By VICKI J. YIANNIAS
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of 250 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, and symbol of the spiritual legacy of the Byzantine Empire — an empire which nurtured Christianity and survived for eleven hundred and twenty-three years and eighteen days — has expressed the spiritual continuity and historical heritage of the Eastern Church by his inauguration of two major Byzantine art exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The first was the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries for Byzantine Art in 2000, and now, in 2004, the Metropolitan’s spectacular new exhibition, “Byzantium: Faith and Power”, which opens to the public on March 23 and will run until July 4.
On March 18, His All Holiness following a major address on “Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)”, before a capacity audience of over 750 people. His All Holiness was introduced by Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, who reflected on the Patriarch’s worldwide efforts on ecumenical relations and on his work to promote “peace and justice all over the world”.
In his address, titled “Byzantine Icons: A Legacy of Humanism,” the Ecumenical Patriarch compared the images and likenesses portrayed through icons with the likeness of humans in the image of God and their humanistic legacy. His All Holiness, in his conclusion said, “As you
visit this extraordinary and magnificent exhibition, ‘Byzantium: Faith
and Power’, in this splendid museum, please take your time to contemplate one of the greatest human achievements: the Byzantine Icon, an achievement of an incomparable art, which manages to combine what is beautiful and artistically exquisite with truly divine messages. These messages offer to us today, as they have throughout many centuries in the past, the most refreshing, most powerful and most creative insights into a genuine and truly human humanism, a humanism which begins with God, grows with God and culminates with God transforming the human being into a partaker of the Divine Nature.”
On Thursday evening, His All Holiness was the honored guest at a gala
dinner sponsored by the American Associates of the Saint Catherine Foundation in the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum. The Foundation supports conservation work at Saint Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai. The Monastery’s Library is the present focus of their activities. Guests included Honorary Chairpersons, President George H.W. Bush and Mrs. Barbara Bush; President of the Foundation and Chairman, Crown Princess Katherine of Yugoslavia and His Eminence Archbishop Damianos of Sinai.
A longtime supporter of Saint Catherine’s, His Royal Highness Prince Charles of Wales, sent a recorded message on “The Monastery of Saint Catherine: A Priceless Gift and Compelling Challenge for Our Generation.” President Bush spoke on “The Wisdom of Mount Sinai, Our Common Heritage,” and Dr. Helen C. Evans, Curator of Medieval Art at the Metropolitan, spoke on the importance of the new exhibition. Over 450 guests attended the gala, preceded by a preview of the new exhibition and a reception.
The exhibition, which is defined by icons of gold, as they define the Empire’s cultural flowering in the 13th and 14th centuries, comes to a final count of 401 works of art from museums, churches and monasteries in more than 30 nations of the former Byzantine sphere, and among which Greece is one of the most generous lenders, with work lent from 17 institutions. Frescoes, vestments, textiles and other liturgical objects, secular objects such as Queen Theodora’s ring, to name some of the treasures, informs the American public, whose knowledge of Byzantium is usually limited, if not nonexistent, of the vast range and importance of the art of that great Empire and its vital, unprecedented, and far-reaching effect on the rest of the world.
As well, seeing the historical prototypes of liturgical objects that are familiar to us today has great impact for Orthodox Christians, said Dr. Helen C. Evans, curator of the exhibition, “Byzantium’s present-day descendants can feel great pride and connect even more strongly to their Orthodox heritage by seeing that this culture existed, and that it occupied, and influenced much of the world. It was cosmically important and the art is a quality that is of the greatest in the world”.
Even all this aside, it can be said that the art produced in this period, the Palaiologan era — which formally began in 1261 with the victory over the Crusaders, who 57 years earlier had toppled Constantinople (and from which Byzantium never recovered) — are simply some of the most gorgeous objects ever produced.
Entering “Faith and Power’s” gilded galleries the visitor confronts the poignant, double-sided 14-century Virgin with Child icon mentioned by His All Holiness in his lecture. The icon has a historical link to Byzantium but its exact origin remains a mystery. Even without the answer, the spiritual, historical and artistic value of the icon is indisputable. The icon showed only the faces of the Virgin and Child until 1997 when 24 karat gold, malachite, cinnabar, and lapis lazuli were discovered under layers of overpainting. Research is still being conducted In Constantinople, to reveal more secrets of this great and sacred icon, the highlight of the exhibition.
Portraits of individual Byzantines, which in the words of Dr. Evans, “are real people, and not just shadowy figures in some distant corner of our imagination” are in the show’s first gallery. These portraits bring Byzantium into immediate focus. Although it did exist long ago and far away, the Empire was a real place in real time, and this exhibition takes you there.
Dressed in deep red and gold, and standing a gold ground, Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos, called by one modern historian “enlightened and widely-gifted,” is arrestingly portrayed on a page of a manuscript containing the funeral oration for Theodore II Palaiologos (d. 1407), ruler of Mistra, underlining that city’s importance in Byzantium’s twilight period. The gold background and the emperor’s immobility suggest the imperviousness to time and decay that Yeats has celebrated in his famous poems on Byzantium. As were all Byzantine makers of imperial portraits, the artist was careful to show the sovereign in the pose and garb traditionally symbolic of imperial authority: only the face hints of Manuel’s actual features.
On a smaller, personalized scale, the jewel-like miniature icon depicting the military saint (a concept, says Dr. Evans which is “not easily understood in western religions”), Theodore Stratilates, a particularly appropriate subject for that age of continual armed conflict, and which exemplifies the exquisite workmanship that had always been a Byzantine hallmark. The uniformly sized tesserae of marble, jasper, lapis lazuli, and stone, so microscopically small that even tweezer tips would engulf them, are so richly gold, deep red and blue, that the icon, about the size of a playing card, looks almost delicious. Theodore looks into the middle distance, an alert, pragmatic directness in one eye and a softer, compassionate, inward look in the other.
Sinai attracted worshippers from all over the Christian world eager to pay reverence to the locale where Moses himself had seen the Burning Bush and received the tablets of the Law. These visitors would have venerated icons such as that of the Archangel Gabriel, painted in the 13th century in Constantinople or possibly on Sinai itself. This panel, painted in egg tempera, provides Gabriel with facial features inspired by the Greek classical tradition but also evokes the sense of the miraculous that pervades this remote holy site. The Archangel’s expression could be interpreted as one of “bright-sadness” (harmolipi).
This icon of the Archangel graces the cover of the exhibition’s exceptional, 658 page catalogue, which begins with an introductory statement by His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew and contains 17 entries by eminent Byzantine scholars, including an essay, “The Icon As A Ladder of Divine Ascent in Form and Color”, by Archbishop Damianos of Sinai, Pharan, and Raitho, Abbot of the Holy Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai, Egypt.
Also in the foreward are statements by the funders of the exhibition, Yannis S. Costopoulos, Chairman and Manager of Alpha Bank, Anastasia S. Costopoulos, Vice-President of the J.F. Costopoulos Foundation, Anastasios P. Leventis, Chairman of the A.G. Leventis Foundation, and Dennis Merriweather, Chairman of the Stavros S. Niarchos Foundation,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been instrumental in educating the public about the Byzantine period since the exhibition “The Age of Spirituality” in 1978, followed by “The Glory of Byzantium in 1997”, and “Byzantium: Faith and Power 1261-1557)”.