Lure of the Byzantine remains powerful

Lure of the Byzantine remains powerful
BY MICHAEL KILIAN, Chicago Tribune

Fort Wayne News Sentinel, IN
May 24 2004

NEW YORK – (KRT) – It was one of the most glorious of empires,
lasting 1,142 years, yet most Americans know little about it.

If anything, they associate its name, “Byzantine,” with political

Rightly enough. This successor to the Roman Empire ultimately failed
both politically and militarily, falling to invading Turks in 1453
(after lasting three times as long as the British Empire).

But as brilliantly illustrated by “Byzantium: Faith and Power”_a
sumptuous new exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art_the
Byzantine was a cultural empire as well, reaching from the
Mediterranean world to Asia, and later flourishing in medieval Russia
as well.

Founded by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 312 A.D., the Byzantine
Empire was Orthodox Christian but derived its culture from the Romans
and from classical Greece. It also drew from the Egyptians.

This becomes readily apparent when comparing the fabulous icon
paintings that dominate this new Met show with the lifelike portraits
of deceased Egyptians on view in a Metropolitan exhibition staged
four years ago: “Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt.”

“There is a book arguing that they are a source of icons,” said Helen
Evans, curator of “Faith and Power.” “If you look at the mummy
portraits and you look at the earliest surviving icons from the
Monastery of St. Catherine and from the 6th century, the image of
Christ is painted exactly the same way the best of the mummy
portraits are, with the head barely turned so it’s not a completely
frontal pose and with one eye made slightly larger to keep the sense
of energy in the face.”

Eventually, she said, Byzantine art began to influence culture in the
West, as evidenced in the work of such artists as the Renaissance’s
Giovanni Bellini, Spain’s El Greco and 15th century Dutch painters.

It continues, of course, in modern-day Greece, the Balkans and
post-communist Russia.

“It is a tradition of great, glorious objects that were copied and
emulated within its own sphere and then transported vast distances,
where they still retained a great power and vibrancy,” Evans said.
“What this exhibition does is bring them all back together.”

There are more than 350 works in this show, drawn from Greece,
Bulgaria, Egypt, France, Italy, Romania, Russia, Turkey, Serbia,
Montenegro, Macedonia and 20 other countries. Some pieces rarely have
been seen and others not at all outside the churches and monasteries
that preserved them, Evans said.

“The only regret was that the monasteries of Mt. Athos [in Greece]
did not choose to participate,” Evans said, “but we have many works
from Mt. Athos that left the holy mountain in the 19th century and
went elsewhere.”

The third exhibition the Met has done on Byzantium, “Faith and Power”
covers 1261 to 1557, encompassing a period after the Turkish conquest
when Byzantine culture continued to flourish in the region.

While icon paintings predominate, the exhibition includes coins,
sculptures, tapestries and non-religious paintings, including a
pictorial map of Constantinople.

Among the more remarkable tapestries is a full-length portrait tomb
cover from Romania of a lady named Maria of Mangop, inscribed as “the
servant of God, the pious and Christ-loving lady of John, voivode of
the Land of Moldavia . . . who passed away to (her) eternal dwelling
in the year 1476, on the 19th (day) of the month of December, Friday,
at the fifth hour of the day.”

A sculpted 14th century reliquary of St. Nicholas from Armenia is in
the form of a silver-covered forearm and hand. A 14th Century
reliquary box from the Cleveland Museum of Art is painted with scenes
from the life of John the Baptist.

Among the most significant of the works in the show is a four-part
tempera on wood painting from the ancient city of Novgorod in Russia.

It deals with the 1170 siege of the city by Andrej Bogoljubovo,
prince of Suzdal, which was brought to an end when Novgorod’s
Archbishop John had an icon of the Virgin Mary brought from the
Church of the Savior to the wall of the city fortress, where it was

As the painting’s second panel shows, an arrow fired by one of the
prince’s soldiers struck the Virgin, whereupon tears began to run
from her eyes. The skies darkened, and the besiegers became
frightened and confused, attacking one another. Novgorod’s soldiers
were able to make short work of them. According to another of the
panels, the Russian Saints Alexander Nevsky, Boris, Gleb and George
lent a hand as well.

“That icon with Alexander Nevsky is the argument of Novgorod that
Moscow should not be the pre-eminent city of Russia,” Evans said,
“but Novgorod should be the predominant city because of its history.”

Novgorod, lying between Moscow and St. Petersburg, remains so well
preserved that Evans called it “The Williamsburg of Russia.”

Constantinople, now Istanbul, fared not so well. The Turks besieged
the capital of “the new Rome” and it fell in May 1453. A contemporary
wrote: “The city was desolate, lying dead, naked, soundless, having
neither form nor beauty.”

Yet so much form and beauty continues on, and can be found through
July 4 at the Metropolitan Museum, 5th Avenue and 82nd Street;
212-879-5500 or

(Michael Kilian is a lifestyle columnist for The Chicago Tribune.
Write to him at the Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau, 1325 G St. NW,
Suite 200, Washington, DC, 20005.)