‘Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections’ at the Art Institute Chicago

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Icon of Christ Pantokrator, late 14th century. Byzantine; Thessaloniki. Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki.

Icon of Christ Pantokrator, late 14th century. Byzantine; Thessaloniki. Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki.

Icons of saints, choral music — at church? No just the Art Institute’s newest exhibit.

“Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections” at the Art Institute exhibits 63 pieces of art ranging from icons to sculpture to jewelry from the Byzantine Empire.

The exhibit, originally shown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., isn’t a boring, stuffy showcase of ancient artifacts but a surprisingly modern take on the work ranging from the 4th to the 14th century.

Upon entering the Mary and Michael Jaharis Gallery, music from Cappella Romana greets the viewer with choral music offering a multi-sensory experience and almost authenticating the viewing of the art. Many of the pieces come from churches or are meant to be viewed in a religious context, so the music puts the viewer in the right mood. There are also iPads with with short videos about the exhibit, offering even more of a multimedia experience.

Moving through the exhibit, the art is sorted into five sections: From the Ancient to the Byzantine World; Spiritual Life; Intellectual Life; Pleasures of Life and Crosscurrents.

While the show gives a unique look at all aspects of Byzantine life, the portion of the gallery the exhibit is crammed into is tight. During peak museum hours tours and large crowds cram the space, making it difficult to experience all elements of the show. In the Intellectual Life portion, different texts such as “The Iliad” are shown in protected boxes. When the gallery is packed it’s impossible to get a detailed look and all of the different elements.

Byzantine art is unlike other classical work, especially compared to Renaissance work that covers the upstairs galleries. Icon paintings are very flat, lacking depth in portraiture, but the detail is intricate. Gold covers much of the painted work, like “Icon of the Hospitality of Abraham,” showing the importance of the icons to the Byzantine life and culture.

If gold shows importance, jewelry and social life was just as important to the culture. Bracelets and necklaces are impressive, gaudy to current tastes, but impressive considering they date back to the 4th-6th centuries.

“Heaven and Earth” is certainly worth a visit, but at an off hour. The pieces shown tell a unique story of a multifaceted culture, it’s a shame they weren’t given more room to shine in the museum. 

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