Lost in Transition: ‘Byzantium and Islam’ at the Metropolitan Museum explores cultures in flux

The Eastern Mediterranean, from Syria across North Africa, comprised the wealthy southern provinces of the 7th century Byzantine Empire, and was central to the emerging Islamic world. Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition has just opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), and is the first to display the complex character of the region and its exceptional art and culture during this era of transition. Today we take a look at this exhibition and its beautiful accompanying catalogue.

Visitors to the British Museum’s exhibition Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World last year will remember being dazzled by the beautiful gold artefacts on display (some dating back as far as 2000BC), illustrating the competing influences from Hellenistic and Asian cultures. Situated along the Silk Road, Afghanistan was where merchants from Europe, China, India and Central Asia met and mingled. The British Museum’s exhibition conveyed this rich archaeological history beautifully, but it also made us think about the situation in modern day Afghanistan, where military occupation has replaced mercantile influence.

Although covering a different geographical location and period in history, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, has some striking similarities, and is sure to fascinate and educate in equal measure. The exhibition (which opened last Wednesday) exhibits artefacts from a region which drew in trade from a diverse range of cultures, a region which eventually became home to Islam, and in which military conflict and political upheaval has now become the norm.

As the seventh century began, vast territories extending from Syria to Egypt and across North Africa (now home to the Arab Spring movement) were ruled by the Byzantine Empire from its capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul). Critical to the wealth and power of the empire, these southern provinces, long influenced by Greco-Roman traditions, were home to a diverse range of inhabitants, including Orthodox, Coptic, and Syriac Christians, Jewish communities and others.

Great pilgrimage centres attracted the faithful from as far away as Yemen in the east and Scandinavia in the west. Major trade routes reached eastward down the Red Sea past Jordan to India in the south, bringing silks and ivories to the imperial territories. Major cities made wealthy by commerce extended along inland trade routes north to Constantinople and along the Mediterranean coastline. Commerce carried images and ideas freely throughout the region.

In the same century, the newly established faith of Islam emerged from Mecca and Medina along the Red Sea trade route and reached westward into the empire’s southern provinces. Political and religious authority was transferred from the long established Christian Byzantine Empire to the newly established Umayyad and later Abbasid Muslim dynasties. The new powers took advantage of existing traditions of the region in developing their compelling secular and religious visual identities.

Map illustrating the shrinking of the Byzantine Empire

Map illustrating the shrinking of the Byzantine Empire from the 6th century onwards

Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition follows the artistic traditions of the southern provinces of the Byzantine Empire from the seventh century to the ninth, as they were transformed from being central to the Byzantine tradition to being a critical part of the Islamic world.

Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition

Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition

For those who won’t be able to make the show, the Met’s magnificent exhibition catalogue explores the epochal transformations and unexpected continuities in the Byzantine Empire with inimitable flair and rigor. This extraordinary age is brought vividly to life in insightful contributions by leading international scholars Helen C. Evans and Brandie Ratliff (curator and research associate for Byzantine art at the Met, respectively), and is accompanied by sumptuous illustrations of the period’s most notable arts and artefacts.

Resplendent images of authority, religion, and trade – embodied in precious metals, brilliant textiles, fine ivories, elaborate mosaics, manuscripts, and icons, many of them never before published – highlight the dynamic dialogue between the rich array of Byzantine styles and the newly forming Islamic aesthetic. With its masterful exploration of two centuries that would shape the emerging medieval world, this lovely book provides a unique interpretation of a period that still resonates today.

Page spreads from 'Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition'

Page spreads from ‘Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition’

The book Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition is available now from Yale University Press.

Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art opens from March 14 until July 8, 2012.

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