Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July/August 2004, page 53

Special Report

“Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)” at Metropolitan Museum of Art

By Elaine Pasquini

Icons depicting (l-r) the Annunciation (back view of two-sided icon), Constantinople, early 14th century, tempera and gold on wood with silver-gilt and enamel revetment, Icon Gallery, Ohrid, Macedonia; and the Archangel Gabriel, Constantinople or Sinai, 13th century, tempera and gold on wood panel with raised borders, The Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai, Egypt (photos courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

The Holy Face of Laon.

ICONS, manuscripts, textiles and other religious artifacts from the Byzantine era of Christianity are on display through July 4 at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sponsored by the Alpha Bank, the J.F. Costopoulos Foundation, the A.G. Leventis Foundation and the Stavros S. Niarchos Foundation, the exhibit features 350 Byzantine treasures created from 1261 to 1557, a period when religious art flourished.

The exhibition’s 296-year time span begins with Michael VIII Palaeologus’ reclamation of Constantinople on Aug. 15, 1261. The Byzantine leader’s official lead seal, commemorating his reconquest of the city 57 years after it fell to the knights of the Fourth Crusade, is one of the earliest works included in the exhibition.

Curator Helen C. Evans told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, that she chose to end the show at the year 1557 because, she believed, that year the German librarian Hieronymous Wolfe first used the word “Byzantium” in a publication. “He is supposed to have based the Latin neuter word on the Greek name of the town founded by the legendary king Byzas in the sixth century BC,” Evans explained, “the site on which Constantinople, New Rome, was built. In changing the name of the ”˜empire of the Romans’ to ”˜Byzantium,’” the curator noted, “Wolfe made the real state into a memory.”

Many of the exhibit’s faith-inspired art treasures are being displayed for the first time outside the churches, monasteries and museums of the 30 countries that house them. Among the works are 40 ancient icons from the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, Egypt, the oldest continually occupied monastery in Christendom. Icons (the Greek word for image or picture) always have played an important role in the Orthodox Christian Church. Large ones adorn the walls of churches, while for centuries small icons have been carried by monks, pilgrims and religious devotees for protection and solitary devotion. Also on view at the Metropolitan are several early 14th century icons from the famed Iconic Gallery in Orhid, in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.

His All Holiness Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, and Ecumenical Patriarch, lent a unique 14th century double-sided processional icon of tempera and gold on wood with silver-gilt and enamel revetment—the Virgin pafsolype (Cessation of Sorrow)—that features the Virgin and Child on one side with the Crucifixion on the reverse.

An excellent example of the attention to detail that typified the works of Middle Ages artisans, who created art primarily for the Orthodox Church, is the 13th century Holy Face of Laon, from the cathedral of the same name in northern France. On a primed gesso panel, the artist used the ancient medium of egg tempera, a mixture of egg and pigment, to depict the face of Jesus.

A leaf from Rashid al-Din’s early 14th century Compendium of Chronicles, on loan from the Edinburgh University Library, demonstrates the influence of Byzantine iconography on Islamic composition.

In another exhibition gallery one encounters at about eye level a cast copper chandelier, 15 feet high and 11 feet in diameter, featuring crosses and animal forms such as double-headed eagles and sphinxes. The museum’s special overhead lighting lends a spiritual aura to the piece.

Seven years in the making, this extraordinary exhibit of sacred painted icons, luxuriously embroidered silk textiles and religious vestments, gilded metal work, manuscripts, mosaics, bas-reliefs and sculptures reflects Evans’ painstaking efforts in choosing the items from collections in Russia, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Egypt, France, Italy, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, and other countries.

For more information, visit the museum’s Web site, <http://www.metmuseum.org/>, or call (212) 535-7710.

Elaine Pasquini is a free-lance photojournalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.