New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art will next month be holding a unique exhibition on Byzantium and Islam. Hailed by art critics and historians as "a bold choice of subject-matter" it is expected to cause a sensation when it opens on 14 March 2012.
The Eastern Mediterranean, from Syria across North Africa, comprised the wealthy southern provinces of the Byzantine Empire at the start of the seventh century. By that century's end, the region was central to the emerging Islamic world. This exhibition will be the first to display the complex character of the region and its exceptional art and culture during the era of transitionâfrom its role as part of the Byzantine state to its evolving position in the developing Islamic world. The dialogue between established Byzantine and evolving Islamic styles and culture will be shown through images of authority, religion, and especially commerce. Iconoclasm as it emerged during that period among the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic communities of the region will be addressed.
Johannes Koder, a professor at the University of Vienna, says such a change of focus is crucial to the survival of Byzantine studies. Since the 1980s, in most Western countries, the field has been in decline. The number of people who study Latin and Greek at school or university has plunged. It used to be that a classical education was a basic precursor for the study of the later medieval period. For Byzantinology to survive, Mr Koder reckons that in the future, it will have to shift from being seen as part of Medieval European studies and become better integrated into the broader field of Mediterranean studies, to illustrate the relationship between Byzantium and the rise of Islam and later of Renaissance Europe.
Perhaps the first step in that direction will be the Met's forthcoming exhibition, which will concentrate on the early Muslim centuries: a time when, in between fighting, the Byzantines and Muslims were exchanging artistic techniques.
On 24 March, a "Byzantium and Islam Festival" inspired by the exhibition will be held. The family festival will celebrate the exhibition's dynamic interweaving of cultures through a mixture of gallery experiences, art-making activities, stories, and performances.
"Byzantine studies: Intrigue within, perils without" Prospero February 17, 2012
"Byzantium and Islam Age of Transition" MET February 17, 2012
Reproduced with permission from Islam Today