Art Institute’s ‘Heaven and Earth’ exhibit showcases Byzantine Empire

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BY KYLE MACMILLAN | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

Looking back at history, people often jump from the Greek and Roman empires to the Middle Ages, completely forgetting the vast Byzantine Empire that began in 330 A.D. and lasted until Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453.

Such an omission is not surprising, said Elena Boeck, guest consulting curator for a soon-to-begin exhibition of Byzantine art at the Art Institute of Chicago. She calls it a “conspiracy of the ages.”

“Who writes history? Winners,” Boeck said. “The Byzantine Empire lost. So, when the historical narratives were written in places like Italy and France, Byzantium was usually forgotten.” It also did not help that the Byzantine world had split from Western Christianity in the schism of 1054.

Such historical slights will be at least partially righted when this important if overlooked culture returns to the spotlight Saturday with the opening of “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections.”

Organized by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports of Athens, Greece, it is an abridged version of a larger show that traveled to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Karen Manchester, the Art Institute’s curator of ancient art, said the moment she learned of the exhibition, she started looking for a way to bring it to Chicago, which boasts one of the largest Greek-speaking populations in the world.

“There isn’t a tremendous amount of Byzantine art,” Manchester said. “It is very rare to have the opportunity to display it.”

‘Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections’ When: Sept. 27 to Feb. 15, 2015 Where: Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Tickets: Free, with regular admission Info: (312) 443-3600; artic.edu

But because of scheduling conflicts, the show could not be presented in the Art Institute’s main temporary exhibition gallery, so it had to be reduced to fit into a more compact space for rotating shows in the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman and Byzantine Art.

On view will be more than 60 works spanning the 11-century Byzantine era, including mosaics, sculptures, jewelry, manuscripts, textiles, icons and wall paintings. All but one of the objects are drawn from museums, libraries, churches and other public collections across Greece.

The Art Institute is the sole venue for the “Icon of Saint Prokopios,” which is on loan from the Church of Saint Prokopios in Veroia. It was painted in the last century of the Byzantine Empire during the Ottomon invasions of northern Greece.

Among the exhibition’s other highlights:

Head of Aphrodite (1st century): This 15?-inch-tall marble head was essentially “Christianized” in the 4th century with the destruction of the figure’s nose and the addition of rough, incised crosses on the forehead, eyes and chin. “The broken nose was the most important way for Christians to deal with pagan images,” Boeck said. “If a statue’s nose was cut off, the image lost personhood.”

Fragment of a Mosaic with a Fountain (mid-5th century). The 1992 discovery of this 6-foot-tall fragment during the restoration of a Greek church led to the realization that the entire structure had once been covered with such mosaics. It depicts the fountain of everlasting life.

Processional Icon of the Virgin Hodegetria (last quarter, 12th century). This 45?-by-30?-inch icon, which would have been mounted on a pool and taken through streets during religious processions, has the image of the sorrowful Virgin on one side and Christ on the cross on the other.

Scenes from the Life of Alexander the Great from the “Romance of Alexander the Great” (14th century). This illustrated manuscript offers a take on the conquests of Alexander of Great in which he is portrayed as a kind of proto-Christian on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Inscriptions in Ottomon Turkish show a later owner’s attempt to put a Muslim cast on the story.

Necklace or Ornament for a Dress (4th century). It is very rare for a piece of jewelry of this kind, with its ornate mix of gold and precious stones, including emeralds, sapphires and pearls, to survive intact.

“Objects from Greek collections are important, and we have not seem them,” said Boeck, an associate professor of art history at DePaul University. “They have not traveled much. And every exhibition and every culture create their own narratives of Byzantine art.

“Here we see a range of objects told from the Greek perspective, which is also very important because the Greeks see themselves in direct succession to the Byzantine Empire in terms of cultural legacy and in terms of identity.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.

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