By Jeremy Miles
I was once driven, accompanied by an armed escort in case of terrorist attack, across the Sinai Desert for a whistle-stop tour of St Catherine’s Monastery.
This shrine, built in the 6th century on the site where Moses supposedly saw the burning bush, is sacred to both Christianity and Islam. It is named after St Catherine of Alexandria, the Christian Martyr broken on the wheel and then beheaded for refusing to renounce her religious beliefs. It a site of immense religious,m historic and artistic importance. Yet we were there for barely an hour. This is not the recommended way to see some of the greatest treasures in the world but it is very much the 21st century tourist experience.
Imagine my delight and fascination therefore when I realised that some of the finest exhibits from St Catherine’s , some rarely glimpsed by the public before, were coming to England.
The extraordinary Byzantium 330-1453 exhibition currently filling the lofty galleries of London’s Royal Academy highlights, as it name suggest, the splendours of the Byzantium Empire. Among its 340 exhibits are icons, wall paintings, micro-mosaics, ivories, enamels and exquisite gold, silver and metalwork. There are great works from St Catherines and the San Marco Treasury in Venice plus rare items borrowed from collections across Europe, the USA, Russia and Ukraine.
It is a giant of a show – the biggest and most complex ever staged by the RA says co-curator Professor Maria Vassilaki. It is also the first major exhibition of Byzantine Art to be staged in the Britain for 50 years.
Dealing with such a vast subject – it traces the chronological progression of the Byzantine Empire and the artistic production it inspired from the rise of Constantinople in the 4th century AD to its fall to the Ottoman Turks more than 1,200 years later – this show could easily have lost direction.
With steely academic resolve tempered by an understanding for the over-riding need for good design and presentation , it’s curators have manage to create a world-class show that remains focused and accessible, shining a light on some of the key works in the gradual development of modern civilisation.
It covers the origins of Byzantium, the threat of iconoclasm when emperors banned Christian figurative art, the post iconoclast revival, the glory years of the Middle Ages and the close connections between Byzantine and the art of the early Italian Renaissance.
It traces the influence of the Latin Crusaders, the art of the Balkans, Russia and Greece.
This is art that is fired by an intellectual, emotional and spiritual energy, yet is distinctive for its expression of passionate belief and high emotion within a disciplined framework of moderation and restraint.
*Byzantium 330-1453 is at the Royal Academy of Art at Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD until March 22, 2009. For tickets call 0870 848 8484 or go to www.royalacademy.org.uk