At the start of the seventh century, the eastern Mediterranean—from Syria through Egypt and across North Africa—was central to the spiritual and political heart of the Byzantine Empire, ruled from Constantinople (modern Istanbul). Yet, by the end of the same century, the region had become a vital part of the emerging Islamic world, as it expanded westward from Mecca and Medina. Opening March 14 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition represents the first major museum exhibition to focus on this pivotal era in the history of the eastern Mediterranean. Through some 300 exceptional works of art, the groundbreaking presentation will reveal the artistic and cultural adaptations and innovations that resulted during the initial centuries of contact between these two worlds. The works are drawn primarily from the collections of the Metropolitan Museum, the Benaki Museum, Athens, and the collections under the Department of Antiquities of Jordan. Many of these as well as stellar loans from other institutions in North America, Europe, and the Middle East have never been shown before in the United States.
Major support for the exhibition and catalogue has been provided by Mary and Michael Jaharis, The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, and The Hagop Kevorkian Fund.
Additional support has been provided by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
Thomas P. Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum commented: “Byzantium and Islam will contribute immeasurably to the intellectual legacy that was established by the Met’s previous three widely acclaimed exhibitions on the Byzantine Empire. By bringing to general attention a complex historical period that is neither well-known nor well-understood, this exhibition will provide an important opportunity for our audiences. These centuries in the development of Byzantine Orthodoxy, Eastern Christianity, Judaism, and Islam had a profound impact on traditions that exist today. As this exhibition will show, there was a great deal of interaction among Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities, whether as neighbors or as partners in trade. We are grateful to our colleagues in museums worldwide for their collaboration on this important project, and are deeply honored by the loan of many significant works from museums and institutions that seldom lend.”
Exhibition organizer Helen C. Evans, the Mary and Michael Jaharis Curator of Byzantine Art, continued: “Exceptional art was produced in the seventh century in the eastern Mediterranean when it was part of the Byzantine state; art of the same high quality continued to be made there in subsequent centuries under Islamic rule. Byzantium and Islam will begin with the arts of the region under Byzantine rule, then demonstrate their influence on the traditions that evolve under the new political and religious dominance of Islam, including new Muslim traditions that emerged from the process. The dialogue between established Byzantine and evolving Islamic styles and culture, as a central theme of the exhibition, will be demonstrated through works of art connected with authority, religion, and trade.”
The exhibition brings together works of art from museums in more than a dozen countries, including Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, the Republic of Georgia, the United Kingdom, and Vatican City among others. From the United States, lenders include: Brooklyn Museum, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Yale University Art Gallery.
In the seventh century, major trade routes along the Silk Road connected Europe and Asia. The Byzantine Empire’s territories around the Mediterranean were linked by land to China in the north; and by water—through the Red Sea past Jordan—to India in the south. Although Orthodox Christianity was the official religion of the Byzantine state, many other religions remained active in its southern provinces, including various Christian and Jewish communities. Great pilgrimage centers, such as Qal’at Sem’an in present-day Syria south through Jerusalem to Alexandria and the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt attracted the faithful from as far away as Yemen in the east and Scandinavia in the west.
At the same time, the newly established Islamic faith emerged from Mecca and Medina along the Red Sea trade route and reached westward to the Mediterranean coast. As a result, political and religious authority was transferred from the long-established Christian Byzantine Empire to the newly established Umayyad—and later—Abbasid and other Muslim dynasties. Their rulers—in a search for a compelling visual identity—expanded on the traditions of the region in the decoration of their palaces and religious sites, including Qasr al-Mshatta and the Great Mosque of Damascus. New pilgrimage routes developed to Muslim holy sites, including Jerusalem and Mecca, and new patrons dominated the traditional trade routes.
Byzantium and Islam will be organized around three themes: the secular and religious character of the Byzantine state’s southern provinces in the first half of the seventh century; the continuity of commerce in the region even as the political base was transformed; and the emerging arts of the new Muslim rulers of the region.
The exhibition begins with a monumental 17-by-20-foot floor mosaic that illustrates the urban character of the region and contains motifs that will be seen throughout the galleries: cityscapes, inscriptions, trees, and vine scrolls. Excavated by the Yale-British School Archaeological Expedition in 1928–29 at Gerasa/Jerash in present-day Jordan, the mosaic has recently undergone conservation and will be on display for the first time in decades.
Secular works on view in this section include elaborately woven, monumental wall hangings, a richly illustrated scientific manuscript, and exquisitely decorated silver dishes with biblical figures depicted naturalistically in Byzantine court dress. Made during the reign of the renowned Byzantine emperor Heraclius/Herakleios (r. 610–641), the magnificent silver plates celebrate the slaying of Goliath by the biblical king David, possibly a reference to Heraclius’ decisive victory in 629 over the Sasanians, the Persian empire that briefly occupied Byzantium’s southern Mediterranean provinces.
A diversity of Christian communities existed in the empire’s southern provinces during this period. The Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, and Syrian Churches are among those that are most active today. Leaves from rare purple vellum gospels written in gold and silver represent the authority of the Orthodox Church in Constantinople. A hoard of 15 elaborately decorated silver and silver gilt liturgical objects, known as the Attarouthi Treasure after the town named in their inscriptions, is indicative of the wealth of Greek-speaking Christians in Byzantine Syria.
