In the essay “Byzantine Parallels,” groundbreaking art critic Clement Greenberg discusses the ways in which Byzantine art and modern art aim to create a similar experience for the viewer. In early November, Department of Arts and Art History professor Eva Hoffman’s classes — Medieval Art of the Mediterranean and Artistic Exchange in the Mediterranean — visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its latest exhibition, “Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven.”
In terms of classifying Byzantine art, its current reputation has led it to fall to the wayside. Once the German art historian Hegel described Byzantine art as backward, it was seen as a part of the Dark Ages, not only of in terms of history, but also because of its cultural value. While categorization may be helpful, it often oversimplifies a complex petri dish of culture, as suggested by the exhibit’s subtitle, “Every People Under Heaven.” For any show that contains works from many different parts of the world and covers many mediums, curators often aim to categorize shows around a central theme. Thankfully, the curators did not choose to group the works as Christian, Jewish or Muslim – doing so would limit the works to one interpretation. The use of certain design motifs, such as interwoven vine patterns, as well as the crossover of many languages, make it impossible to separate out which religion “owes” its identity to which work.
The show contains a wide variety of objects, pertaining to topics such as trade, tourism, pluralism, patronage and experiencing sacred art in Jerusalem. In the trade and tourism section, a group of reliquary crosses found across Western Europe are displayed to represent the relics that the Crusaders sought in the Holy Land. As Avinoam Shalem wrote in the exhibit’s catalogue: “Numerous chronicles tell how reliquaries of the cross from Jerusalem were prized, featured in the liturgy and deployed in the battle of the Holy Land, but not a single example from the eleventh to the fourteenth century can be seen by visitors in Jerusalem today. Instead, they are found in European churches and museums.” It is a stretch to assign objects procured through stealing as a byproduct of trade or tourism. However, these crosses prove just how complex each object in the show is; the line between objects that were influenced by the Holy Land and stolen from the Holy Land is almost impossible to distinguish by eye.
What “Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven” does an exemplary job of is illustrating how similar works of art from different Abrahamic traditions looked and functioned. The same beveled style and stylistic motifs can be found in Islamic palaces and the façade of the Holy Sepulchre. In one case, examples of the Koran in Arabic, the Torah in Amharic and the New Testament in Syriac are arranged open-faced next to each other. Besides the obvious difference in language, the same vines outline the pages, and the depictions of nature follow the same aesthetic goals. Curatorially, the lighting of the space and the close proximity of similar objects to one another evoked just how interchangeable these works were. The Middle Byzantine era posed such an exchange of religious, cultural and artistic practices that to categorize a work as representative of a single group would undermine the cultural fluidity of that time period. The physical space between works not only allows one to view them more carefully, but also helps the viewer recognize that to observe one work without the context of those around it would block one’s view of that object completely. There was no way to look at one work and not simultaneously look at several. While this may come off as a curatorial faux pas, it enhanced the complexity of the pieces and their histories while establishing that no stand-alone work could produce the same effectiveness as a group of objects could.
The essence of the show captures this idea that these works are resistant to categorization, and one can only really figure out their cultural significance by looking at them from every viewpoint. These objects do not fit our cut and clean arrangement of art history. As Greenberg writes, “The Byzantines dematerialized firsthand reality by invoking a transcendent one.” The work of the Holy Land did create a transcendent reality in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. People of all religions viewed objects that exemplified that the history of their faith may not have been as resistant to mixing with other religious groups as they may have thought. Ultimately, the show proves that every Abrahamic religion and cultural group did once live in peace, and they created something beautiful, too.