WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the first exhibition devoted to Byzantine art at the National Gallery of Art, some 170 rare and important works, drawn exclusively from Greek collections, offer a rare glimpse of the soul and splendor of the mysterious Byzantine Empire.
On view in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building through March 2, “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections” traces the development of Byzantine visual culture from the Fourth to the Fifteenth Centuries, beginning with the ancient pagan world of the late Roman Empire and continuing to the opulent and deeply spiritual world of the new Christian Byzantine Empire.
Recognized masterpieces, many never lent before to the United States, are view with newly discovered and previously unpublished objects from recent archaeological excavations in Greece. Sculptures, icons, mosaics, frescoes, manuscripts, metalwork, jewelry, glass, embroideries, and ceramics are on loan by the Benaki Museum, Byzantine and Christian Museum, National Archaeological Museum, and Numismatic Museum, all in Athens, and the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki, as well as from collections in Argos, Corinth, Crete, Kastoria, Mistra, Patmos, Rhodes, and Sparta, among others.
After Washington, the exhibition travels to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where it will be displayed at the Getty Villa April 9–August 25.
“We are delighted to present the Byzantine period to our visitors. The earliest paintings in our own collection from the Thirteenth Century would not have been possible without these Byzantine precedents,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art, Washington.
“This exhibition will present to the American public the most important legacy of Byzantium, a great civilization based on Hellenism and Christianity. The 13 Byzantine museums of Greece are the only museums in the world dedicated to Byzantine history and culture, which are major constituents of our national heritage,” said Costas Tzavaras, Greek Minister of Culture.
The exhibition is organized by the Hellenic Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, Culture and Sports, Athens, with the collaboration of the Benaki Museum, Athens, in association with the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
“Heaven and Earth” comprises approximately 170 works of art presented in five thematic sections:
From the Ancient to the Byzantine World includes works dating to the Fourth–Sixth Centuries, when Christianity and paganism coexisted, such as two marbles statues from the Fourth Century — “Orpheus Playing the Lyre” and “The Good Shepherd.”
The Christian Empire: Spiritual Life showcases works spanning the Sixth–Fourteenth Centuries made for the church or private worship. They include a Byzantine mosaic from 1100 that depicts the apostle Andrew against a glittering gold background and a late Tenth Century gilded silver Adrianople cross.
The Pleasures of Life focuses on secular works of art for the home, such as floor mosaics, silver dinnerware, ceramic plates, perfume flasks, bronze and glass lamps, and jewelry. Also on view is a lavishly illustrated copy of the Romance of Alexander.
Intellectual Life presents illustrated manuscripts containing works of scripture, theology and liturgy, subjects that dominated intellectual life in the Christian empire. Manuscript copies of Homer’s Iliad and texts by Euripides, Socrates and Euclid are included.
The Last Phase: Crosscurrents concludes the exhibition with works of art reflecting the final flowering of Byzantine art under the emperors of the Palaiologan dynasty (1261–1453), the most long-lived of all Byzantine dynasties. The works reflect a heightened interest in naturalism and narrative detail as seen in the Fifteenth Century icon known as the Volpi Nativity.
The National Gallery of Art is on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW. For information, www.nga.gov, 202-737-4215, or TDD 202-842-6176.