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Icon of Saint George (detail), mid-14th century. Byzantine. Byzantine and Christian Museum, AthensImage courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

CHICAGO, IL.- The popular exhibition Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections at the Art Institute of Chicago has been extended for three months beyond its original closing date of Feb. 15, 2015. The show, which presents more than 60 superb artworks of the Byzantine era, from the 4th to the 15th centuries, will remain on view through May 10, 2015. 

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Fragment of a Mosaic with the Apostle Andrew, late 11th-early 12th century. Byzantine. Archaeological Museum of Serres. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Organized by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports of Athens, Greece, with the collaboration of the Benaki Museum, Athens, and originally exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the exhibition includes major artistic holdings from Greece consisting of mosaics, sculptures, manuscripts, luxury glass, silver, personal adornments, liturgical textiles, icons, and wall paintings. 

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Icon of St. Prokopios, 14th century. Byzantine; Greece, Veroia. Church of Saint Prokopios, VeroiaImage courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

For more than 1,000 years, Greece was part of the vast Byzantine Empire, established in 330 A.D. by the emperor Constantine the Great, who moved the capital of the Roman Empire east to a small town named Byzantium in modern-day Turkey. Renamed for him and transformed into Constantinople, Byzantium would come to represent an empire of splendor and power that endured for more than a millennium. Greek replaced Latin as the official language, and Greece itself was home to important centers of theology, scholarship, and artistic production—as evidenced by the luxurious manuscripts displayed in the exhibition. 

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Icon of Christ Pantokrator, late 14th century. Byzantine; Thessaloniki. Museum of Byzantine Culture, ThessalonikiImage courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Heaven and Earth explores the rich legacy of the Byzantine Empire through five main themes: the transition from the Classical to the Byzantine world, spiritual life, intellectual life, the pleasures of life, and cultural exchange in the waning years of the empire in the 15th century. The exhibition opens with the Head of Aphrodite, a Roman marble sculpture of the Greek goddess Aphrodite that had later been altered with a cross carved on her forehead, presumably to Christianize it or reuse it as an image of a saint. 

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Head of Aphrodite, 1st century A.D. Byzantine. Greece, probably Athens. National Archaeological Museum, AthensImage courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

From its beginning in the 4th century the Byzantine Empire would embrace its Classical origins while forging a new spiritual aesthetic to outfit the ceremonies and interior of the Christian church. Icons of holy persons, saints, important theologians, and sacred events were painted to be channels for the devoted to the heavenly realm while mosaics and silks embroidered with gold and silver reflected the glimmering candle light of the church. Jewelry, resplendent with precious and semi-precious gems—including a personalized engagement ring—perfume flasks, and silver and ceramic dinnerware that reveal the spectacle of the banquet, all allow visitors a glimpse into the individual lives of the Byzantines. 

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Necklace or Ornament for a Dress, 4th century. Byzantine. Museum of Cycladic Art, AthensImage courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections was organized by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, Athens, with the collaboration of the Benaki Museum, Athens, and in association with the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

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Bracelets, 6th century. Byzantine. Benaki Museum, AthensImage courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

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 Bracelets, 9th–10th century, Constantinople, Turkey.  Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki.  Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

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Processional Cross, late 10th-early 11th century, Byzantine, Asia Minor. Benaki Museum, AthensImage courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago