Radio Free Europe, Czech Republic
March 22 2004
World: Byzantine Treasures In New York Reveal The Power Of Faith And
A Mingling Of Cultures
By 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
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
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
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: