NEW YORK - "The Glory of Byzantium" exhibition on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 6 shows the influence of the Orthodox Christian church in illuminated manuscripts, processional crosses, small and large mosaics, fragments of frescoes, painted icons, gold and enamelled medallions and ivory carvings.
Byzantium was the heartland of Orthodox Christianity, and much of this art was created in the centuries when the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity, long drifting apart, formally divided.
Here was a 13th-century Byzantine manuscript with a richly colored illumination of Jesus raising Lazarus, a prefiguring in the New Testament of Jesus' own resurrection.
'A quiet grief'
Nearby, several other illuminated volumes were opened to the "Anastasis" - the scene that for Orthodox Christians represents the power of the resurrection, with Christ breaking free from the gates of hell and rescuing Adam and other Biblical figures from the clutches of the devil.
There were carved ivory icons of the crucifixion, of Jesus being gently taken from the cross, of his entombment.
"You see how popular these scenes are," said John Erickson, a professor of canon law and church history at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y.
"They convey a quiet grief and mourning without any extravagance about it, a serenity contrasting with some late medieval German renderings of the same scenes that are almost violent in their emotions," he said.
Not violent but less serene was the large 12th-century icon of the Man of Sorrows. "Something of an understatement," Erickson said when he read the wall card next to it ("meant to compel a deep emotional response").
Some familiar works
The painted panel, with the Virgin portrayed on the reverse, shows the head and shoulders of the crucified Jesus in rhythmic stylized lines. His head is fallen to one side; his eyes are closed; he is utterly broken. Yet on the cross above him is the inscription "King of Glory."
The Harbaville Triptych, carved in translucent ivory, and a 12th-century mosaic icon of Jesus' mountaintop Transfiguration that was executed with grain-like cubes of glistening marble, lapis lazuli, colored glass, and gilded bronze, are included in the exhibit and are on loan from the Louvre in Paris.
Other works in the exhibit are less well-known.
"I've never seen anything quite like that before," said Erickson, standing before a small silver icon from 11th-century Georgia that rendered in low relief three interlocking scenes: Joseph and Nicodemus taking Jesus down from the cross, the two men preparing his half-shrouded body for burial, and finally an imposing angel announcing the resurrection to two astonished women at the tomb while Roman guards sprawl sleeping on the ground.
A convert to Orthodoxy while a student at Harvard in 1963, Erickson said that he grew up with little Christian imagery beyond occasional pictures of Christ "as a kind of Norwegian fisherman."
Appealing to all of the senses
"Unlike a great deal of Christianity emphasizing the word, the sense of hearing or only of sight," Erickson said, "Byzantium appealed to practically all the senses - to smell through incense, to taste and to touch," as icons were carried and kissed.
"One often thinks of Byzantine art as otherworldly, as static and hieratic," Erickson said, an impression reinforced two decades ago by the hugely popular "Age of Spirituality" exhibition, also at the Metropolitan Museum, of Byzantine art from the fourth to sixth centuries.
"The 'Age of Spirituality' was impressive in many ways, but some of that art had more in common with a Neo-Platonic, world-fleeing, dualistic spirituality," Erickson said.
"The emperor or some other blessed person would be depicted with uplifted eyes suggesting immediate access to the divine. That art was less human and worldly than this middle Byzantine art, but not the more Christian for it."
Pub Date: 4/24/97