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Before the Blisses: Nineteenth-Century Connoisseurship of the Byzantine Minor Arts

This exhibition examines the ways in which nineteenth-century collections and illustrated catalogs impacted the study and appreciation of early Christian, Byzantine, and medieval “minor arts” before the Blisses began their collections.

In eighteenth-century Europe, many antiquarians, collectors, and scholars held negative attitudes towards post-classical art, influenced by Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s monumental Geschichte des Kunst des Altertums (1764), which placed classical Greek art at the pinnacle of great art, and Edward Gibbon’s successful The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1789), which blamed Christianity for the fall of the Roman empire. As western European travelers, diplomats, and soldiers began to explore the eastern Mediterranean in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many published travelogues that criticized the Byzantine wall paintings and monuments which they encountered. Only a few scholars (such as Bernard de Montfaucon) and major collectors (including the royal families of France and Russia) showed great passion for Byzantine and medieval art and antiquities.

In sharp contrast to the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century saw significantly more interest in early Christian, Byzantine, and medieval art. A number of factors contributed to this, including increased opportunities to travel to the eastern Mediterranean. Nationalism also played a large role; in post-revolutionary France, for example, popular culture romanticized medieval Crusaders, while, in newly independent Greece, Bulgaria, and imperial Russia, some scholars and influential people sought to promote Byzantine and Slavic heritage. As interest in the past grew, architects, artists, and craftsmen found a market for revivalist styles (neo-classical, Byzantine Revival, Gothic Revival), both in architecture and the decorative arts.

This online exhibit accompanied an exhibit in the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, from April 15 to July 31, 2011.


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