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Sacred Art, Secular Context: Exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art from the Byzantine Collection of Dumbarton Oaks

Asen Kirin, University of Georgia, Summer Fellow 2004

My summer fellowship was devoted to the cataloguing of objects from the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection in preparation for the exhibit Sacred Art, Secular Context for the Georgia Museum of Art, May 14–November 6, 2005. With objects dating from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries, the exhibition will include carved gems, jewels, golden coins, steelyards with weights, silverware, and sculptural reliefs. Approximately half of the pieces are miniature in scale and are exquisitely crafted in gold, cloisonné enamel, and precious or semi-precious stones. All objects feature sacred images and/or inscriptions, even though they functioned in the secular context of personal adornment, dining, and dealings at the marketplace. In addition to the sphere of everyday life in Byzantium, the “secular context” alludes also to the environment within which Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss collected art in the early twentieth century. An accompanying exhibition will display ten works of modern American painting acquired at the same time as many of the Byzantine objects. Thus the overall display presents the phenomenon of collecting and studying works of Byzantine art as a lesser-known chapter in the history of American visual culture. As collectors, the Blisses followed the advanced discussions of art historians about the sources and main currents in the history of Western art. Mr. and Mrs. Bliss shared the view that Byzantium preserved the Hellenistic and Roman intellectual and artistic traditions and conveyed them to late medieval and early Renaissance Italy.

One of the catalogue articles I completed involves an enigmatic carved gem—a rock crystal intaglio heretofore described as a sixth-century piece representing the Denial of Apostle Peter. My research demonstrated that this is a Roman object dating to the first century BCE and that it depicts a scene from Aeschylus's tragedy The Seven Against Thebes.M. C. Ross, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Medieval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection. Volume One: Metalwork, Ceramics, Glass, Glyptics, Painting (Washington, D.C., 1962), 94–95, no. 113, plate LⅧ. G. Kornbluth has already suggested that this is the true subject matter of the gem, cf. “'Early Byzantine' Crystals: An Assessment,” The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 53/53 (1994/95): 23–30, esp. 24, 29, No. 10. Nevertheless, in her article Kornbluth does not discuss the gem's iconography and meaning, so this catalogue entry will do just this for the very first time. As rendered, the composition on the gem focuses on Amphiaraus—a legendary hero worshiped as a god in an oracular shrine dedicated to him. Therefore the gems on which this scene appears might have functioned as talismans for those in the military. On the whole, the popularity of this topic during the last century BCE in Italy may have been a reflection of the high regard for Attic drama in Magna Graecia, the place of perpetual theater revivals. Also, it is possible that the stories about the fratricidal wars of the Greeks, as told by Aeschylus, acquired new relevance at that time when Romans were fighting against Romans in the civil wars that led to the establishment of the empire.