The Getty Villa in Los Angeles presents Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections from April 9 through August 25, 2014. This major loan exhibition surveys the artistic, spiritual and cultural splendor of the Byzantine Empire.
The Byzantine art exhibition highlights 167 items that include painted icons, frescoes, sculptures, mosaics and ceramics, illuminated books and other objects. Spanning more than 1,300 years, the art and antiquities are on loan from 34 Greek archaeological and art museums like Athen’s Benaki Museum, creating the largest and most significant Byzantine collection from Greece ever assembled and presented in Southern California.
The display of Byzantium art outlines the progression of Byzantine culture. It starts in the fourth century from its Greco-Roman beginnings and progresses to the 15th century and the “ancient pagan world of the late Roman Empire” through the profoundly spiritual realm of the new Christian Byzantine Empire.
Emperor Constantine the Great relocated the capital of the Roman Empire to the site of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium on the Bosporus Strait that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Rechristened Constantinople, it became the new capital of the Roman Empire, and one of the biggest and wealthiest cities in the Christian World. The empire spread and receded throughout its history, but remained infamous for the grandeur of its art and architecture. The ancient name, Byzantium now signifies the empire, culture and period when the rulers of Constantinople created.
Five key thematic sections comprise the Byzantine Art exhibit. It begins with the early adoption of Christianity as the state religion in late antiquity when it infused and influenced all aspects of life including the architecture and the arts. The exhibit follows to the pluralistic nature of the empire and its reflection of the arts of the West, most notably in Italy.
The first section entitled, From the Ancient to the Byzantine World highlights the fourth through the sixth century, and illustrates the classical influence. During the time, paganism and Christianity coexisted in a “hybrid culture.” Visitors can study the principal figures of classical antiquity from the early centuries and their role in providing a foundation for Early Christian visual culture.
In the second section, The Christian Empire: Spiritual Life explores the sixth through the 14th century, and works created exclusively for the church or private worship. Here, visitors can view Byzantine mosaics and emblematic icons, with most painted in tempera on wood. An example from the exhibit is the 12th century double-sided icon with Virgin Hodegetria and The Man of Sorrows.
Visitors will next study The Pleasures of Life that studies the secular works of art in the home. Items include silver flatware, floor mosaics, ceramic plates, jewelry, and perfume flasks. Also on display is the sumptuously illustrated copy of Romance of Alexander, a fictional account of Alexander the Great’s adventures.
The Intellectual Life section displays illustrated manuscripts such as theology, liturgy, scripture and other topics that directed intellectual life in the Christian empire. Also on view are copies of manuscripts that cover the Byzantines ancient Greek heritage such as texts by Socrates and Euripides. These and other similar works demonstrate the importance that scribes in the Byzantine empire had in passing down the tradition of classical learning and literature.
The last section of the Byzantine art exhibition is The Last Phase: Crosscurrents, which explores 14th and 15th century art of the Byzantine Empire under the rulers of the Palaiologan dynasty. Works feature naturalism and narrative detail as seen in the 15th century icon, Volpi Nativity (Nativity of the Virgin). This section shows the cross over between the Byzantines and Western crusaders that occupied Byzantine territories in the 13th century. At this time, artists worked for both Greek and Italian patrons, producing paintings in a “fusion style.”
Byzantine artists made use of pagan and early Christian fundamentals to form an opulent and spiritual Byzantium world. With Christianity as the state religion, resplendent icons, sculptures, textiles and frescos ornamented cathedrals and churches throughout the empire. Illuminated manuscripts sustained ancient Greek literature, and privileged individuals promoted the beautification of daily life. Objects from the Byzantine art exhibition exemplify Byzantine beauty that impelled artistic traditions of cultures for over a millennium.
By: Dawn Levesque
The Getty Villa