Byzantium and Babylon

Ceiling mosaic in the Chora church, Istanbul: Theodore Metochites presenting church to enthroned Christ. Photo: TMK, May 2006.

I saw two exhibitions in London this last Saturday. One was the Royal Academy’s much-hyped Byzantium show (ever-present Caffe Nero is apparerently the show’s official coffeeshop partner). There were some nice bits on display, sure, but I wasn’t overly impressed by the exhibition as a whole. It had more the feel of an introductory textbook on Byzantine art (albeit with shiny and three-dimensional originals) than a show that actually had something new to say about Byzantine contributions to the contemporary world (which the sponsors – three foundations supporting Hellenic heritage – clearly had hoped for). It also rehearsed one of those links between Classical Antiquity and Byzantium that I find quite tendentious, i.e. the supposed link between Fayoum mummy portraits and Byzantine icons. A prominent display case juxtaposed the two artforms. Yet clearly this ‘link’ only makes sense from an art historical viewpoint. If we want to take into account the varied use (functionally, spatially, and chronologically) of these objects, the link seems completely superficial and perhaps even irrelevant (at least to me). True, the Fayoum portraits are pretty much the only thing that we have left from the Classical tradition of panel painting, a much revered artform in Antiquity, but I don’t think that the juxtapostion helps us much further in trying to understand the use of icons or indeed mummy portraits.

The other show was the smaller but much more focused Babylon exhibition at the British Museum. This aimed to provide a cultural history of the image of Babylon in later cultures. One room was dedicated to different reconstructions of the Tower of Babel, demonstrating the power of the past to be a mirage for contemporary society. The show’s last room was dedicated to the use and abuse of Babylonian history and screened a powerful video of the current state of archaeology in Iraq. This gave the exhibition an extremely relevant and contemporary angle. The visitor is then led into one of those museum shops that we have come to expect as intricate parts of those big and flashy travelling exhibitions. There, I couldn’t help to feel that the show came down just a tiny notch. Isn’t this kind of commercialisation of the past (‘heritage = consumption’) part of the cultural baggage that has fueled much of the destruction of archaeological sites in Iraq?

Join the conversation


  1. I went specially to see the Babylon show and spent a lot of money on books and yes, souvenirs, to retian and share the impressions. There were items that directly related to biblical texts which I as an educator found very helpful. The merchandising was not overdone, and in fact for years now the BM has a shop set up just with related items for special exhibitions. I find it helpful rather than looking around. Museums need support, now more than ever. I did not feel it over commercialized.

  2. I agree. The contrast (in moving from the exhibit’s last room to the shop) just kind of struck me…

  3. The main porblem of the Byzantium exhibition is its lack of descriptive content, in my opinion. There is very little information on the items on display (some have a very interesting history) or of their purpose in the display.
    But I don’t get your argument about antiquity and Byzantium. Surely, you don#t believe that once the Romans moved their capital east they forgot how to paint, sculpt and build and they reinvented everything from scratch?

    As for the British Museum, the exhibitions there are increasingly commercialised, but that’s what brings in the crowds, unfortunately.

  4. No, Sophia, I surely don’t want to suggest that that is what happened. I just don’t think we learn much from that juxtaposition, apart from the fact that, of course, traditions and skills lived on. The important thing for me is that icons and mummy portraits were used in very different contexts, spatially and functionally. I don’t think that making them a ‘missing link’ between antiquity and Byzantium is very helpful in trying to understand their social context.

  5. i have a question.what do you think of the influence of byzantine art (icons)on early renaissance(giotto,duccio..)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *