History on Display: Byzantium and Islam

by pamela on May 2, 2012

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new Islamic gallery has been on my to-do list for this  year’s trip to New York ever since it opened last November. It has some amazing pieces.  But the exhibit that blew me away was Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition.

I want to make it clear right from the start: I know next to nothing about the Byzantine Empire.  In my mental chronology, it’s basically a placeholder between the “real” Roman Empire and the rise of Islam. (I realize this is a wrong-headed and mistake positionn.  We all have holes in our mental history of the world.)

The exhibit rammed me right up the sharp edges of my own ignorance.  It gave me a broad-brush introduction to a multicultural empire that covered more territory than I realized.  There were plenty of surprises.  The one that had me scraping my jaw off the Metropolitan’s marble-tiled floor was the Iconoclastic Controversy of the 8th and 9th centuries.

If you’re like me, your mental image of Byzantium looks like this:

With that picture in my head, I find it hard to combine the words “Byzantine ” and “Iconoclasm” in a sentence.  And yet it appears that there was not just one period of Byzantine iconoclasm, but two.  The First Iconoclasm lasted from 726 to 774 CE; the Second Iconoclasm from 813-842 CE.

During these periods, the Orthodox Church was torn by theological battles over the use of icons and images as objects of religious veneration.  Imperial edicts forbade the creation or use of icons.  In some parts of the empire, including Constantinople itself, existing images were plastered over*.  Some iconoclasts took a more labor intensive approaching, carefully removing tiny mosaic tiles and jumbling them into a new, abstract pattern.

No one really knows what triggered the controversy.  Some attribute it to an imperial attempt to seize control over the wealthy Orthodox Church.  Others see it as a response to the rise and spread of Islam during the same period.

Whatever the reason, I was totally gobsmacked by this new insight into Byzantium.  Anyone else had their historical certainties shaken up recently?

Updated:  For those of you who can’t make it to New York in the coming months, here’s a wonderful slideshow of items from the exhibit from History Today.

 

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