Saturday, April 14, 2012

Byzantium & Islam at the Metropolitan Museum

The exhibit "Byzantium & Islam" at the Met Museum until July 8th, 2012, focuses on the transitions and adaptations resulting from interactions between Jews, Orthodox, Coptic and Syriac Christians and others in the southern provinces of the Byzantine Empire in the westward spread of the Islamic world. By the 9th Century, authority was transferred from the Byzantine Empire to the new Umayyad and later Abbasid dynasties. The exhibit shows permutations in the adaptations and transformation of religious images and identities.

Here's a review of the exhibit from the NY Times.

On the left is an ivory of St Mark preaching. In it, we can read the opening of Mark's Gospel in Greek. In Coptic Christian tradition, Mark is the first patriarch who brought the gospel to Alexandria. Coptic Christianity bequeathed to the world a rich monastic literary tradition associated particularly with Apa Shenoute 348-465 (see image and Coptic inscription).

One example of transformed shapes and their religious meanings can be seen in three pyx of the exhibit (one on loan from Berlin), here set together side by side, another one of which is 7-8th C carved out of ivory from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Here is a Byzantine ivory pyxis of the 5th Century with images of women at the tomb of Christ. This pyxis may have been used to carry consecrated wafers to those too sick to attend mass.

Compare with Iberian Islamic pyxides like this one from the Cloisters probably used to store jewelry and cosmetics. An ivory pix from the Walters Museum in Baltimore seems to have been created by Muslim artists in Sicily for Christian Norman rulers in the 11-13th Century to contain perfume and jewelry. It is decorated with typical Islamic geometric designs and motifs. Many such small boxes in Europe could take on a Christian function containing the consecrated host or communion wafers. The Walters description points out that these examples of secular Islamic art were copied by European artists making Christian items.

To see this exhibit is to understand that borders and boundaries are not fixed and that ideas and motifs exist in divers ways in different contexts.

No comments:

Post a Comment