museum review - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition is featured at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until July 8. With some 300 works of art, this is the first major exhibition to focus on this first dynastic era.


The Byzantine Empirewas a crossroads of trade and centre of diversity. Using the Silk Road, goods from China and India came through Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and into Europe. Wealth from this trade allowed the arts and learning to flourish within the empire. At the start of the 7th 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. But by the end of the century, the region had become a vital part of the emerging Islamic world, as it expanded westward from Mecca and Medina.

Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transitionat The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, represents the first major museum exhibition to focus on this pivotal age in the history of the eastern Mediterranean. Through some 300 works of art, the exhibition reveals the artistic and cultural adaptations and innovations that evolved 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 loans from other institutions in North America, Europe, and the Middle East, have never been shown before in the United States.

The exhibition is organised around three themes: the secular and religious character of the Byzantine state’s southern provinces in the first half of the 7th century; the continuity of commerce in the region even as the base was transformed; and the emerging arts of the new Muslim rulers of the region.

The exhibition begins with a monumental 5-metre by 6-metre 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. The mosaic has recently undergone conservation and will be on display for the first time in decades.

The exhibition concludes with works related to the earliest Islamic religious presence in the region. Monumental inscriptions indicate that an interest in calligraphy – one of the hallmarks of Islamic art – dates back more than 1,000 years. Several of the most important early Qur’ans are joined by a monumental prayer mat from Tiberias, a portion of the inscription from the mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo, and ornately decorated tombstones.



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