Saturday, December 30, 2023

Art Eyewitness Review: Africa and Byzantium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Africa and Byzantium

Metropolitan Museum of Art
November 19, 2023 - March 3, 2024

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original Photography by Anne Lloyd

Africa and Byzantium is the latest in a series of exhibitions, presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which have transformed our understanding of the region surrounding the Mediterranean Sea during what used to be called the "Dark Ages." Now, we think of those distant centuries as Late Antiquity and the Medieval era. 

Africa is the geographic focus of the latest of The Met exhibitions, as its title proclaims. Africa and Byzantium covers a vast expanse of history, from Late Antiquity to the 1600's. On view until March 3, 2024, this exhibit is part of the current initiative at The Met to emphasize the importance of African art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Bust of an African Child, 2nd–3rd century

Achieving a greater recognition for African art dating to the long-ago era surveyed in Africa and Byzantium is no easy task. The difficulties are numerous and complex. But the most serious of these, in terms of this exhibition, does not actually relate to Africa or African art.

The problem with Africa and Byzantium lies with the use of "Byzantium" as the title of a political entity which, in actuality, was the surviving, eastern half of the Roman Empire. Ruled by Christian emperors from their strategic stronghold, the city of Constantinople, this much battered bulwark of civilization lasted until 1453.

Never, in its very long history was the Basileia Rhomanaion (Empire of the Romans) or Romania, as its citizens referred to it, called Byzantium.

Founded in the year 330 by the Roman emperor, Constantine, the Eastern Empire’s capital of Constantinople was built on the site of an earlier city, Byzantion. Western European scholars, beginning in the 1500’s, recast the Eastern Roman Empire as Byzantium, thereby undermining its historical significance and mystique.

If a credible "Byzantium" ever existed, it was the phase of the Eastern Roman Empire when Greek-speaking emperors ruled a much-reduced realm. This followed the Islamic conquest of Palestine, Egypt and North Africa in the seventh century, concluding with the attack by the treacherous Venetians and Crusaders on Constantinople in 1204.

For better or worse, the curators at The Met follow the almost universally accepted practice of speaking of "Byzantium.” No doubt, this is due, in part, to the tremendous importance of earlier exhibitions at The Met like Byzantium: Faith and Power in 2004. It is only natural that the curators of Africa and Byzantium would wish to build on their past success, but what works for one exhibition does not always do so for another.

In the promotional text for Africa and Byzantium, “Byzantium” is described as an empire whose “artistic, economic and cultural life” was shaped by the “vibrant multi-ethnic societies of north and east Africa.”  

To underscore this point, the lead artwork chosen for the exhibition is a striking mosaic fragment from the Louvre's collection.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Mosaic Panel with Preparations for a Feast, c.175-200 

Mosaic Panel with Preparations for a Feast was excavated in present-day Tunisia on the northern tip of Africa. It does indeed show workmen with different racial features, but it dates to the end of the second century, when Marcus Aurelius ruled a unified Roman Empire, 161-180. 

This floor mosaic had felt the tread of many a sandal before the mighty walls and palaces of Constantinople were built.

The use of Mosaic Panel with Preparations for a Feast in this manner is a questionable attribution of a work of art from one historical era to illustrate another. It risks over-simplifying the complex nature of the Eastern Roman Empire. 

The leading contemporary historian of the empire, Anthony Kaldellis, treats this topic at length in a just-published narrative history, The New Roman Empire (Oxford University Press) which I plan to review in January 2024.

Rather than belabor the debate on the use and abuse of "Byzantium" as a historical term, let’s speak of the “better” aspects of The Met's exhibition. There are many.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Gallery view of Africa and Byzantium
showing Mosaic of Date Palm, from Tunisia, 6th century

Africa and Byzantium is a mighty endeavor, truly an exhibition which only The Met could have carried through to success. The planning, transport and display of some of the rarest and most delicate works of art from ancient times is a fantastic achievement.

The art treasures on view in Africa and Byzantium span the range of human creativity – sacred and secular, precious jewels of the elite, shopworn ceramic molds used by working-class artisans.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Jeweled Bracelet, likely made in Constantinople, 500-700

From delicate carvings made from rock crystal, found in a cistern in Tunisia, to a jewel-encrusted silver crown from Nubia, the Met curators have assembled an array of sensational works of art, related either directly or indirectly to Africa. Few of these, however, document a direct relationship with the Eastern Roman Empire.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Silver Crown, from Nubia, 5th–6th century

At the top of the list of these time-honored masterpieces are two works of art which speak directly to the religious experience of ancient Africa. These are true Icons, one a painting, the other a tapestry. Both date to the sixth century, their 1,500 years of survival due to the warm, dry climate of Egypt and the care of generations of devout Christians.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Icon with the Virgin and Child, Saints, Angels, and the Hand of God, 
from The Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai, 6th century

Icon with the Virgin and Child, Saints, Angels, and the Hand of God, was created with the encaustic wax technique. One of the oldest surviving paintings related to Christian worship, it is believed to have been made in Constantinople and sent to Egypt. The apprehensive countenance of the Virgin Mary and the faces of the saints by her side, the bearded St. Theodore and the boyish St. George, reveal stylistic similarities to the mosaic portraits of the Empress Theodora and her retinue at Ravenna, c. 548. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Icon of the Virgin Enthroned, from Egypt, 6th century 

The second work is a woolen tapestry, with a similar theme. Icon of the Virgin Enthroned is believed to have been made in Egypt, around the same time as the painted Icon with the Virgin and Child. One of the most treasured works in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the tapestry was woven with woolen yarn dyed in twenty different colors. The price of such dyes was extremely high, making this tapestry more expensive to create than the painted icon.

Both of these icons are especially relevant to the fundamental role of African religious figures in the rise of Christianity, as revealed in two related events: the birth of monasticism and the diffusion of Christian belief from urban congregations to converts in the countryside.

Monasticism began in Egypt in the fourth century, as the political power of the Roman Empire declined and the cohesive unity of Christianity fractured amid disputes over doctrine. 

Zealous individuals such as St. Anthony (251-356) renounced the temptations of secular society and prestigious posts in the hierarchy of the Church. Instead, Anthony and like-minded souls elected to live as monks in sparsely inhabited regions such as the Sinai Desert.


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Detail of Painting of Holy Men, 5th–6th century

The reclusive lives of the Christian monks in the Sinai were transformed when the Emperor Justinian (reigned 527-565) built the basilica church of St. Catherine’s, surrounded by a defensive wall, on the reputed site of the incident of Moses and the Burning Bush. This form of monasticism, centered on an imposing church and living quarters for monks and nuns, replaced the hermit-like living conditions of earlier times. 

From St. Catherine's in the Sinai, this monastic revival spread throughout much of the Christian world. It is significant, however, to note that a different form of communal monastic life was being developed by St. Benedict at Monte Casino in Italy around the same time. Western and Eastern Christendom were already beginning to draw apart.

To edify the monks of St. Catherine’s, Justinian sent devotional works of art. One of these images of divinity, dispatched from Constantinople, may well have been Icon with the Virgin and Child, Saints, Angels, and the Hand of God. It is an immensely powerful work, exerting an almost hypnotic intensity, even in the artificial light of a museum gallery.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
Detail of Icon with the Virgin & Child, Saints, Angels, and the Hand of God
“The Hand of God” at the extreme top of Icon with the Virgin and Child, Saints, Angels (barely visible in the present condition of the painting) is likely a direct reference to God’s summons to Moses on the very spot where this icon is kept. 

One of the most fascinating details of this painted icon from St. Catherine's is the degree of realism imparted to the faces of the Virgin Mary and two saints, perhaps even the angels, as well. It is hard to imagine that living persons did not pose for the icon painter. The haunted look on the Virgin Mary's face is surely that of a real woman, perhaps, as mentioned above, a lady-in-waiting of the Empress Theodora's entourage - or even the empress, herself!

A major change in style occurred throughout the Eastern Roman Empire in later centuries. A greater emphasis on mysticism took hold in the religious sentiments of the empire's citizens, due mainly to influences form the east, including Islam. Painting conventions adapted to what the great medieval scholar, Sir Steven Runciman, called the "Aramaic conception of art.

Painters of icon portraits of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, saints and prophets down-played elements of realism in favor of an ethereal, otherworldly art form. The soul, rather than a physical likeness, was given the place of privilege in these depictions of holy persons. The Met exhibition displays several examples of these mystical icons from the later eras of "Byzantine" art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Icon of the Virgin Galaktotrophousa, 1250-1350

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Icon of the Virgin Hodegetria Dexiokratousa, 13th century 

In addition to being aides to spiritual meditation, mystical icons like the 
Virgin Galaktotrophousa and the Virgin Hodegetria Dexiokratousa embodied specific "types" or conventions of Christian beliefs that could be understood without elaborate theological texts. 

