Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Byzantine Art


It was my pleasure to take a tour of the beautiful Museum of Fine Arts, Boston which is where the first Museum of Fine Arts was established in July 1876. The museum was built in Copley Square, Boston the nation’s centennial. At that time when the Museum of Fine arts opened to the public there were over 5,600 works of art and artifacts archived there. Many years later the collection and visitors had grown immensely and the museum moved to its current location Huntington Avenue in 1909. To date the Museum of Fine Arts is considered to be one of the most comprehensive art museums throughout the world. Currently the collection has accumulated as many as 450,000 works of art and artifacts. Visitors have access to pieces from ancient Egypt to contemporary, special exhibitions and avant-garde educational programs.

In November 2010 The New Museum of Fine Arts opened. A new wing was constructed for Art of the Americas, renovated art of Europe galleries as well as improved conservation and education facilities. Also The Linde Family Wing dedicated solely to contemporary art and a new more spacious public area—the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard. Lastly the magnificent Fine Arts museum established what is referred to as An Artists’ Colony – Right Across the Street. The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston founded in 1876. The SMFA is known as one of the oldest and most distinguished art schools in the U.S. In 1945 based on an affiliation with Tufts University the SMFA made available undergraduate and graduate degree programs with access to a wide spectrum of academic resources.

Such an amazing and historic display of architecture I found in the narrative of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. As you can imagine I was just as taken aback as I perused over the many works of art trying to decide where to put my focus. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is truly exceptional! I narrowed my tour down to some period pieces from the Byzantine culture but I couldn’t help but to gaze longingly at everything. The famous works, personal favorites and various pieces that sparked my interest all caught my eye. It is always nice to explore new cultures and I was impressed with the tour of a Byzantine Art collection. It is a very modest exhibit of artifacts that I could spend hours analyzing as well as enjoying the richness of the history they hold. I found the exhibit well put together and extremely enriching. Sorry to get carried away over a room full of relics. It is the art and art history lover in me. I felt like a kid in a candy store. There are seven pieces that immediately stand out because of their supple exquisite appearance. I could imagine these pieces as collector’s items in a wealthy home. Or even beautiful antiques that could be found in a small village market overseas. Often I find the simplest pieces to be the most profound. Is it a useless chunk of limestone or the remnants of a once majestic empire? We shall see…

As I begin I am brought to a beautiful mosaic. To imagine that man was this skilled in design is phenomenal. I dare to think of the time and precision it took to design this masterpiece. The images depicted are almost crude which only adds to its appeal. I see what could be symbolism of the culture. I say this because the mosaic is said to be from a church floor in or near Edessa. The water fountain flows into a kantharos which is the Greek word for a pottery drinking cup. In 490-480 B.C. the wine god Dionysus is shown with his kantharos of wine. The kantharos was never supposed to be empty. Around this period of time Christians developed cryptic signs and symbols to maintain secrecy and avoid Roman persecution. For example they used Greek letters sometimes in the form of acronyms. Everything pictured in the mosaic is fairly real to life. The one thing that is strange is that the peacocks do not actually perch on the fountain. Only one of each bird’s talons actually stands on the edge of the fountain. It is possible that the kantharos fountain was an early Christian symbol of abundance, purity and everlasting life through Christ Jesus. The stance of the peacocks is a mystery to me but I’m quite sure the artist had some reason behind arranging the birds the way they did.

Mosaic [ Byzantine, Early Byzantine Period, A.D. 450–462 ]

Mosaic [ Byzantine, Early Byzantine Period, A.D. 450–462 ]

Two peacocks perch on a fountain, in the form of a kantharos into which water flows from a stylized floral (palmette) spout above. Colors: pale red and blue on yellow. From the floor of a church complex near (at) Marathus or Homs (Edessa).

