Sunday, July 8, 2012

Byzantium and Islam – A Belated Review

Mosaic Fragment with Two Goats
Jordan, 535-536
Mount Nebo, Franciscan Archaeological Institute
Custody of the Holy Land
Multiple medical problems delayed my visit to the exhibition called “Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition”, at the Metropolitan Museum, which, sadly, ends today. This is the latest in a series of exhibitions, dating back nearly 20 years that have traced the course of Byzantine art from its beginnings. This show does not excite the same level of interest from me as did some of the previous shows. There are no great icons, no amazing array of mosaics and jewelry. Still, the show does have some remarkable items of interest.

Bone Plaque with Vine Scroll
Egypt or Syria, 8th Century
Athens, Benaki Museum
The exhibition is organized around the story of how the art of Christian Byzantium developed or changed into the non-figural art of Islam in the areas that were conquered by Arabic armies from the 7th to the 9th centuries. One of the reasons this was accomplished so easily seems to be that, while much of Christian Byzantine art was figural, not all of it was. Frequently, more or less abstract decorative patterns, such as vines, were commonplace prior to the Islamic conquests. It’s relatively easy to see how these patterns from nature developed into the abstract patterns known as arabesques.

The exhibition explores several themes: Orthodox Christianity, Syriac Christianity, Coptic Christianity, Judaism, Pilgrimage, Iconoclasm, Commerce and several kinds of objects: Silks, Dress, Trade Goods, as well as a historical survey of Byzantium’s Southern Provinces, Palaces And Princely Life and Islamic Religious Works to present a fairly comprehensive survey of this transitional period.

For me there are several objects of high interest. Among them were:

Fragment of Tapestry Weave in
Polychrome Wool and Undyed Linen
on Plain Weave Undyed Linen
Possibl Egyptian, 6th - 7th Century
Paris, Louvre

• The remarkable survival of so many textile fragments from this remote time and from this frequently troubled region. There are many surviving pieces in the show, fragments of costume or furnishings that have survived by inclusion in burials or from the lucky circumstance of being chosen to wrap some precious sealed object. Three especially stood out.

The first was an incomplete piece which is encountered in the very first gallery. This is an unfinished fragment of tapestry of wool and linen, dated to the 6th-7th centuries. The pattern is a pomegranate tree with its distinctive red fruit clearly represented in a deep and vibrant red, completely surprising in its detail and in the strength of its color.

Silk Fragment
Possibly Iran, 7th-8th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum

The second is a piece of patterned silk, possibly from Iran, dating to the 7th-8th centuries. In what we today might call a jacquard weave are stylized urns (or vases), centered in diamond shapes, which are surrounded with stylized ribbons. It’s a surprisingly modern looking pattern, something one might find today on a tablecloth or upholstery or drapery fabric.

The third astonishing textile survival is a truly magnificent piece, presumably woven in an imperial workshop during the 8th or 9th century.
Silk Fragment, Annunciation
Possibly Egypt, Syria or Constantinople, 8th-9th Century
Vatican City, Vatican Museums
It shows a repeating pattern of a highly detailed scene of the Annunciation within a medallion, in which Mary is seated in a throne-like chair, as Gabriel stands in front of her. The scene is repeated twice in the surviving fragment and is presumed to belong to a larger design in which other scenes from the New Testament were also portrayed inside medallions. This fragment survived because it was used as the wrapping for a relic, which at some point in the past, was given to a pope. The quality of this fragment is so high and the production of such a piece is so complex that it is suspected that it comes from the highest level of workshop, presumably from either Alexandria or from Constantinople itself.

Basalt Relief of a Stylite Saint
Syria, 5th-6th Century
Berlin, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz,
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin--
Skulpturensammlung und Museum fuer Byzantinische Kunst
• A charming survivor that answers a few of the questions that derive from efforts by certain Christians of this period to, in some way, duplicate the experience of martyrdom in am already Christianized setting. One has heard of the existence of Christian holy men and women, who practiced intense forms of asceticism in an attempt to duplicate the martyr experience in an unbloody way. In the West an example can be found in the extreme monastery of Skellig Michael, perched on a tiny spike of rock off the coast of County Kerry in Ireland. In the East it took the form of stylites, solitary men living on top of pillars.

