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Byzantine Collection

The Byzantine Collection, which encompasses the imperial, ecclesiastical, and secular realms, is one of the finest collections of portable, sumptuous objects in the world. Selected objects are on display in the Byzantine Gallery and Courtyard Gallery.

The Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection comprises more than twelve hundred objects from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries. Among the most important objects are treasures of gold, silver, and bronze vessels used for the celebration of the Eucharist. Other outstanding objects are late Roman and Byzantine jewelry, cloisonné enamels, glass and glyptics, ivory icons, and illuminated manuscripts. Although the collection focuses on Byzantine art, it comprises objects of Greek, Roman, and western Medieval art; works from the Ancient Near East; Pharaonic and Ptolemaic Egypt; and Islamic cultures. The collection also includes mosaics from Antioch and relief sculpture from the late Roman to Middle Byzantine periods, as well as more than two hundred textiles and comprehensive holdings of coins and seals.

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History of the Collection

The core of the Byzantine Collection was formed in just a few decades thanks to the pioneering interest and refined taste of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss and to the connoisseurship of their advisers, especially Royall Tyler. The Blisses began acquiring Byzantine art in the early 1920s and were able to lend important objects to the first major international special exhibition of Byzantine art, which took place in Paris in 1931. During this decade, they became interested in Early Byzantine jewelry and Early and Middle Byzantine liturgical objects. They also acquired Roman artworks, Islamic ceramics and textiles, and small-scale artworks from various prehistoric and ancient cultures.

After deciding in 1936 to give Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University during their lifetimes, the Blisses begin to more aggressively acquire Byzantine objects. Between 1936 and 1940, when they made their gift of Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard, they acquired a remarkable 153 Byzantine objects. The Byzantine Gallery, constructed in 1939–40, was built to the Blisses’ design by the Washington architect Thomas T. Waterman as the showcase for their Byzantine art. With this, the Blisses moved beyond the private collectors’ passion to the prescient establishment of a specialized collection that appealed equally to amateurs and research scholars alike. The Blisses continued to build their collection in the decades that followed, exhibiting the same enthusiasm and connoisseurship that had characterized their choices in previous years.

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