We were in London at the weekend, mostly to see old friends, which was great. We also got chance to pay a visit to the Royal Academy’s current exhibition of Byzantine art and culture, imaginatively entitled ‘Byzantium, 300-1453’. If the curators haven’t quite pushed the boat out with their naming conventions, they have at least amassed a superb collection of artificats, the likes of which will surely not be gathered again today in our lifetime. It was gorgeous, and quite the education.
The exibition provides a very brief potted history of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, but laudably it doesn’t try to ‘flatten out’ the Byzantine experience jut to fit a nice pat narrative (indeed, it gives itself a headache when simultaneosuly describing the reign of Justinian as the start and the end of a period of confidence and expansion). The exhibition doesn’t pretend to tell a neat story about Byzantine art’s role in the history of painting or relief sculpture; it doesn’t patronise Byzantium by constantly linking its culture to the appropriations of the West; and it finds time and space for items with a provenance other than the Constantinople elites.
The sheer range of artifacts alone is next to overwhelming. We found the dinner plates of the more humble Byzantine homes fascinating – in their crude decoration they’re not so far from today’s M&S dinner sets – and without a doubt the awesome (and we use that word advisedly) collection of icons from the monastery at Sinai are worth the full price of the ticket alone. (There is an Archangel Michael which is so rich and expressive that it is little wonder it has for centuries been treated to the reverance of worship). Not only that, but we were deeply impressed by the subtlety of the exhbition’s lay-out – the Church artifacts are placed in a high-ceilinged room, the expanse of the empire’s political experience spreads across the largest room, and lighting is dimmed throughout. Nothing is made of this, and any more would have unecessarily distracted from the collection, but it is pitched just right in terms of mood.
It is a cliche of the worst sort that the Renaissance sprang from the rediscovery of Classical forms. More properly, and as much as we in the Western empire prefer to forget, it was informed and nourished by the Byzantines, who had retained their memory of antiquity whilst transforming it for a new world. This wonderful exhibition must be applauded for rubbing our faces in that. We think you should go.