Provenance: Said to be from the floor of a church complex near (at) Marathus or Homs (Edessa); by date unknown: with George Zacos, Engelgasse 65, Basel, Switzerland; 1970: gift to Department of Classical Art, MFA from an Anonymous Source; accessioned by MFA as gift of Department of Classical Art, April 8, 1970 | http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/mosaic-262648 | http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/greekart/g/032108kantharos.htm

As I move on a rudimentary lamp sits before me. Puzzled I read the curator’s notes. Now that I had an idea of how this would work as a lamp I was absolutely fascinated. I love the Greek inscription and I love the translation even more. The curator’s notes mention the two filling holes which leads me to believe it is some sort of oil lamp. Not that it really made it any clearer how to work one of these lamps. Thank God for good ole electricity! Pieces like this one, although not so glitz and glamor are my favorite. The terracotta is a wonderful material to work with. I can imagine myself in art class molding and sculpting clay. It may look simple but a lamp like this takes time and skill. Love, love, love the steelyard weight!! Silly how it’s just part of an ancient scale yet I find it so decorative. Which makes you wonder what was this scale being used to measure or better yet who the scale belonged to. An emperor’s gloved hand grasping the orb of power. It just sounds so prestigious. The craftsmanship is excellent. I’m sure it takes quite a bit of skill as well.

Lamp with Greek inscription [ Byzantine, Early Byzantine Period, 5th–6th century A.D. ]

Lamp with Greek inscription [ Byzantine, Early Byzantine Period, 5th–6th century A.D. ]

An ovoid lamp from Istanbul with two filling-holes that bears on the shoulders an inscription in Greek: “The Light of Christ Shines upon us all”.

Provenance: By date unknown: with Hesperia Art, 2219 St. James Place, Philadelphia, Pa.; purchased from Hesperia Art by Mr. and Mrs. C. C. Vermeule III, December 23, 1965; June 3, 1967: loaned to MFA by Mr. and Mrs. C. C. Vermeule III (as 156.67); gift of Mrs. and Mrs. C. C. Vermeule III to MFA, October 14, 1970 | http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/lamp-with-greek-inscription-262143

Steelyard weight [ Roman or Byzantine, Late Imperial or Byzantine Period ]

Steelyard weight [ Roman or Byzantine, Late Imperial or Byzantine Period ]

 

Steelyard weight, in the form of the gloved hand of an emperor, grasping the orb of power (orbs domina).

Provenance: By date unknown: Collection of Mr. and Mrs. C. C. Vermeule III (loaned to MFA as 118.64: said to come from Constantinople; from the art market in Philadelphia); gift of Mr. and Mrs. C. C. Vermeule III to MFA, November 10, 1970 | http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/steelyard-weight-262123

 

 

 

 

The next six limestone fragments on display are really interesting. When I look at the ancient artifacts I am reminded of Michelangelo. What comes to mind is Michelangelo’s experience during the High Renaissance and his Florentine commission of the sculpture of David for the city of Florence. Years before the original artist quit working on it leaving a giant block of marble abandoned outside. Marble was expensive but it did not hold up against the many years of weather damage. It was the 26 year old Michelangelo who saw this chunk of imperfection and envisioned something great inside. That is what I see in these fragments. Not the once grand monument that these pieces have broken away from but I envision the great architecture waiting to be expanded upon. All six pieces are Egyptian. At first glance you would never guess that. Maybe the curator was making an effort to heighten our senses in recognizing artistic characteristics, form and origin. Mind you these are fragments of an ancient empire. Could we be so brainwashed by media representations of Ancient Egypt that we are missing the entire spectrum of the Egyptian architectural design element? Taking a closer look you’ll notice a repetitive design that is symbolic of Egypt’s Greek influence. There is a very distinct and signature carving technique in all six fragments. Most are a variety of leaves and some have leaves and grapes. Very Julius Caesar with his golden leaf crown on while he lounges eating grapes.

Fragment of a capital? [ Egyptian, Byzantine (Coptic) Period ]

Fragment of a capital? [ Egyptian, Byzantine (Coptic) Period ]

This column features a series of highly stylized leaves.

Provenance: Findspot Information: From the Coptic Monastery of St. Jeremiah’s at Saqqara, Egypt, excavated by J. E. Quibell in 1905-1906. | http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/fragment-of-a-capital-141996

Fragment of a panel [ Egyptian, Byzantine (Coptic) Period, late 4th–mid 7th century ]

Fragment of a panel [ Egyptian, Byzantine (Coptic) Period, late 4th–mid 7th century ]

There is a small basket (?) medallion in the center. There are large leaf scrolls around it. The iconograpghy of this fragment suggests it once belonged within an ecclesiastical context.

Provenance: Findspot Information: From the Coptic Monastery at Saqqara, Egypt, excavated by J.E.Quibell in | http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/fragment-of-a-panel-141997

Fragment of a cornice [ Egyptian, Byzantine (Coptic) Period ]

Fragment of a cornice [ Egyptian, Byzantine (Coptic) Period ]

Fragment of a cornice. Limestone. Pointed leaves and scrolling stem.

Provenance: Findspot Information: From the Coptic Monastery at Saqqara, Egypt, excavated by J.E.Quibell in | http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/fragment-of-a-cornice-142001

Fragment of a molding [ Egyptian, Byzantine (Coptic) Period ]

Fragment of a molding [ Egyptian, Byzantine (Coptic) Period ]

Corner piece of a molding. Border of grapes(?) and leaves.

Provenance: Findspot Information: From the Coptic Monastery at Saqqara, Egypt, excavated by J.E.Quibell in | http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/fragment-of-a-molding-142002

Fragment of a capital [ Egyptian, Byzantine (Coptic) Period ]

Fragment of a capital [ Egyptian, Byzantine (Coptic) Period ]

This is a simplified, flat carving of an acanthus leaf, and it is likely a fragment of a column.

Provenance: From the Coptic Monastery of St. Jeremiah’s at Saqqara, Egypt, excavated by J. E. Quibell in 1905-6. | http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/fragment-of-a-capital-142106

Fragment of a molding [ Egyptian, Byzantine (Coptic) Period ]

Fragment of a molding [ Egyptian, Byzantine (Coptic) Period ]

 

 

 

 

 

Corner piece of a molding. Border of grapes(?) and leaves.

Provenance: Findspot Information: From the Coptic Monastery at Saqqara, Egypt, excavated by J.E.Quibell in | http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/fragment-of-a-molding-467914

 

Here we have another mosaic. Possibly from the same church floor in Edessa. I admire the crude letters. The aging gives it character. Greek letters can be very appealing to the eye depending on your taste in art. I definitely see a work of art. Now the inscription on the other hand didn’t really come together for me but I’m sure whoever designed it had a distinct purpose. In the next display is a stunning bronze lamp and stand. Very obviously well-crafted and probably very expensive at the time it was made. I am a huge fan of bronze and rot iron. It’s interesting to know that this is a piece that could have been used in a Byzantine home or simply part of a church’s relics and liturgy. I also assume that this was a one of a kind piece or made by special request based on the unusual lamp handles. It is also unique in that the handles are open looped with foliage and a cross. Very exquisite! I don’t think it is certain whether this basic lamp style was typical to the region and time. The earlier lamp was terracotta with no lid, two filling holes and a spout. It also did not appear to use a stand. Both are from the Byzantine Period around the 5th-6th century and are Mediterranean.

 

Mosaic [ Byzantine, Early Byzantine Period, A.D. 450–462 ]

Mosaic [ Byzantine, Early Byzantine Period, A.D. 450–462 ]

Inscription [inscription] “Oh Lord Christ Help Us. Marathus the Macedonian foundation (is responsible for this floor), in the name of Porphyrios son of Demetrios, paid for by one Niketa, from Philadelphia also a Macedonian city.” Colors: blue-black (letters) on white.

From the floor of a church complex near (at) Marathus or Homs (Edessa).

Provenance: Said to be from the floor of a church complex near (at) Marathus or Homs (Edessa); by date unknown: with George Zacos, Engelgasse 65, Basel, Switzerland; 1970: gift to Department of Classical Art, MFA from an Anonymous Source; accessioned by MFA as gift of Department of Classical Art, April 8, 1970 | http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/mosaic-262647

Lamp and stand [ Byzantine, Byzantine Period, 6th century ]

Lamp and stand [ Byzantine, Byzantine Period, 6th century ]