Egypt’s role in the earliest Christian period is shown in the exquisite, delicately carved seventh-century ivories from the so-called “Grado chair” depicting significant moments from the life of St. Mark, the Evangelist, as the first bishop of Alexandria. The surviving ivories will be brought together from collections in Europe and America.
Stone carvings and wooden icons from the Coptic Monastery at Bawit in Egypt will be shown with other works of the Coptic Church. Manuscripts, icons, and liturgical silver will represent the continuing relevance of the Coptic Church throughout the exhibition’s timeframe. A film will show images of the newly uncovered, vibrant frescoes at the Red Monastery at Sohag, which reveal extensive connections to the larger Christian world.
The exceptional illuminations of the Rabbula Gospels will show the importance of the Syriac church, whose successful missionary efforts reached from Armenia to Ethiopia.
Jewish works from across the empire’s southern provinces represent Judaism’s continuing importance in the region. Floor mosaics from a North African synagogue diepict a menorah, other ritual objects, and a handsome lion. Fragments of a chancel screen from Ashkelon will be reunited for the first time since they were discovered in the late 1800s. A fragment of a liturgical dish possibly from a Samaritan synagogue, a molded glass vessel made in Jerusalem, and manuscripts in Hebrew and Arabic all attest to the diversity and vitality of Jewish communities under Byzantine and Muslim rule.
A critical issue during these centuries—the proper use of images as debated among the religious communities of the region—will be raised through two manuscripts related to local supporters of icon veneration, Saint John Damascus and Abu Qurrah. Two floor mosaics with animals partially replaced by plant forms, from the floor of the church of the acropolis in Ma`in, Jordan, shows the intensity of the debate over the use of images of living creatures.
The exhibition’s second section focuses on trade, and will be introduced by Byzantine coins, the gold standard of the eastern Mediterranean, and the emerging traditions of Islamic coinage. Silks—among the most important trade goods of the era—will be represented in great variety, from sophisticated depictions of people to very detailed geometric patterns. Elaborate silk patterns with hunting scenes that were favored by the elite of the Byzantine world in the seventh century continue in popularity in the later centuries. Wall hangings depicting people in the varied dress of the era will be displayed in the exhibition with examples of vibrantly colored and richly decorated tunics that survive from graves in Egypt. Scientific testing of the tunics offers unexpected insights into the evolution of dress styles during the period.
Textiles, ivories, metalwork and objects in other media will show the continuing popularity and slow transformation of such diverse decorative elements as vine scrolls, rabbits, and calligraphic inscriptions. In one such display, a group of similar small clay lamps have Christian inscriptions in Greek, both Christian blessings in Greek and Islamic ones in Arabic, and only Islamic blessings.
The third and final section will display the arts of the new Muslim elite, both secular and religious. The emphasis will be on objects that can be identified with specifically Islamic sites, predominately palaces in modern Jordan (for example, monumental stone carvings from the palaces of Qasr al-Mshatta, Qasr al-Qastal, and works of art from Qasr al-Fudayn and Jabal al-Qal’a, the Amman citadel). The works in this section focus on Byzantine connections to early Islamic art, as well as the introduction of more eastern motifs. The rare surviving ivories from Qasr al-Humayma with their formally posed nobles and warriors—newly conserved by the Metropolitan Museum—are a highlight.
Of particular interest will be the display of the so-called Tiraz of Caliph Marwan II—the earliest dateable Islamic tiraz textile, whose fragments are usually dispersed among museums in Europe and America. Inscribed with the name of Marwan, a ruler of the first Islamic dynasty, the textile would have been an honorary gift to a favored individual. Were it not for the inscription in Arabic script, the textile could be mistaken easily for a Byzantine or Persian work. The fragments will be configured to replicate as closely as possible their correct position in the original textile, and the recent scientific study of the work will be published for the first time.
The exhibition will conclude with works related to the earliest Islamic religious presence in the region. Monumental inscriptions in this section will indicate that an interest in calligraphy—one of the hallmarks of Islamic art—dates back more than one thousand years. Several of the most important early Qur'ans will be joined by a monumental prayer mat from Tiberias, a portion of the inscription from the mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo, and handsomely decorated tombstones. Leaves from a stunning blue Qur'an written in gold relate to the Byzantine purple manuscript leaves seen earlier in the exhibition. Other Qur'ans are decorated with motifs similar to earlier and later Christian and Jewish texts. Throughout the exhibition, ostraca—inscriptions on potsherds—and texts written on papyri will reveal the interests and concerns of the people of the region as their world is transformed.
Pyxis with Vine Scrolls and Birds (cat. no. 120B), Syria (?), 7th–8th century. Ivory and red, blue and black paint; beechwood lid, painted and gilded, with rock crystal knob and gilt copper fittings, added later; H. 14 cm (5 1/2 in.); Diam. 8.5 cm (3 3/8 in.). Victoria and Albert Museum, London (136 – 1866)