The breast-feeding Virgin Galaktotrophousa illustrated compassion and love, while the Virgin Hodegetria ("she who points the way") reminded Christians that the infant in Mary's arms would die on the cross in order to redeem the souls of humankind. 

Icons were thus "pictures worth a thousand words." This was hugely important as the Eastern Roman Empire, under repeated assault and invasion, gradually disintegrated until the final coup de grace was delivered by the Turks in 1453.

Christianity survived the eclipse and eventual fall of the Eastern Roman Empire. Christian devotional art, icons and sacred texts inspired Christians under Islamic rule, like the Copts of Egypt, or the citizens of Constantinople who endured the horrible decades when the once-mighty city was a conquered fiefdom of the Crusaders, 1204-1261.

The Met exhibit displays remarkable examples of these sacred manuscripts which show how true religious faith can outlive political and social adversity. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Encomium of Saint John Chrysostom, 892–893

The Encomium is one of the impressive group of rare, hand-written and illustrated manuscripts on view in Africa and Byzantium. A collection of religious writings, Encomium was composed by one of the great prelates of the early church, St. John Chrysostom (347-407). Almost five hundred years after the death of this St. John, called “golden-mouth” because of his charismatic preaching, an Egyptian priest, Isaac of Ptepouhar, copied the text and illustrated the manuscript with a full-page depiction of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus, accompanied by two angels.

The rather crude ink drawing recalls the more striking images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and heavenly hosts discussed above. But the power of this image and the accompanying text is truly profound. This book, easy to transport, reveals how Christianity spread beyond urban centers such as Constantinople and Alexandria and monasteries like St. Catherine’s, enabling its message to travel over vast distances and to survive the ravages of war and persecution.

Beneath the Virgin’s throne on the Encomium image is an inscription in Greek, “by Isaac, the priest, the humble one, I have written (it).” Modest clergyman like Apa (Father) Isaac were indeed the intrepid emissaries who carried the Christian faith up the Nile valley into the center of Africa. In the highlands of present-day Ethiopia, Christianity took root, producing a highly-distinctive version of Christian worship and belief.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Diptych of Saint George and the Virgin & Child, late 1400's-1500's

The Africa and Byzantium exhibition concludes with a magnificent display of twenty-five examples of Ethiopian Christian art: icons, illuminated manuscripts, wall paintings. Many of these have the Virgin Mary as the central figure or protagonist, thereby revealing the influence of “Byzantine” art – or seeming to.

ʾammərä Maryam or (Miracles of Mary) is a vividly-painted manuscript, made in Gondar, an important center of book production in Ethiopia during the late seventeenth century. It includes 32 painted scenes of legendary events related to the Virgin Mary which do not appear in the Holy Bible. These miracles involved cures of individuals like the afflicted man shown in this two-page spread (below), whose club-foot was healed by the intervention of the mother of Jesus.


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
ʾammərä Maryam (Miracles of Mary), late 17th century

ʾammərä Maryam is a compelling work of art testifying to the spiritual convictions and creative talent of the African artist who made it. So too, do the other Ethiopian paintings and illuminated manuscripts. This is a very distinguished body of work, really an integrated exhibit within the larger exhibition. These impressive and appealing works of art confirm one of the objectives of the Met curators, namely emphasizing the tremendous accomplishments of African artIsts.

Sadly, the story behind ʾammərä Maryam does little to highlight the role of “multi-culturalism” in art, another goal of Africa and Byzantium.

This illuminated manuscript of the Virgin Mary’s miracles was produced during a time of religious dissension in Ethiopia, during (or soon after) the reign of King Yohannes I (1667–1682). 

Yohannes spent much time and effort trying to expel Roman Catholic missionaries from Ethiopia. It had been the Jesuits who first brought prints of religious art to Ethiopia, providing a major impetus for creating these wondrous images of the Virgin Mary. 

However, Yohannes and others among the Ethiopian elite grew suspicious of the Roman Catholic clergy and six Franciscans were executed to encourage the others to leave.

The road of good intentions is a hard one to travel, as the six Franciscans found out. The curators of Africa and Byzantium are likewise engaged on a well-meaning initiative. 

