Saturday, November 9, 2013

Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Main Floor

When: through March 2, 2014

There's lots of heaven and not much earth on display in this exhibit at the National Gallery.  If you like religious iconography, this is the show for you!  If you don't, you may want to give this a miss, or spend your time in just a couple of the rooms.  Personally, I grew weary of the religious art after a short time and was happy to move into a part of the show that dealt with jewelry and coins.  This is the Gallery's first show of Byzantine art, and I'm always happy to be part of the first of something or to see works that have not been on display in the US before, so that was satisfying.  Overall though, this just wasn't to my taste.

The Byzantine Empire began in 330, when Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to the site of the ancient city of Byzantium.  The city was renamed Constantinople and is now the modern city of Istanbul.  The Byzantine Empire lasted for over 1,000 years before it was sacked by the Turks in 1453.  This gives a wide scope for artistic expression, as times and tastes will undergo numerous changes in a millennium.  Interestingly enough, the art doesn't really change all that much.  Once Christianity displaced paganism, there's a certain sameness to the works, until the end of the Empire, when gothic influences can be seen to appear.

The first room has several examples of pagan statues, sadly defaced by Christians.  If you like noses, you'll be sorely disappointed.  Why knock them off, one wonders?  Is it because it's the easiest way to destroy a statue?  They were also moved by religious fervor to carve crosses into the foreheads of these representations of the ancient gods.  I was appalled by the senseless destruction, much like when the Taliban blew up those Buddhist statues.  Anyone who destroys art is a poor excuse for a human being.

Once the Christians had firm control of Byzantium, a new movement sprang up called Iconoclasm.  This is a belief that graven images are evil and must be destroyed.  Obviously, you don't have a great deal of artwork from this period.  The original Iconoclasts (this must be where the word comes from?) seem to have a lot in common with Oliver Cromwell, who also had a problem with art almost a thousand years later.  A pox on both their houses, I say! Cooler heads eventually prevailed, and the icons returned.

Although I lost interest in all of the religious paintings after a while, I did enjoy the mosaics on display.  I like tilework generally, and this was quite nice, although not in the best of shape after so many years.

The section entitled "The Pleasures of Life" held my interest most strongly - lots of jewelry, not so many paintings of a dying Christ.

Verdict: Overall, not a show I'd go to see again, although I did like seeing the early, pre-Christian work.  It was quite crowded when I went, so be prepared to share your experience with many others.

No comments:

Post a Comment