath the museum’s Grand Staircase not only integrates the two large corridor galleries into a single unit, but is itself an enchanting aesthetic experience. Described by the museum as “crypt-like,” it gives us a view of its original brick arches, sloping walls and the underside of the massive granite stairs some of us have been traversing for decades. This turns out to be, both in its scale and its design, a perfect setting for the objects the curators have placed in it-mainly works from Byzantine Egypt. It instantly becomes a place where newcomers to the Met are likely to start their exploration of this great museum.

It wasn’t until I had left the Jaharis Galleries that it occurred to me, as I was wandering through the Greek sculpture galleries nearby, that this new installation of the Byzantine art collection may turn out to be the best kind of “orientation” gallery the museum could offer its public. For the Jaharis Galleries are indeed a kind of crossroads with which so many of the periods and cultural and artistic conventions abundantly represented in the Met’s other galleries have significant connections. And not only the Greek galleries, of course, but also those devoted to Egyptian art, medieval and early Renaissance art and Islamic art. I am not suggesting that the Met set out to give us a new conception of what an ideal “orientation” gallery might consist of, but it is not unlikely that the Jaharis Galleries will come to serve that purpose for future visitors.

Beyond the Met Staircase Lies the Byzantine Glory