The aim of exhibitions like Africa and Byzantium - a praiseworthy one - is to secure a more prominent place for African art on the timeline of world history and to introduce it to a wider audience. It is a missionary-like endeavor and, like most such efforts, it is both visionary and, on certain points, it misses the mark.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
Mosaic with Lion, from Tunisia, 6th century

Abundant proof of ancient African creativity is certainly established by the trove of art treasures on view in this excellent Met exhibition. But the evidence linking these precious works of African art to an empire called “Byzantium” is stretched very thin indeed.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                  Original photography, copyright of Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved

 Introductory image: Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Jug, 290–320. From North Africa (Tunis El Aouja, Navigius school). African red slip ware: 9 1/16 × 4 1/2 × 4 5/16 in. (23 × 11.5 × 11.6 cm). Musée du Louvre. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Bust of an African Child, 2nd–3rd century. Bronze: 5 × 3 15/16 × 1 15/16 in. (12.7 × 10 × 4.9 cm) Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design.                                                  

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Mosaic Panel with Preparations for a Feast: 4th quarter of the 2nd century. Mosaics, limestone, glass paste: 83 7/8 × 92 1/2 × 2 9/16 in., 264.6 lb. (213 × 235 × 6.5 cm, 120 kg)  Musée du Louvre.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Gallery view of Africa and Byzantium, with Mosaic of Date Palm, 6th century. from Hamman Lif, Tunisia. Stone and mortar: without frame: 70 9/16 x 31 x 1 3/8 in., 248 lb. (179.2 x 78.8 x 3.5 cm, 112.5 kg) Brooklyn Museum of Art. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Jeweled Bracelet, 500-700. Made in probably Constantinople. Gold, silver, pearl, amethyst, sapphire, opal, glass, quartz, emerald plasma: Overall: 1 7/16 x 3 1/4 in. (3.7 x 8.2 cm) strap: 15/16 x 7 7/8 in. (2.4 x 20 cm) bezel: 1 5/16 in. (3.4 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Silver Crown, 5th–6th century. From Nubia. Silver metalwork and gemstones: 12 × 5 7/8 × 10 7/16 in., 35.27oz. (30.5 × 15 × 26.5 cm, 1 kg) The Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Icon with the Virgin and Child, Saints, Angels, and the Hand of God, 6th century. Encaustic on panel: 26 15/16 × 19 1/2 in. (68.5 × 49.5 cm).The Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Icon of the Virgin Enthroned, 6th century. From Egypt. Tapestry, wool: 70 1/16 × 43 5/16 in., 65 lb. (178 × 110 cm, 29.5 kg). The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd (Photo, 2023) Painting of Holy Men, 5th–6th century (detail). Made in Egypt. Paint on linen: 17 5/16 × 12 13/16 in. (44 × 32.5 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Icon of the Virgin Galaktotrophousa1250–1350. Tempera on wood: 7 5/8 × 6 7/8 × 13/16 in. (19.3 × 17.5 × 2 cm). The Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai.

 Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Icon with the Virgin Hodegetria Dexiokratousa, first quarter of 13th century. From Egypt. Miniature tesserae (gold and other materials), set in wax, on wood: Overall with mounting: 17 1/2 in. × 13 3/16 in. × 1 in. (44.5 × 33.5 × 2.5 cm) The Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Encomium of Saint John Chrysostom, 892–893. Copied and illustrated by Father Issac of Ptepouhar (Egypt). Ink on parchment: Overall with mounting: 8 1/2 × 17 7/8 × 13  1/2 in. (216 x 45.4 x 34.3 cm.) Morgan Library and Museum.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Diptych of Saint George and the Virgin and Child, late 1400's-1500's. Paint on wood: 20 1/2 in. × 26 5/16 in. × 13/16 in. (52 × 66.8 × 3 cm) National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) ʾammərä Maryam (Miracles of Mary), late 17th century. Manuscript made in Gondar, Ethiopia. Parchment, ink, tempera, wood, leather, cotton, and string: 14 5/8 × 12 3/4 × 4 1/4 in. (37.2 × 32.4 × 10.8 cm) The Art Institute of Chicago.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Mosaic with Lion, 6th century. from Hamman Lif, Tunisia. Stone tessarae: 29 5/16 x 42 1/4 x 1 5/8 in., 172 lb. (74.5 x 107.3 x 41.5 cm, 78 kg) Brooklyn Museum of Art.

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