Visitors who venture to the Metropolitan Museum’s Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition exhibition expecting the gold shimmer and polychromed glitz of the empire’s capital may be disappointed. This exhibit is instead characterized by the earth tones of Jordan’s floor mosaics, creamy carved ivories from ancient animal tusks and limestone architectural elements of the desert — in other words, the richness of the empire’s southern provinces in the seventh to ninth centuries as social and political control of the area slipped away from the Christian Byzantines when Muslims rose to power. This is no mere nod to provincial charms; the scale and scope make it a gathering of works that is unlikely to happen again. It is a must-see for scholars of late antiquity and early Islam, and all viewers will appreciate the ways that power and continuity are expressed in both luxury items and everyday objects.
Specialists will see a few old friends in the cases, albeit in new circumstances. The famed Rabbula Gospels, a sixth-century manuscript from Syria, is turned to the canon tables with a series of small narrative scenes instead of its well-known images of the Crucifixion and the Annunciation. The Fieschi Morgan Staurotheke, an exquisite, enamel box called simply a Reliquary of the True Cross in this exhibition, is not far from its usual home at the center of the permanent Byzantine collection downstairs. One of the few pieces in the show that was made in Constantinople, it is now tucked into a case with a number pilgrimage souvenirs.
Traversing the galleries does, in fact, feel a bit like a pilgrimage with a clearly defined route. Visitors should take particular note of the large map tucked into a corner of the first room, pointing out the geographic parameters of the show: Alexandria and Cairo, Jerusalem and Damascus, Baghdad and Ctesiphon. Curator Helen Evans’s organization focuses on a shift in political power from Christianity to Islam, beginning with early Christian objects in the first rooms, adding in items that show influences of secular traditions such as motifs used by Christians and Muslims alike, followed by Islamic items and architectural elements. This change is subtly hinted by the shape of the doorways connecting the rooms — round arches in the Christian rooms and pointed, Islamic-style portals in spaces holding Muslim art.
While this linear narrative drives home the idea of transition, it does not allow for many side-by-side comparisons. A juxtaposition of an 8th-century copy of the Book of Isaiah written in Coptic displayed alongside a Tunisian Qur’an with gold, Kufic script would have been welcome, for instance. Posters in each room do explain particular curatorial themes that offer ongoing narrative to the transition taking place, but the slant of the show is decidedly toward specialists, with the more user-friendly, didactic messages embedded into the audio guide or the Met’s website. Viewers who need a refresher course in Islamic art or belief should explore the newly reopened Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia (essentially the Met’s new Islamic wing) before entering this exhibition. While the new wing plus the special exhibition may be too much for a single afternoon, considering the two in tandem is worthwhile. They highlight the complexities of the term “Islamic art,” demonstrating that religious and secular arts of these lands represent diversity across geography, ethnicities and time.
What can be readily deciphered, though, is the exhibition’s theme of objects as bearers of information and carriers of both cultural norms and mutable motifs. This is most discernible in the vibrant and numerous textiles, a highlight of the show. It is a rare treat to see so many examples at once because Byzantine textiles are delicate, most of them chance survivors from burials in the arid desert that conspired to preserve them.
A huge, red tapestry dominates the first room, beckoning viewers to lean closer to the woven medallions with images of stylized Amazons and personifications of Abundance. Made in Egypt in 640-60 ACE, it has been radiocarbon dated to 95% probability, demonstrating a perk of scientific study. Motifs such as these, along with scenes of hunters, musicians or vines, were used as secular decorations by Christian Byzantines and were adapted again by Muslims. For example, a different, smaller roundel with Amazons and a cross shows the ancient mythological figures with a Christian addition and, according to a wall label, the same Amazons were later depicted with Arabic inscriptions as well.
Cosmopolitan tourists and fashionable urbanites who flocked to the Alexander McQueen show last summer will be interested to note that male and female Roman dress was differentiated mostly by accessories, visible in a variety of embellished, t-shaped tunics. A Persian-style riding coat is contrasted with these garments, and a child’s tunic with a fringed hood has been lovingly adorned with ornamental bands of whimsical dancing figures. Side by side, these are telling examples of fashion history.
Because reconstructing ancient history is such a precarious endeavor, audiences have to supply a little imagination. In this case, the excellent design of the space itself is an asset. Many item labels have helpful contextual photos demonstrating the object’s original placement or use. A damaged Umayyad architectural element is displayed with a line-art representation of its original design, helping the viewer fill in the missing pieces to imagine its former splendor.
A short video of the richly painted interior of the Red Monastery at Sohag, Egypt adds an element of monumentality and three-dimensional space to the exhibition. In the paintings, darkly lined saints in frontal poses and intricate geometric designs in the “jeweled” Coptic style are silent and otherworldly. The film pans quickly through the church sanctuary, projected almost life-sized on the gallery wall. In the screening room, a number of exhibition catalogues are available for perusing. While the 332-page book is an excellent piece of scholarship, more casual enthusiasts might prefer to investigate the free exhibition blog. On the Met’s website, enjoy the same video with accompanying narration by art historian Elizabeth Bolman, who describes conservation efforts that have taken place at the Red Monastery over the last decade.
By placing material culture artifacts alongside treasures, the exhibition challenges us to decipher the value, beauty, and messages of objects that are, strictly speaking, not art: weights and measures, coins, papyrus contracts, jewelry and silks. For artists, this is a lesson in material culture studies, an opportunity to “read” information in the motifs that graced everyday objects and to consider the changeable meaning of images that were altered by patrons, uses, convenience, and changing political structures. A New York Times review laments the lack of loans from Egyptian collections, offering today’s political turmoil as a foil for that of the Byzantine transitional period in question. But there is no need to review the exhibition that might have been — in its current state, academics, artists and all curious visitors will appreciate this commendable effort. It is a collection of multi-faceted artworks representing a diverse population.
Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through July 8.
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