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World: Byzantine Treasures In New York Reveal The Power Of Faith And A Mingling Of Cultures

  • Nikola Krastev

A landmark exhibition featuring three centuries of Byzantine culture opens tomorrow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Seven years of research, negotiations, and collaboration have brought together 377 artifacts from 27 countries -- among them Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro, Romania, Macedonia, Egypt, Greece, and Turkey. Many of the masterpieces are borrowed from churches and monasteries, and have never been exhibited before.

New York, 22 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The "Byzantium: Faith and Power" exhibit covers the period when Constantinople resumed its role as a cultural and political center of the Eastern Roman Empire until 1557.

That was the year when the German scholar Hieronymus Wolf coined the term "Byzantium" to identify the state that a century earlier had been conquered by the Ottoman Turks (in 1453).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has already held two large-scale exhibitions covering the art of earlier periods of the Byzantine Empire.

But museum director Philippe de Montebello says that the current show is broader in its scope and significance.

"Many of us could not imagine that, even under the normal circumstances, we would be able to bring together the far vaster canvas of the three centuries [that followed the Fourth Crusade of Constantinople in 1204]. And as we approached the period of incredibly difficult geopolitical problems, one would have thought that projects such as this would simply peter out and disappear," de Montebello said.

The prevailing theme of the exhibit involves Orthodox Christian iconography, but the show also includes frescoes, textiles, liturgical objects, royal stamps, coins, and manuscripts.

The exhibition examines the significance of Byzantine culture for the Latin West -- especially its importance in the development of the Renaissance -- as well as for the world of Islam.

Helen Evans, the exhibit's curator, says the popular perception of late Byzantium is as a fatalistic and strictly religious cultural domain because of the impending conquest of the Ottoman Turks.

But she says the new exhibit proves the contrary, with works of stirring optimism that also demonstrate how Byzantine culture influenced the Orthodox Christian states in medieval Europe.

"I hope this exhibition will make people understand the optimism with which the [Byzantine] empire regained its capital in 1261, the cultural exuberance that went with that optimism, and that we, who stand at the other end of the history of the state, will recognize that political fates do not necessarily correspond with cultural ones," Evans said.

De Montebello says his museum has well-established exchange programs with world-class cultural institutions in Western Europe, and that in the last decade there has been a sharp increase in collaboration with a number of museums in Central and Eastern Europe as well.

"Many of these countries -- with the exception of very few in Western Europe and the lenders from the United States -- [were] forming part of the later Byzantine Empire, or -- and this is why it accounts for the breadth of [the show] -- the rival states that also embraced the art and culture of Byzantium later on," de Montebello said.

Overall, says curator Evans, there was a positive response from most of the institutions asked to contribute works of art to the Metropolitan exhibit.

Some countries, however, did not participate -- notably, Armenia. Evans said she was attempting to bring into the exhibit works of art that will show the greatness of the Kingdom of Cilician Armenia (10th--14th century) and its ambition to be a new Byzantium, with its control over the trade routes, and its wealth and power.

"I've had just as much irritation with institutions in England, France, and Germany as I've ever had in Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece. It's individual institutions and individual people that, at my level of dealing, create the problems. And the problems are often quite justified and sometimes they are just personalities. The worst one this time was not in Russia," Evans said.

Evans said issues sometimes arose over borrowing works that are still actively venerated religious objects. The Metropolitan had to convince the clergy and the lending state that it will be able to properly take care of them.

Forty-three works from the St. Catherine Greek Orthodox Monastery in Sinai, Egypt, are included in the Metropolitan exhibit. Thirty of them have never before left the monastery grounds. Situated on the Sinai Peninsula, which connects Africa and Asia, the monastery has received an extraordinary mixture of pilgrims from Byzantium and neighboring states, Western Europe, and Islamic lands.

The popular perception of late Byzantium is as a fatalistic and strictly religious cultural domain because of the impending conquest of the Ottoman Turks.
The late Byzantine period witnessed extensive contacts between the complex worlds of Byzantium and Islam. Cultural interactions occurred at various levels of society, especially among the elite, merchants, and the military. Christian artists in the conquered lands combined decorative trends from their Islamic milieus with Byzantine traditions.

Muslim artists were inspired by Christian art as well. The cultural influence of Byzantium did not wane over the years even as its political power weakened. Byzantine goods and art were much sought after by Muslim Seljuk and other courts. Rulers of Seljuk Rum and later Ottoman sultans adopted Byzantine traditions and monuments.

Evans says Byzantine art was also a source of inspiration and influence for some of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

"A number of people, when this art was beginning to be studied at the beginning of the 20th century, thought of it as a great source for modern and contemporary art. And there are people who have already gone through the show and seen it in terms of Gustav Klimt and [Pablo] Picasso and other figures. It was very much part of the type of works of art that were being considered at the turn of the 20th century," Evans said.

Among works exhibited are The Gospel Book (1350) held in the National Library of Russia, St. Petersburg; the Reveted Icon with the Virgin Hodegetria (late 13th century), held in the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow; the Gold Seal of Tsar Constantine Asen (1268), held in the Archeology Museum in Sofia; Queen Theodora's Ring (before 1322), held in the National Museum, Belgrade; and the Shrine of King Stefan Uros the Third Decanski (1343), held in the Decani Monastery, Kosovo.

The exhibit continues through 4 July. The Metropolitan is also running an extensive cultural program focused on late Byzantium that will include symposiums, concerts, film screenings, as well as community and workplace programs in New York City and New York State.

Items from the exhibit can be seen at: http://www.metmuseum.org
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