WASHINGTON “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium From Greek Collections” at the National Gallery of Art is resplendent, like a somber cloud with a fire inside.
With around 170 objects – icons, mosaics, frescoes, jewelry and embroideries, illuminated books – all on loan, the show takes a processional sweep through Byzantine art from its Greco-Roman beginnings to its multicultural late phase in the 15th century, with an emphasis on its development in Greece itself.
Like many government-sponsored treasure shows, this one – organized by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports in Athens, in collaboration with the Benaki Museum there – has a promotional angle: It would love to get us to go to Greece and spend some tourist dollars.
I’m out the door, based on some of what’s here: a glinting 13th-century icon of the Virgin and Child, pieced together from glass, silver and gold; a 17-foot-long parchment scroll packed with chirping birds and secret prayers; a heavenly silk embroidery, found stashed away in a Thessaloniki church, depicting the body of the dead Christ surrounded by fan-wielding seraphs and a stitched chant, “Holy, holy, holy.”
The Byzantium empire itself started on a utopian note. In 313, the Roman emperor Constantine I established a policy of religious tolerance and carried it over into an imperial capital he was establishing far to the east, where he gave the existing town Byzantium a new name, Constantinople.
To Constantine, with his calculated take on politics, all gods were good. But the diplomatic largess he instituted didn’t last. In 380, another emperor, Theodosius I, declared Christianity the official Byzantine faith, and so it remained for a thousand years, with other Hellenic religions – sometimes called pagan – either absorbed into the new order or forced out.
We see this transition in action in the first of the exhibition’s six galleries. In a fourth-century marble carving, the Greco-Roman poet-hero Orpheus has been demoted from free-standing cult object to furniture, a table support. A fifth-century bust of an old man, probably made in Athens, is part Roman philosopher and, with his enormous, hypnotized eyes, part Gothic saint.
In the case of a third sculpture, the conversion process was quick and brutal. A large head of the goddess Aphrodite, copied in the first century from an ancient Greek model, has been disfigured by a cross gouged into her forehead.
For good and bad, the Byzantine one-faith system shaped everything. It created a chosen-by-God ruling class, with emperors who were regarded as semi-divine and a clergy sanctioned to take pretty much anything it wanted. Inevitably, internal power struggles cast along religious lines developed – notably, beginning in the eighth century, in the prolonged conflict over the morality of depicting figures in a religious context.
This battle over what would seem a doctrinal technicality stopped just short of full-on civil war. It led to persecutions, banishments and assassinations. It created an economic debilitation that spread through an empire, then at its height, that ruled large swaths of territory on three continents. The conflict also defined the lines of a class war, with underprivileged elements of Byzantine society, like peasants, the urban poor and women, demanding that icons – the holy images that they treasured, that they turned to for help and that functioned as a powerful force for social cohesion – be retained.
As if to offer some relief from the show’s devotional spell, the Washington curator, Susan M. Arensberg, has placed, at about the halfway point, a gallery of mostly secular material. From it we learn that Byzantium citizens, at least those with expendable money, were avid readers in just about every genre, from classical philosophy to historical fantasy (“The Romance of Alexander the Great”) to how-to manuals.
As for top-dollar luxury items, they couldn’t get enough: gilded tableware, blown-glass goblets, perfume flasks, silver spoons, ivory combs, designer ceramics, and gold jewelry.
But, in the end, religion prevails.
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