Byzantium and Islam, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, addresses two of history’s most amazing developments. This landmark exhibition, organized by Helen C. Evans, the Metropolitan curator responsible for two previous presentations of Byzantine art, brilliantly surveys historical themes of vital interest to the contemporary world.
The Eastern Roman Empire, known to historians as Byzantium, lasted over one thousand years. From its foundation by Emperor Constantine I in 330 A.D. to its conquest by the Turks in 1453, Byzantium was the most influential and resilient Christian state during the Middle Ages. From its capital city of Constantinople, Byzantium projected a political and cultural example that profoundly affected the peoples of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
Several centuries into this long-lived span, Byzantium was challenged by a sudden and totally unforeseen event. Having struggled for survival against the Goths, Vandals and other barbarian invaders, as well as the revived Persian Empire, Byzantium now faced a formidable spiritual foe. Islam, whose precepts were set down by the Prophet Muhammad during the early years of the seventh century, spread with lightning speed. In a few short decades following the death of Muhammad in 632, the zealous adherents of this new faith swept westward from Arabia to Spain by 711 and then reached the border provinces of China in the east in 751.
The Byzantine Empire staggered and nearly collapsed, as the armies of Islam conquered key provinces such as Syria and Egypt. Many of its citizens embraced the new faith or willingly accepted Islamic rule while adhering to Christianity. Yet Byzantium endured, even as a vibrant culture took shape in the vast regions dominated by the successors of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Metropolitan Museum exhibition charts the fascinating, if complex, process of cultural transformation that took place throughout the Middle East during the seventh to ninth centuries. For all of the thrust-and-parry military campaigns that took place, a spirit of mutual accommodation often characterized relations between the Byzantine Empire and the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates that governed the Islamic world for much of the Middle Ages.
The astonishing breakdown of Byzantine rule in Syria, Palestine and Egypt followed in the wake of the Battle of Yarmuk in 636, when the Byzantine army was nearly annihilated by the quick-moving Muslim cavalry. But internal dissension throughout the Byzantine Empire, especially controversy over Christian doctrine, set the stage for the disastrous loss of these populous and wealthy regions. A small silver figurine of a dove, part of a treasure trove of liturgical objects on display in the exhibit, testifies to the shift in religious loyalties in the Byzantine Empire.
The Attarouthi Treasure, which dates to Syria in the late sixth–early seventh century, contains nine gilded silver chalices, bearing images of the Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist and the dragon-slaying St. George. These were donated to the church with inscriptions testifying to the faith of the local congregation, such as “For her salvation Eudoxia has offered [this] to [the Church of] Saint Stephen of the village of Attarouthi.”
But the small silver dove is particularly significant because it figured in the theological disputes which wracked the Byzantine Empire. What seems like an innocent representation of the Holy Spirit greatly offended one of the rival schools of religious thought, the Miaphysites, who were especially strong in Egypt. The Miaphysites reacted strongly against emphasizing the human nature of Christ or representing God in certain artistic conventions.
“The Holy Ghost should not be designed in the form of a dove,” declared Severos, the patriarch of Antioch in 512, a view that would not have pleased the people of Attarouthi, which was located not far from Antioch.
By the time of the Arab conquests, many of Byzantium’s contending religious groups, like the Miaphysites, were completely alienated by government-enforced theological creeds aimed at unifying Christian belief. Instead of fighting the Arabs, they tamely accepted Islamic rule.
The Muslim Arabs, for their part, greatly respected many of the elements of Christianity, honoring Mary, the mother of Jesus, for instance. Christian churches were generally left in peace, though outward display of images of Jesus or Christian saints was forbidden.
In time, some of the Byzantine emperors adapted the Muslim ban on religious images, as part of their effort to defend Christianity. Leo III, an aggressive military emperor, defeated a massive Arab attack on Constantinople in 717. But instead of celebrating the protective power of religious images or icons, Leo launched a puritanical campaign to destroy paintings and mosaics depicting Jesus and other revered sacred figures. The bitterly disputed crisis of Iconoclasm, as it came to be called, lasted for over a century, leaving little of the early religious art of Byzantium intact.
Ironically, the places where such religious art was safest during the Iconoclast era existed outside Byzantium. The monastery of St. Catherine’s in the Sinai Desert was a particularly safe haven. Earlier exhibitions of Byzantine art at the Metropolitan Museum such as The Glory of Byzantium in 1997 and Byzantium: Faith and Power in 2003 were able to display icons from the collection of St. Catherine’s. Unfortunately, political instability in Egypt during 2011, as the present exhibition was being prepared, prevented similar loans of these rare examples of early Christian art.
Another surviving masterpiece from the era of Iconoclasm, however, is on view. This is a woven silk depiction of the moment when the angel Gabriel informed the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to Jesus.
Frequently the subject of paintings during the Italian Renaissance, the silk Annunciation is all the more precious for being a rare surviving example of fabric art from the early Middle Ages. Egypt’s warm, dry climate has enabled a number of cloth works of art from this period to be preserved. Several remarkable examples are on display in the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit, including a hooded child’s garment. But this Annunciation comes from the Vatican collection. It was discovered in 1906, lining a silver casket holding a religious relic. It is likely that this stunning work of narrative art was designed and made in a workshop in Constantinople supplying the Byzantine government with luxury gifts for foreign rulers. Art historians believe that it was sent to Pope Gregory IV around 835-37.
