Byzantium's Art Still Shines

"The Glory of Byzantium," at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 6, shows what a misnomer is the term "Dark Ages." The mosaics, icons, and jeweled objects from the middle period of the Byzantine Empire (AD 843-1261) shine with a light that radiates across the centuries.

Byzantium, whose capital was Constantinople, won over neighboring people to Christianity through practicing a "politics of bedazzlement," as the exhibition catalog puts it. Slavs in Russia, Bulgaria, and Georgia, as well as Armenians and Italians, were so smitten with Byzantine culture that they adopted its style for their churches and art.

In the Byzantine Empire, art was primarily religious; it adorned all surfaces of church interiors. The gilded relics, carved ivories, and enameled metalwork on display from cathedrals and monasteries in 24 countries still impel an intense emotional experience.

Byzantine art was stereotyped in Europe for centuries as the maniera greca - frozen, frontal images with large, almond-shaped eyes and suffering mien. But the exhibit shows how much more the heritage encompassed. A 12th-century mosaic of St. Andrew, for example, preserves the Greco-Roman classical style. Subtle tones of stone and glass tesserae in his robe create a composition of swirls, the opposite of the severe, vertical style associated with medieval art.

The sophisticated design and technique of this art ranks high for its excellence and influence. As a Crusader wrote on seeing Constantinople around 1100: "How many wonders there are to be seen...."

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