Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261–1557)—a masterpiece of exhibition-making that opened last week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—is the latest show in the museum’s landmark survey of Byzantine art. Some observers anticipated a letdown from the two earlier shows, “The Age of Spirituality” (1977) and “The Glory of Byzantium” (1997), since the years covered here mark the final decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire. No such letdown occurs: The rotting-away of the empire was political rather than artistic. The three centuries covered by this show begin with a moment of cultural exaltation—the restoration of the “Empire of the Romans” in 1261, 57 years after Constantinople fell to Western crusaders—and end in 1557 with Constantinople under the firm control of the Ottoman Turks. During this period, Byzantine art flourished in many areas no longer ruled by the emperor.
The scale of the exhibition is vast and somewhat disorienting—in keeping with the subject. Led by the curator Helen C. Evans, the organizers have borrowed more than 350 works from about 30 different countries, including icons, frescoes, manuscript illuminations, textiles, and liturgical objects. The show naturally focuses upon Greece, Constantinople, and the Balkans, but Russia is also well represented, and the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai, Egypt, founded in the fourth century, has sent about 40 icons. Smaller shows within the show explore Byzantine influence upon Western and Islamic art. The diplomatic and organizational skills necessary to stitch together this exhibition suggest one reason it matters so much to the art world: Byzantium, to a Eurocentric public, remains a confusing puzzle of scattered pieces. Scholars, too, know less about Byzantium than they do about medieval Europe. In short, this exhibit should help clarify one of the world’s great traditions of art.
But that’s just the educational part. Byzantine art is more than the visage of a civilization or the artifact of a historical period. It is also surpassingly mysterious, with a spiritual presence that is singular, powerful, and—for viewers in this secular city—radical in its challenge to the way life is lived now. Like many other great religious traditions, the Byzantine embodies values of concentration and stillness that, today, have little power beyond the Spirit-Lite forms of New Age thought. But Byzantine artists also created a metaphysical space between the human and the divine that is particularly distinctive, a shared space that partakes of both earth and heaven. A Byzantine chalice, Bible, or wood carving has a kind of heft, a hand-made brawniness. Yet the flickering of pattern and color appears to discharge its heaviness—its mortal weight.
“Byzantine art has a spiritual presence that is radical in its challenge to the way life is lived now.”
The Byzantine icons, the greatest expression of this shared space, are painted with extraordinary tact. Too realistic an image would overemphasize this world; an abstract one would lose touch with the human and appear, in any case, presumptuous in its claim to represent the spirit. The Byzantines unerringly found the subtle in-between. The golden light elevates colors that have a blood-of-the-earth savor. The childlike quality isn’t unsophisticated. Instead, it symbolizes the low but hopeful position of those who aspire to the divine; the Christ child himself often seems part child, part adult. In many icons, the figure stares—with startling frankness—at the staring viewer. This common gaze also creates a kind of shared space. In the Virgin and Child pictured here, the Virgin looks directly at the viewer while nuzzling her child, who, with his head upside down and his arms outstretched, stares heavenward. The line of sight seems to circulate endlessly between Virgin, viewer, child, and God.
After seeing this exhibition, spend a few minutes in the hallway gallery outside looking at the skillful nineteenth-century salon paintings and the Rodin sculptures from the Met’s permanent collection. You may well recoil from the showy spectacle—not because such works are offensive or lack value but because they appear, in the after-light of “Byzantium,” so coarse.