The creation of story-telling art like the Annunciation is another point of contention, this time in the field of art scholarship. Byzantine art has long been characterized as static, stylized and inward- focused. Certainly, artists in Byzantium placed an emphasis on painting religious icons, with the figure of Jesus, the Virgin Mary or a saint in a formalized pose. But that was only one aspect of Byzantine devotional art, one that Western art historians, from the Italian Renaissance onward, distorted to the detriment of a proper understanding of Byzantine culture.
One of the key displays in the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit, a set of exquisite carved ivory plaques, shows that narrative art retained a high level of prestige in the Byzantine art tradition. These plaques depict scenes from the lives of Jesus, Saint Mark the Evangelist and several Old Testament prophets. The sequence of episodes from the life of St. Mark is especially noteworthy, filled with dramatic intensity. In one scene, St. Mark preaches from his gospel to a group of superbly delineated disciples. Significantly, the opening page of St. Mark’s Gospel is shown, inscribed in Greek, “beginning of the Gospel of Jesus.”
These ivory panels were once thought to have been part of a throne sent by the Emperor Heraclius, who reigned from 610-41, to the Cathedral of Grado in northern Italy. This has been disputed, but gifts of luxury items like this from the court in Constantinople were frequent and lavish. The Byzantine government regularly launched “charm offensives” to win the friendship of foreign rulers or to reward church officials receptive to the Orthodox interpretation of Christian doctrine. Heraclius, who spent almost his entire reign fighting desperately to halt Persian and Arab invasions, needed all the support he could get.
These “Grado Chair Ivories” also include a depiction of a saint in a traditional icon pose. Facing forward and holding his arms aloft in supplication of divine favor, Saint Menas communes with God. But other details of this intricate work evoked the dramatic events taking place in Byzantium’s endangered provinces. St. Menas, an Egyptian saint, is flanked by two camels. No doubt this was a reference to his origins. But the hanging lamps on either side of him are very similar to Islamic mosque lamps. Islam was a force that Christian art could no longer ignore.
The tumultuous events that took place during the seventh through ninth centuries did not affect Christians and Muslims alone. Caught in the middle of the Persian and Arab invasions, the Jewish communities in Palestine, Egypt and North Africa struggled to survive in rapidly shifting circumstances. Frequent persecution by Christian authorities had made the position of Jews under Byzantine rule an often onerous situation. A growing body of archeological evidence, however, has revealed flourishing Jewish cultural and religious life during these troubled centuries. Several major discoveries of ancient Jewish synagogues, such as the Hammam Lif Synagogue near Tunis in North Africa, have uncovered spectacular mosaic floors, some with Jewish religious motifs, such as the menorah or lion. Others include the signs of the zodiac or paradise-like evocations of nature.
These relics and art works are survivals from a bygone age, but the legacy of the seventh through ninth centuries is one of notable relevance to our own times and the continuing crisis atmosphere in the Middle East. So it is more than a matter for scholarly debate whether the Arab Conquest brought the ancient world to a close or whether this period was, as the exhibition subtitle affirms, an “age of transition.”
As historian Finbarr J. Flood notes in the exhibition catalog, the religious doctrines and culture of Islam were not imposed in a highly developed state on the former-Byzantine provinces. Rather, the now classic hallmarks of Islamic civilization evolved to a large extent after the Arab forces had swept into Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Flood writes that “there is little material documentation for the early Muslim community before the late 680s and 690s, when invocations of the Prophet and quotations from the Qur’an began to appear.” Flood also states, rather amazingly, that “the first dated occurrence of the word ‘Muslim’ in an extant Arabic inscription is not before 741.”
The Umayyad caliphs, who laid the foundations for Islamic civilization, utilized the talents of their Christian subjects to preserve much of what they valued in Greco-Roman civilization. High on the Arab list for special treatment was the medical knowledge to be found in the pharmacological treatise by the first century scholar, Dioscorides. A Byzantine copy of this widely-used work, known in the West by its Latin title, De Materia Medica, is on view in the Metropolitan Museum exhibit. It dates to the late sixth century and comes from Naples, a testament to one of the more benign aspects of the ill-judged attempt by the Emperor Justinian to regain Italy as a province of the Eastern Roman Empire earlier in the sixth century.
It was books such as this that passed into the hands of Arab scholars and helped to launch the distinctive blend of faith and philosophy that was Islamic civilization during the Middle Ages and early Modern period. Byzantium and Islam is not merely an outstanding exhibit in its own right, but serves as a perfect introduction to the Metropolitan Museum’s New Galleries for the Art of Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia, opened on November 1, 2011.
No work of art on display in the Byzantium and Islam exhibit better illustrates how the culture of the ancient world was transformed into a new and vibrant dispensation than the display of pages from the fabled Blue Qur’an, dating to ca. 900–950. Byzantine scribes had earlier written in gold and silver upon purple-dyed parchment, producing luxury books, including copies of the Gospels. Here Muslim scribes followed the Byzantine lead, while producing a unique expression of their own religious faith.
One cannot help admiring the priorities of these Muslim scribes and scholars, taking a color traditionally reserved for the robes of kings and emperors and devoting it to the word of God.
Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition March 14 – July 8, 2012, The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), New York, NY 10028