Artistic Continuity, Political Rupture
What difference did Islam make? Very little, according to “Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition,” the sparkling new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Arabs may have swept away the two greatest empires of the ancient world, in Rome and Persia, but they left the living tissue of their civilizations essentially intact. It is a tale of artistic and cultural continuity surging beneath political rupture, richly narrated through church mosaics, icons, silks and manuscripts gathered from around the world.
Byzantium and Islam:
Age of Transition
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Through July 8
“Byzantium and Islam” is the fourth and latest installment in the Met’s highly successful exhibitions on Byzantine art, the last of which opened in 2004, also under the able direction of curator Helen Evans. They have been unlikely blockbusters: For Byzantium long has been seen as an obscure corner of the medieval world, more renowned for political intrigue than artistic vitality. But Byzantium has been undergoing a renaissance of sorts in recent years, thanks in no small part to the Met’s interventions. These shows have revealed not an ossified culture, but one of tremendous creativity and beauty.
“Byzantium and Islam,” which fills seven galleries, traces the contours of artistic achievement in the eastern Mediterranean between A.D. 500 and 1000. Specifically, it focuses on the wealthy southern provinces of the Byzantine Empire that, over the course of the 630s and 640s, became the heartlands of the new Islamic caliphate. The objects in the exhibition straddle both sides of this historical watershed. Among the highlights are the Rabbula Gospels, a famous sixth-century illuminated manuscript from Syria, widely regarded as the greatest masterpiece of Syriac Christianity. There is also a fascinating floor mosaic from a sixth-century church in Jordan with inscriptions in Greek and Arabic, which opens a window onto a bilingual Christian congregation a hundred years before the coming of Islam. Further along, there is a riding coat of Persian design discovered in Middle Egypt, as remarkable for its subtle blue shimmer as for what it teaches us about the international haute couture of the time. Finally, there is the damaged statue of a female dancer from the desert palace of Mshatta in Jordan, a baldly sexual relic of early Islamic court life, offering a an intriguing—if unsettling—contrast with the Quranic folios further down the wall.
The greatest achievement of the exhibition is to track the birth of a visual koine in the late-antique Middle East. It was an artistic language that transcended the actual religious and linguistic diversity of the period, expressing itself through shared motifs and aesthetic sensibilities. For example, one notices the striking similarity between a fifth-century ivory of the Egyptian St. Menas, his arms raised in prayer inside a domed sanctuary with hanging lamps, and a nearly identical image of a Muslim at prayer, woven into a tapestry from Egypt between the 11th and 12th centuries. There are other objects that reveal the enduring popularity of pagan themes in Christian and Islamic art, such as the bare-breasted Amazons found on silk roundels from the seventh to ninth centuries in Egypt, and the hefty bronze brazier from an Umayyad palace covered with Dionysiac scenes. These images are culturally ambiguous, which can be frustrating for those visitors who crave precision in their museum labels. But on the other, the blurry line is deliberate: One realizes that “Byzantine” and “Umayyad,” to say nothing of “Christian,” “Jewish” and “Muslim,” represent relative, even unhelpful categories for understanding the complex art of the period.
That said, the exhibition’s focus on luxury objects—especially jewelry, silks and glass in the final rooms—may miss out on an even more the most important kind of artistic continuity in late antiquity, which was religious and political. Among the most valuable (but hastily explained) parts of the exhibition is a display of Byzantine and Islamic coins from the seventh century. They show how the first caliphs copied the money of their Byzantine (and Sasanian) predecessors—down to the cross on the reverse, though stripped of its horizontal element to make this Christian image “sharia compliant.” The coins testify to a cultural consensus among Byzantines and Arabs about how to represent and project their power through images.
Something fascinating also appears at the end of this display case. Under the reforms of the caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (reigned 685-705), the “Islamicized” portraits of the emperor and the cross disappeared, replaced by dense lines of Arabic text proclaiming the Islamic creed. This change, well-known to numismatists and historians, speaks to the development of a new iconography of power in Islamic late antiquity. It was a visual language in which the written word came to replace the icon as a nexus of the numinous. We can sense this rupture most clearly in the final room of the exhibition, where leaves from Quran manuscripts, adorned only with calligraphy, contrast with the richly illustrated Bibles and icons of the previous galleries.
This shift from iconographic exuberance to abstract austerity can be disorienting. The exhibition does little to prepare visitors for the dramatic change, given the general insistence on continuity between Byzantium and Islam, as opposed to rupture. There are objects the curators might have considered highlighting even more to reduce the sense of whiplash: For example, the show includes a fragment of a floor mosaic from a church in Jordan from the early eighth century—100 years after the start of Muslim rule—whose cartoonish leopard has been savagely dismembered by a new abstract design. The intervention underscores the wider turn toward iconoclasm in the late-antique Middle East, a complicated, much-debated process that seems to reflect changing attitudes toward images among Christians and Muslims alike. This is surely among the most important ways in which Byzantium “transitioned” into Islam, yet it receives relatively scant attention.
Overall, “Byzantium and Islam” is a masterpiece. It is a beautiful and ambitious exhibition, as noteworthy for the rare objects it collects in one place as for its bold vision of how to interpret the two cultures that made them: not as political and religious antagonists, but as two lungs breathing the air of the same late-antique civilization.
Mr. Sahner is a doctoral candidate in history at Princeton University.
A version of this article appeared May 17, 2012, on page D5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Artistic Continuity, Political Rupture.