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Byzantine Art

A critical sector of the Byzantine Empire was composed of the Emperor and the Imperial Realm. The visitor will find a visual links between Icons and the Imperial Realm. On entering the Byzantine Gallery, the visitor faces a life-size icon of St. Peter which forms the centerpiece of a display of Icons.

On entering the Byzantine Gallery, the visitor faces a life-size icon of St. Peter which forms the centerpiece of a display of Icons. These include carved ivory plaques, of which the complete triptych with the Virgin and Child was the most typical example; two miniature mosaics represent the rarest type made and painted panels the most widespread. The juxtaposition of two icons with the Martyrdom of the Forty Martyrs of Sebasteia, one a 14th c. miniature mosaic from Constantinople, the other a 17th c. painted triptych from Greece, illustrates the strength of the artistic tradition of Orthodox Christian art through the centuries. The veneration of such icons provided the Orthodox believer one way to access the spiritual realm.

Another critical sector of the Byzantine Empire was composed of the Emperor and the Imperial Realm. The visitor will find a visual link between Icons and the Imperial Realm: among the ivory icons, a panel of St. Constantine shows him as an emperor (Constantine the Great) closely resembling the round marble relief of an emperor (probably John II Comnenos), who appears in full imperial regalia. He dominates the microcosm of the Byzantine world, as represented by the Gallery, as emperors actually dominated the Byzantine Empire. He is associated with two displays of coins which were struck in imperially sanctioned mints. Nearby, a carved ivory relief illustrates the relationship of the medieval emperor and the church by showing a crowned ruler at the intersection of the arms of a large jeweled cross.

The connection across the Byzantine Gallery of the themes of Icons and Imperial Realm (between spirituality and rulership) is anchored at the far end of the Gallery in the Ecclesiastical Realm. Like icons, the Eucharist, the communion liturgy, also provided access to a spiritual experience administered by clergy. This practice is suggested by the display of what an early Byzantine altar may have looked like. Using the exceptional Sion Silver at Dumbarton Oaks, this altar includes patens, gilded book covers, an incense burner, openwork lamps, and the revetments of the altar table itself. These deluxe works reflect the devotion and munificence of their donors, whose names appear on many of the objects. Also on view is the silver Riha Treasure, comprising a partially gilt paten showing the Communion of the Apostles, a fan, and a chalice, a unique liturgical set in an American museum.

The ecclesiastical silver gains resonance in contrast to the Secular Silver that faces it. Bowls, a display plate, spoons, a fork, a ewer, and a candlestick would have graced the table of a wealthy host. These items would not only have impressed guests by their costliness—judged by their weight—but also by their illustrations from mythology and aristocratic sport.

The ecclesiastical theme is further developed in two cases near the early Byzantine altar. Eucharists East and West brings together the traditions that co-existed in western Europe and Byzantium during the Middle Ages. From the European tradition come a rare Carolingian chalice and the relief of Christ enthroned (from Spain) carved in extremely high relief contrasting dramatically with the Byzantine ivory icons of approximately the same period. The portable altar with a porphyry top and ivory side panels is a type of object found in western usage. Patens continued to be used in the Eucharist, but the Byzantine examples on display here were made of tinned bronze so as to imitate the look of silver. The ivory casket with a Deesis group, Apostles, and saints relates directly to the ivory icons.

The case with Illuminations rounds out the Ecclesiastical Realm. The hanging and standing lamps would have shed light on the religious books with their sacred words and holy pictures. Whether for the liturgy or for personal devotion, whether lavishly illuminated or punctuated by only a few images, medieval books were elaborate productions that involved the preparation of parchment, the laying out of pages for text and pictures, the mixing of colors, the preliminary drawing and painting of the miniatures, and often the application of gold foil. The small size of the Psalter and New Testament reflect its use as a personal prayer book, while the scale of the Evangelist portraits show that their books sat on the altar and were read during church services.

At the opposite end of the Gallery from the Ecclesiastical Realm are works that commemorate the end of a life but the beginning of a new one: Funerary Monuments. Ranging from the Roman through the medieval periods, these come from different cultures of the Mediterranean world, such as the painted mummy portrait from Egypt, a lead coffin from the Syro-Palestinian region, and a fragment of an early Christian sarcophagus from Rome with Christ performing one of his miracles. Also from Rome is the impressive Seasons Sarcophagus, a late pagan marble coffin with figures of the four seasons flanking portraits of a deceased couple—merely sketched in—framed within a zodiac ring. Also notable is a simple burial slab from Antioch with only its elegantly lettered inscription to preserve the memory of a certain Bardas.

A case at this end of the Gallery expands the Funerary concept to include Pilgrimage and the Holy Sepulcher. The travel of pilgrims to the sites where saints were buried and to Jerusalem, the holiest site where Christ was interred, created an active network of routes, the production of mementoes, and places for donations. The small, lead flask represents a pilgrim's trip to the Holy Land, while the marble lid of a reliquary held the remains of a venerated saint. If pilgrims could not undertake the arduous and expensive trip to Jerusalem, they might opt for a nearby shrine: the fresco of a youth may come from the catacombs of Rome and represent the deceased in the presence of his hallowed patron.

Retracing our steps along the long axis of the Gallery, we return to the Imperial Realm to the display of Insignia and Status in Late Rome and Byzantium. Four gold pendants and a pair of gold armlets incorporate imperial coins, making them expressions of honor, probably made to be given by the emperor to favored subjects as awards. In the highly stratified societies of the Roman and Byzantine worlds such valuable gifts projected the owner's status. Gold belt buckles and cameo jewelry with imperial portraits might also be rewards that expressed, if not raised, the status of the wearer.

Nearby, in the see-through case towards the Courtyard, are objects of value and the means of measuring value, as well as keeping such valuables secure. Value was determined by weight rather than by the artistic skill elaborated on an object such as gold or silver. The steelyard with its counterpoise weights was the standard method of weighing, whether gemstones or animals hides. The silver plates and the ivory boxes—one from the early Byzantine period with Dionysos, the other from the middle Byzantine period with fantastical animals and caricatures of warriors—reflect the luxurious appointments that might be found in wealthy homes.

Axially across the Gallery from the concerns of Status, although not exempt from its relevance, are examples of Secular and Religious Jewelry. One case displays luxury jewelry of the early and middle Byzantine periods. There is a rare early Byzantine marriage belt and a series of marriage rings that must reflect actual ceremonies but, lacking descriptive documents, we do not know exactly what role this jewelry played in those rituals. A unique necklace with a diminutive golden Venus standing inside a carved lapis lazuli shell reveals the taste for rare stones and pagan mythology in what must have been, by the time this necklace was made in the 7th c., a thoroughly Christian society.

The use of gold, silver, pearls, and precious gemstones for Personal Adornment, appreciated for their value and color, was naturally extended into the Christian Realm. Symbols, saints, and inscriptions were applied to rings and pendants and personal, portable reliquaries throughout the Byzantine centuries. The cross was by far the most widespread symbol worn, but miniature icons in amethyst, rock crystal, and bloodstone also functioned as jewelry. Enamel work, too, was a precious medium among Byzantine crafts, distinguished on a large cross reliquary with the dramatic image of the crucified Christ or on a minuscule plaque with the bust of St. Demetrios. Jewelry with images of Christ, the Virgin, and other saints of choice were worn by the faithful to express their religious sentiments, but also to protect them from spiritual as well as physical evils. Furthermore, wearing rings, pendants, and necklaces could provide "contact" with the numinous powers of the holy world of the saints. In other words, jewelry could serve different functions for people, and perhaps operated on several levels at the same time.

The realms of Status and the selections of Jewelry flank two major examples of Byzantine religious sculpture. The early Byzantine chancel panel shows, on one side, the Sepulcher of Christ. This panel has been cut down following the roof line of this temple-like building, recognizable when compared to the very small version seen on the pilgrim's ampulla in the case devoted to Death, Pilgrimage and the Holy Sepulcher. It must have been placed in a church or a baptistery where members of the congregation would see it from both sides since its back is also carved with a large amphora, no doubt alluding to the wine of the Eucharist.

The other sculpture, also carved on both sides, is very different in nature. The back is an early Byzantine chancel panel with geometric patterns that have been smoothed by wear or water. On the front is the Virgin, known in Byzantine culture as the Mother of God, the epithet inscribed to either side of the figure; her prayerful gesture as intercessor for humankind was originally directed to Christ. In Byzantium, there was no more compassionate saint than Mary and her image (eikon=icon) was a powerful conduit to a blessed afterlife in paradise.

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