Focusing on Christian works from the 4th to 15th centuries and their modern analogs, Byzantine Things in the World presents a new way of looking at Byzantine “art.” Contrary to the contemporary conception, in which works of art are considered inert and passive, Byzantine thinkers saw objects as dynamic and changeable, fully capable of affecting the world. This exhibition proposes that Byzantine objects are best understood as being alive, possessing the agency to work, act, and transform.
The materials used and the sensory impressions they created were an integral part of the Byzantine God-saturated world. Gold, for instance, was thought of as a living element, and its luster exerted ethereal effects on a viewer’s field of vision. Many items incorporated substances from sites that were considered holy; the pilgrim tokens included, for example, were made of earth gathered from a location associated with a saint’s physical life. In carrying such a token, the owner channeled the saint, extending the reach of his or her power into the world.
Presenting more than 70 works ranging from the Neolithic period to the late 12th century, this exhibition highlights the Menil Collection’s Byzantine holdings. The pilgrim tokens, icons, and the like are carefully placed among a selection of works that span the breadth of the museum’s collection, from ancient carving and modern abstract painting to African ironwork and Minimalist sculpture. This unconventional presentation reveals unexpected facets of Byzantine “things” and reminds us of the agency these objects still possess.
Byzantine Things in the World is assembled for the Menil Collection by guest curator Glenn Peers, Professor of Early Medieval and Byzantine Art at the University of Texas at Austin, with the support of Susan Sutton, curatorial assistant at the museum. The book published in conjunction with the exhibition is copiously illustrated and features an innovative design and texts written to help the reader new to the material and ideas, and contains original scholarly texts developed in part through an innovative workshop held at the Menil Collection in 2001. Essay authors include Glenn Peers, Richard Shiff, Charles Barber and other established thinkers; there are short object- or idea-specific texts by emerging scholars; and a glossary and explanatory sidebar texts come together with the images and other texts to propose a new understanding of Byzantine things in the world.
This exhibition is generously supported by David and Anne Kirkland; Louisa Stude Sarofim; Anne and Bill Stewart; Still Water Foundation; Baker Hughes Foundation; W.S. Bellows Construction Corporation and the City of Houston.
Photos: Paul Hester