Western civilization has always regarded Athens and Rome as progenitors of its government, humanistic values, and art. But a ground-breaking exhibition opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this week elevates the Byzantine capital of Constantinople to this elite status.
"We rarely think of Constantinople as a role model," admits Helen Evans, who curated the massive show "Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)." "The Byzantine state was such a center of learning, knowledge, and faith. It set the standard for the Western world."
As museum director Philippe de Montebello said of the show, "This will open many an eye and many a mind."
It includes more than 350 works from nearly 30 countries in Europe and the Middle East, which constituted the Byzantine Empire during its 1,100-year history. Assembling this dazzling array of art was a daunting task. Many objects are precious religious relics from churches and monasteries unaccustomed to loaning works.
The exhibition offers, according to Amy Neff, professor of art history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, because many of the icons are so utterly inaccessible."
The exhibition, which runs through July 4, is the Metropolitan's third in a series devoted to Byzantine art. It begins when Emperor Michael VIII reconquered Constantinople in 1261, after 57 years of Latin rule.
The joy at reclaiming the empire occasioned a great flowering of religious art. Although Constantinople gradually diminished in power over the next two centuries and succumbed to the Ottoman Turks (who renamed it Istanbul) in 1453, its art flourished. The show documents its radiating influence for the next 100 years on the Islamic world as well as on the Northern and Italian Renaissance.
"The fall of Byzantium was not so much an ending but a great, exploding seed pod, flinging ideas and images that took root in all directions," says Annemarie Carr, professor of art history at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "It may seem like an extremely arcane culture," she adds, "but it became one of the great fertilizers of the world."
Among the highlights of the show are large icons in tempera on gold ground depicting holy figures. Many are actively venerated today, their surfaces worn away over the centuries by worshippers' lips. Side by side are presented versions of individual Byzantine images and copies worshiped in Russia, France, and Flanders. The poses are stereotypical but not stagnant, intended to teach tenets of faith. Many became the center of cults and destinations for pilgrims.
An image of Jesus' head known as the Mandylion (the oldest surviving image of an imprint of Jesus' face on cloth from the 1st century AD) reminds the viewer that icons, although physical objects, represent the invisible.
As to whether they continue to cast a spell for secular viewers, "In spiritual terms, you get out of it what you bring to it," says Ms. Evans.
The show illustrates how artists who jump-started the Renaissance adapted Byzantine icons to their own ends. Painters like El Greco and Bellini in Italy and Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden in the Low Countries selectively modified iconography, adding more naturalism, contemporary settings, and landscape backgrounds. This profound influence on the Northern Renaissance "has been known but not shown before," says Anne Derbes, professor of art history at Hood College in Frederick, Md. "Without the example of Byzantine art, Western art would look very different."
Among the most exquisite objects are miniature mosaic icons, which create subtly crafted images; illuminated manuscripts that dazzle the eye; and lavishly embroidered liturgical vestments that, when worn by priests, must seem like icons come to life.
The show was seven years in the making, and no one could have foreseen how the world's interest would be drawn to an area at the nexus of East and West.
Although the cultural and religious life of the Byzantine Empire extended past the fall of Constantinople, 1453 was, Ms. Carr says, "a 9/11 moment, when the world seemed to shift into a new perspective of two sides, Christian and Muslim. It was a remarkable moment, when a culture threw out ideas in all directions and didn't settle into duality. The world turned black and white, but what came out was an amazing spectrum."
With this show, late Byzantine art, typically considered a footnote in art history, stakes its claim to major significance, trumpeting the invigorating effect of cultural interchange. The art, like icons themselves, portrays a world of spare beauty and incorruptible truths that speak through the senses to the heart.