HACF Lecture in NYC: Greece, Byzantium and Post-Byzantium at The Met

The HACF lecture on Greece, Byzantium and post-Byzantium at The Met. Photo by Eleni Sakellis

NEW YORK – On May 31, the Hellenic-American Cultural Foundation (HACF) presented the lecture Greece, Byzantium and Post-Byzantium at The Met by the Mary and Michael Jaharis Curator of Byzantine Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Dr. Helen C. Evans.

The lecture focused on how the Byzantine and post-Byzantine centuries maintained many aspects of classical Greek culture and traditions even as Christianity replaced the worship of the gods of antiquity and ultimately the Ottoman Empire and others occupied much of its land.

The event took place at the offices of Debevoise & Plimpton in new York City and attracted over 200 people.

Among those in attendance were the Consul General of Greece in New York Konstantinos Koutras, Ambassador Andrew Jacovides, philanthropist and Metropolitan Museum benefactor Mary Jaharis, John Stratakis- President of the HACF Board of Directors, John M. Vasily- member of the HACF Board of Directors, Athanasia Papatriantafyllou- Director of the Greek Press Office, HACF members, and Byzantine art enthusiasts.

Nicholas Kourides, HACF Chairman, gave the opening remarks, welcoming all in attendance, and noting that, “This is the third spring event with curators from The Met addressing Greek heritage.”

Four of the icons in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection discussed by Dr. Helen C. Evans in her lecture. Photo by Eleni Sakellis

He also mentioned the tremendous interest in the lecture with so many people wanting to attend that registration had to be shut down ten days before the event. Kourides introduced Dr. Evans, observing that she is “a rock star” and an “icon” having lectured all over the world. He said, “We are thrilled to have someone of her caliber lecture.”

The Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries highlight the importance of the Byzantine Empire, ruled from Constantinople as a major world power for centuries, and of the role that Greece played in developing many images used by Christians around the globe. Four exceptional Cretan icons, acquired by the museum through the generosity of the Jaharis family in 2013, were the focus of Dr. Evans’ talk.

She said that a great deal of what we know about Byzantine art has only recently been discovered and studied by scholars. Quoting from Edgar Allan Poe’s To Helen, “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome,” Dr. Evans observed that much of what we know about the Byzantium does not have anything to do with the real Empire. The idea of the classical Greek world and the mythic Greece of the Byzantine era as two very separate entities is something Dr. Evans has been trying to change for many years. She pointed out that there was much more continuity and overlap between the ancient and Byzantine cultures that is only now emerging through the study of the art and culture of Byzantium.

That is why she said she would never name an exhibition “Sailing to Byzantium” since the poem by W.B. Yeats of that title is based on a fairy tale and not the real Byzantium.

Dr. Helen C. Evans presented a lecture on Greece, Byzantium and Post-Byzantium at The Met. Photo by Eleni Sakellis

Among the icons presented during the lecture were many that incorporated classical elements with the Christian iconography which puzzled many scholars of the past but is now more widely accepted as proof that the classical, pagan imagery did not just disappear from the art of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Of the Cretan icons, Dr. Evans noted that many were painted for export to the West and Italy in particular. After the fall of Constantinople when some artists moved to Italy, the Byzantine style continued to be popular so much so that it has now become difficult for scholars to decipher whether an icon was painted in Italy or in Crete except by studying the wood it was painted on and whether the tree grew in central Italy or in Crete. Whether or not the artist who painted the icon was Greek may never be known since so many icon painters did not sign their work. Dr. Evans noted one icon in particular bears the typical Greek inscription at the top but is signed in Latin by the artist whose work was intended for the western market.

El Greco, Domenikos Theotokopoulos, who was born in Crete and painted icons there before moving to Italy, and then later settling in Spain, was also mentioned in the lecture for incorporating Byzantine elements in his work and then transforming them into something unique. French post-Impressionist and Modernist Henri Matisse was also noted for the way Byzantine art and the way icons were painted influenced his own artwork, though he was not particularly interested in religion.

Drawings by the Italian Renaissance artist Pisanello of Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaiologos were also discussed in the lecture. Photo by Eleni Sakellis

A Q&A session followed the lecture and a reception with Dr. Evans followed the program.

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The Hellenic-American Cultural Foundation, a not-for-profit organization, was established to promote high quality and relevant educational and cultural programs, concerts, lectures, exhibitions, and similar events for all persons interested in the history, culture and affairs of Greece and its people and the Greek Diaspora.