The Glory of Byzantium

"The Glory of Byzantium" at the Met

The 350 works in "The Glory of Byzantium" (at the Metropolitan Museum in New York through July 6) are like the tesserae of a mosaic; whether they form a coherent and affecting image depends on where one stands to look at them.

The people I know who have spent time in what was once Byzantium came away from the Met exhibition disappointed. Those of us who haven’t visited Byzantium were spellbound. As I hastened through the last few rooms of the show just before closing time, a phalanx of guards tailing me, I wanted to hide behind an icon and stay all night.
"The Glory of Byzantium" is devoted to the "Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843-1261." That is the period just after the Iconoclastic crisis, when the "restoration of images" by the Empress Theodora led to a profusion of religious art in the Orthodox world.

The exhibition aims to reveal the variety of Byzantine art, the vast spread of Byzantine culture (into Egypt and Sicily, Spain and Bulgaria), the interaction of Orthodoxy and Islam, and the influence of Byzantium on the Latin West. All that it does relentlessly. What it cannot begin to do is convey the overwhelming, all-encompassing, awe-inspiring effects of Santa Sophia in Ravenna, where one stands in an environment transfigured in gold and colored glass.

Instead, the exhibit offers case after case of objects-jewelry, friezes, ivory reliquaries, crosses of hammered...

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About the Author

Paul Elie, an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (FSG), is writing a book about the music of Bach in the age of recordings.