07 January 2009

Byzantium 330-1453, a review

I went to see the exhibition Byzantium 330 - 1453 at London's Royal Academy yesterday (Monday). The exhibition covered the history from Constantinople's foundation by Constantine to its fall to the Turks in 1453, court life, domestic life, the church, icons, the Byzantine Empire's artistic interaction with Latin Christendom, its interaction with other cultures, and St. Catherine's monastery on Mount Sinai. The exhibits were overwhelming in their profusion, and I wish I'd gone earlier in my visit back to Britain so that I would have had time to go to the exhibition twice. The three hours I spent there really wasn't enough. Fortunately, despite the sign saying no re-entry, the staff were quite happy to let people go in and out for toilet breaks or a cup of coffee. As it was I had to skimp the section called "Beyond Byzantium" which dealt with the Orthodox church amongst the Slavic peoples and with the Coptic church, Armenia and so on.

The objects on display included busts, statuettes, coins, books, textiles, icons, jewellery, household goods and church equipment. Despite the large number of people at the exhibition, the exhibition space was large enough for it not to feel crowded, though there were slight traffic jams around the objects featured on the audio guide. Although the wall boards were informative and provided context for the objects on display a glossary would have been helpful, particularly for the icons. The audio guide went some way to remedying this, although it did mean some backtracking when the audio for one object explained something I'd seen earlier. I think I can now tell the Virgin Hodogetria from the Virgin Psychosostria, but an earlier note somewhere that the Kimisis (Greek) of the Virgin is the equivalent of the Dormition (Latin) of the Virgin (in itself hardly a term I use every day) would have been nice, and until I was able to look it up on the internet, I had no idea what the salient features of a Deesis were. Despite this shortcoming, I would have no hesitation in recommending the exhibition to anyone, although as I said, you might find two visits necessary.

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