N.Y.’s Met showcases art of Byzantium

“Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition” begins with a gorgeous 17-by-20-foot eighth-century floor mosaic from Jordan that establishes the motifs – cityscapes, inscriptions, leaves, vines and trees – used throughout the Byzantine Empire.

The exhibition of some 300 works concludes the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s four-show series devoted to the region that today ranges from Greece and Turkey to Egypt and the Middle East.

Though exotic in its own right, there are no gilded icons and bejeweled book covers to dazzle you.

Meditative, scholarly and low-lit, the show’s strength is its reserve. “Byzantium and Islam” is as much a feast for the mind as for the eyes.

It focuses on the cultural and artistic clash – the adaptations, struggles and innovations – that resulted during the initial contact between the southern provinces of the Christian Byzantine Empire and the emerging Islamic world as it spread westward from Mecca and Medina along the Red Sea trade route between the seventh and the ninth centuries.

This was a time when images, ideas and artistic conventions were carried as much by faith as by commerce. It was a time when customs, forms and iconographies were thrown, sometimes violently, into the cultural melting pot.

The greatest works here generally are small, often well- worn, modest and earth-toned.

Of special note are children’s tunics recovered from gravesites and a Hebrew alphabet primer from Egypt, illustrated with a polychromatic carpet page, a lighted menorah and the Star of David.

In the small Egyptian ivory panel depicting the Raising of Lazarus (7th-8th century), believed to have been given to the Cathedral of Amalfi in 1460 by Pope Pius II, the dead man twists and swells, ready to burst his basket-weave cocoon of burial bandages.

In contrast are elaborate, secular Muslim objects inspired by Greco-Roman traditions, such as the modern reconstruction of an 8th-century bathhouse brazier found in the Umayyad residence in al-Fudayn.

It is decorated with highly erotic Dionysian scenes, including panthers, satyrs and semi-naked nymphs, Pan pouncing on a nude Maenad and couples engaged in sexual congress.

The show’s subtitle is “Transition,” and it illustrates a crossroads. On clay lamps, we see both Christian blessings in Greek and Islamic ones in Arabic.

One of the heated topics of debate among Christians, Jews and Muslims alike involved the depiction of creatures into which God has breathed life.

Two manuscripts, by Saint John Damascus and Abu Qurrah, support icon veneration. Yet also on view are two floor mosaics, including one in which a feline has had its torso, tail and hind legs replaced by flowers and trees.

Inventive transmutations such as these were commonplace.

This is a subdued yet determined pilgrimage that takes you deep into its subject – the budding of Islamic art during the original Arab spring.

The show does not just illumine a period long-passed. In its subtle way, it brings to life the birth, cross-pollination and development of various Byzantine and Islamic art forms.

In the fluttering surface decorations of artworks such as a pair of large, intricately carved Islamic wood doors, seen in the exhibition’s last gallery, the naturalistic, Byzantine aesthetic has been subsumed.

Here the forms and rhythms of stylized fans, vines, scrolls and acanthus leaves, Greco-Roman naturalism and Eastern eroticism are fused, re-imagined and reborn.

Islamic art, free from its influences, takes on a spirited life of its own.