Clearly, such people needed some help from those on the ground and one of the items in the Pilgrimage section demonstrates how communications took place. This is a 5th or 6th century basalt bas-relief showing one of these extreme hermits, atop his pillar. On a ladder placed beside it another monk climbs up with what the catalog describes as a censer (but could be a basket of food), while above his head, a dove holds a wreath. The figures are abstract, but charmingly naive and, in their charm and naïveté, very touching. They have a look that is reminiscent of the monks in the recent animated film, The Secret of Kells.

• A series of chased silver plates, depicting the story of David, including his confrontation with Goliath, made in 7th century Constantinople during the reign of the emperor Heraclius. These plates show the finest workmanship and a very high level of classical relief.

David Anointed by Samuel
Constantinople, 629-630
New York, Metropolitan Museum

Arming of David
Constantinople, 629-630
New York, Metropolitan Museum

• One of the most interesting works on display is not shown as a whole, but is rather a collection of pieces from a magnificent lost work: The Grado Chair.

Raising of Lazarus (from the Grado Chair)
Eastern Mediterranean or Egypt, 6th-7th Century
London, British Museum
St. Mark Preaching (from the Grado Chair)
Eastern Mediterranean or Egypt, 6th-7th Century
Milan, Civiche Raccolte d'Arte Aplicata--Castello Sforzesco
This chair, probably made of a wooden core and dating to the 7th-8th centuries, was covered with finely carved ivory plaques. The plaques are now dispersed through many collections all over the world: London, Milan, New York, Paris, Washington. They tell the stories of the life of Christ and the life of St. Mark, the first bishop of Alexandria.  This was a great opportunity to see them all together in one place.

Rabula Gospels, Canon Table
Syria, Completed 586
Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (Plut.I.56)

• The famous Rabula Gospels, created in Syria in the 6th century. It was interesting to observe that at some time in its life the pages of the Gospel were trimmed along its edges, so that the outer illuminations on each page have been truncated.

Dioscorides Manuscript
Italy, late 6th - early 7th Century
Naples, Biblioteca Nationale "Vittorio Emanuele III"
MS Ex-Vind.Gr.1

• A most interesting illustrated copy of the Dioscorides, which describes the medicinal properties of 287 plants. The illustrations, in addition to being beautiful, have the look of a very modern plant identification book. However, they date from the end of the 6th or beginning of the 7th century.

• A fascinating group of metal liturgical objects, called the Attarouti Treasure. Dating from the 6th-7th centuries the group includes a large number of chalices, plus a wine strainer, a censer and a silver dove which hung above the altar.

Silver and Silver Gilt Chalice
from the Attarouti Treasure
Syria, late 6th - early 7th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum
Silver Dove from the Attarouti Treasure
Syria, late 6th - early 7th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum

The objects come from a hoard that belonged to two different churches, St. John and St. Stephen, in the village of Attarouti in Syria. One of the things that make these treasures so memorable is the existence of inscriptions with the names of the faithful who donated them to the churches.

Child's Tunic with Hood
Egypt, 430-620
New York, Metropolitan Museum
• Among the most interesting survivors of the centuries are several items of clothing, including a child’s hooded robe.

• As I mentioned, there is little jewelry in this exhibition, especially compared with previous exhibitions of Byzantine work. But there are a few pieces. Among them is one absolutely stunning item, a necklace. This striking piece, made of lapis and gold stands out for its intense color and strikingly modern design.

Necklace and Pendant of Gold and Lapis
East Mediterannean, 7th Century
Washington, DC, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection
The necklace is made of alternating gold and lapis bicone beads and gold wire. Suspended from the center, is a pendant of lapis, carved in the shape of a shell edged in gold, with a tiny golden figure of wave-born Aphrodite positioned in front. It demonstrates the fact that, even as late as the 7th century, there were still lively fragments of the older Greco-Roman pantheon.

Luster-painted Glass Bowl
Syria (Damascus), 786-787
Corning, NY, Corning Museum of Glass
Gold Solidus of Heraclius, Heraclius Constantine and Heraclonus
Constantinople, 638-641
New York, Metropolitan Museum
There is much else besides: mosaics, carved capitals, glassware, pottery, metalwork, manuscripts, and a splendid array of copper, silver and gold coins (proving once again that gold is unaffected by the passage of time, so long as it is not melted down).

My one regret is that I wasn’t able to get there soon enough to make many return trips.

© M. Duffy, 2012

Essays on many of these items, and many other topics, can be accessed online at the special blog set up by the Met for this eshibition.