Glories of Byzantium at National Gallery of Art

By Sofia Mannos

WASHINGTON, DC – It’s iconic. The dazzling and mysterious history of Byzantium seen through creative minds of a long-gone civilization is on display in Washington.

For the first time, the National Gallery of Art is devoting an exhibition to Byzantine art –  more than 170 works, including marbles, jewelry and icons – under the banner “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections.”

“In looking at Byzantine icons, viewers should keep the purpose of icons in mind, their role as conduits between the worshipper and the divine,” said Susan Arensberg, curator of the exhibition, and head of the Gallery’s exhibition programs. “For many, icons of saints were living presences, companions to turn to in time of need, in sickness or danger.”

But this exhibit, which moves on to California next April, is much more than icons, and is drawing scholars from Greece and elsewhere. The works that include gem-encrusted gold necklaces and cuffs are punctuated by free programs during the show’s run through March.

A recent Gallery address focused on road construction in Greece, where extraordinary artifacts are being uncovered.

During the building of the Athens to Thessaloniki highway, a Byzantine hostel, church and graves possibly dating to the 10th century were unearthed, said Eugenia Gerousi, director of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Antiquities, at the Hellenic Ministry of Culture.

“The construction of Metros is leading to tremendous archaeological discoveries,” said Gerousi.

Byzantine art’s influence, say the scholars, cannot be overstated.

“The importance of Byzantine icons revitalized panel painting in the West,” says Arensberg. “The art of panel painting declined in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, but lived on in Byzantium.”

Scholar and travel expert Eleni Zachariou, in a National Press Club talk last week, said Thessaloniki and Kastoria in Greece, and Turkey’s Istanbul, the former Byzantium, provide an extraordinary experience of art in three dimensions and even provides the occasional anecdote.

“Byzantium became Constantinople became Istanbul and all three names are Greek,” said Zachariou, who leads tours throughout Greece and neighboring countries.

Zachariou explained that the name, “Istanbul,” is derived from Greek verbal shorthand that means “in, or to, the city.”

Washington also is home to Dumbarton Oaks and its world famous collection of artifacts from the Byzantine Empire, along with a study program affiliated with Harvard University.

In addition, the Greek Embassy provides cultural programs that are free to the public.

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