In 2008, portions of the medieval art galleries were renovated, thanks to the generous support of Mary and Michael Jaharis. The apse beneath the Great Hall Stairs became part of the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries for Byzantine Art and now features the Jaharis Byzantine Lectionary, a rare manuscript from around the year 1100. An 18-foot-tall marble ciborium (altar canopy) from twelfth–century Italy is the focal point of a gallery devoted to medieval European works of art in all media from about 1050 to 1300.
Historical Context of the Works on View
In 330 the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, Constantine the Great, transferred the imperial capital from Rome to the ancient Greek city of Byzantion, which he renamed Constantinople. The state that was ruled from that city would come to be called Byzantium. During the first golden age of the Empire, the early Byzantine era (330–730), Christianity became the official religion of the culturally and religiously diverse state. In the 600s Persian and Arab invasions devastated much of the Empire's eastern territories. In the 700s and early 800s, the Iconoclastic Controversy, which raged over the proper use of religious images, resulted in the extensive destruction of icons. That era was followed by a second flowering of the Empire, the middle Byzantine period (843–1261). The arts flourished as the use of icons was reestablished. Greek became the dominant official language, and Christianity spread from Constantinople throughout the Slavic lands to the north. In 1204 Crusaders from western Europe took Constantinople. Latin rule lasted there until 1261, when Byzantine authority was restored. The final great flowering of the arts that followed lasted until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, more than 1,100 years after its founding. Long after its fall, Byzantium continued to set a standard for luxury, beauty, and learning that inspired both the Latin West and the Islamic East.
As the center of public religious life in the Byzantine world, churches made the heavenly paradise visible to the devout. Monumental figures of Christ, the Virgin, and saints worked in richly colored mosaic, fresco, and sculpted stone covered the interior walls. Icons, manuscripts, crosses, reliquaries, censers, and lighting devices made of parchment, gold, silver, enamel, and other materials filled church interiors. Similar works were also used for personal devotion.
Medieval Europe (1050–1300)
By the middle of the eleventh century western Europe had developed a culture distinct from those of its Byzantine and Islamic neighbors and a formidable rival to both. The lands settled by barbarian tribes in the waning days of the Roman Empire had become kingdoms, the rough boundaries of which correspond to Europe's modern nation-states.
The Church in Europe, with Latin as its shared language and the pope in Rome as its leader, became the most important patron of the arts. Sculpture, on the public façades of cathedrals and churches and within monastic cloisters, told the story of the Christian faith. Inside the sanctuary, where once only wall painting and mosaics provided pictorial decoration, jewel-like painted glass was set in increasingly large and magnificent windows. At the altar, precious ceremonial objects, manuscripts, and reliquaries complemented the monumental decoration. As the threat of invaders diminished, pilgrims traveled long distances to venerate the relics of saints, while Crusaders embarked for the Holy Land, hoping to reclaim it. London, Cologne, and Pisa were among the many cities founded by ancient Romans that, with the growth of trade, prospered anew in the Middle Ages. It was Paris, however, known to the ancient Celts and recognized by the Frankish king Clovis (ca. 466–511) as his capital, that grew into a preeminent cultural and intellectual center. There the achievements that would characterize medieval Europe as a whole emerged: unparalleled feats of architecture, a growing class of professional artists, a flourishing university, and a prosperous mercantile economy.