Byzantium and Islam

Talk about an exciting borderland…. this from an article in the WSJ by Christian C. Sahner on “Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition” currently at the Met:

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.  

Ivories of the So-Called Grado chair: Saint Menas with Flanking Camels (made in  Eastern Mediterranean or Egypt, 7th-8th C, ivory)
11th-12th century textile fragment made in Egypt of silk and linen

One thought on “Byzantium and Islam

  1. I can imagine artists and artisans roaming over the continents looking for work, and when they found it, could not resist slipping in their own cultural influences. I would consider the mixture of cultures in art more of a reflection of how isolated a culture was in a certain period than of movements of thought or ideas within its institutions. It reminds me of Michelangelo painting the face of a bishop he didn’t like among those condemned to hell in the Sistine Chapel. The artist just slipped something from his own mind and experience into his religious art.

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