Early Byzantine lamp with stand; either for use in a Byzantine household to be placed on a table or possible part of a church treasure including liturgical implements. Unusual design of lamp with open loop handles inspired by foliage sprays with a cross on top. A single nozzle lamp and hinged domed lid with a finial. Lamp stand is supported by three legs resting on claw feet. Several parallels which are assigned to Egypt or Syria are in the collections at Dumbarton Oaks and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Provenance: By 1980: London antiquities trade; 1980: purchased by David Miller, P.O. Box 711, Hemel Hempstead, Herts HP2 4UH, England, in the London antiquities trade; date unknown: sold by David Miller to private collector in the United States; by 2001: with Robert Haber & Associates, Inc., 61 West 23rd St., New York, NY 10010; purchased by MFA from Robert Haber & Associates, March 20, 2002; accessioned as a museum purchase with funds donated by George D. and Margo Behrakis | http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/lamp-and-stand-346539

 

 

 

 

The tour ends with my personal favorites. I would consider these must haves! The earrings are so darling and antique. I can appreciate the spiritual connection which really adds to the beauty. What is more interesting is that they give light to the transition in Egypt where these were located. Ancient Egypt was giving way to changes in Byzantine culture. Changes such as Byzantine dress in political, religious, and economic centers like Constantinople. Lastly is this delicate little bowl made of silver. It is precious for a few reasons. This container would have been used in an Early Byzantine church to hold incense. Four figures are designed on the outer round of the bowl. Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and two archangels are depicted and give the bowl a profound presence. I am a huge fan of silver and the colors and tones are very soft. Sadly the lid was not recovered with the container. If it had been found it might have had a dedicatory inscription.

Earring [ Egyptian, Byzantine (Coptic) Period ]

Earring [ Egyptian, Byzantine (Coptic) Period ]

Bronze earring with a circle filled with a smaller circle and cross in center formed by scrolls. A piece is missing from the outer circle. The design of these earrings seems to be influenced by contemporary metalwork designs, especially in relation to liturgical furnishings like polycandelabra.

In general, these earrings reflect the adoption of wearing objects of personal adornment with Christian iconograpghy (whether narrative images from Christian myth or symbols from Christian art and cult) by women during the early Byzantine period. As these earrings were acquired in Egypt, we see how people living in Egypt were aware of, and perhaps responsive to, changes in Byzantine dress in political, religious, and economic centers like Constantinople.

For similar earrings, see UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptology and Archaeology UCL no. 58228.

Provenance: By 1909: purchased in Egypt by Joseph Lindon Smith; 1909: on loan to the MFA; 1911: purchased by the MFA through funds provided by Mary S. Ames.

(Accession date: August 3, 1911.) | http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/earring-136974

Spherical small container (pyxis) with representations of Christ, Virgin and two archangels [ Byzantine, Early Byzantine Period, 6th–7th century A.D. ]

Spherical small container (pyxis) with representations of Christ, Virgin and two archangels [ Byzantine, Early Byzantine Period, 6th–7th century A.D. ]

 

 

This gilded silver pyxis of spherical form was a container for relics or incense used in Early Byzantine church rites. The four figures produced in repousse technique show a bearded Christ offering a blessing, the Virgin holding an emblem symbolic of her roles as Mother of God (Theotokos), and two archangels dressed in long sleeved tunics with segmenta on their shoulders and hems. The lid is lost but may have had a dedicatory inscription.

Provenance: By date unknown: in a private collection in London (thought to have been owned for a number of years); in 1990: purchased from the private collection in London by an American private collector; by November 2004: with Ward & Company, 962 Park Ave. at 82nd St., New York, NY 10028; December 21, 2004: purchased by George and Margo Behrakis from Ward and Company; gift of George and Margo Behrakis to MFA, April 27, 2005 | http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/spherical-small-container-pyxis-with-representa
tions-of-christ-virgin-and-two-archangels-458408

I was absolutely floored by my tour of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The exhibit was a complete success. The curator did an excellent job of pulling together a variety of aspects from Byzantine Art and culture. Some people are attracted to flashiness and this can be used as a means of drawing their attention. In viewing artistic works I have found that, more often than not, less is more. As I said before there are six limestone fragments that the average person would not find a connection between them and the other period pieces shown. The limestone fragments also may not be as interesting to some. For me the entire experience was exciting and enriching. I learned a lot from the curator’s notations and I certainly have a great appreciation for the Byzantine Art exhibit as well as the things I learned. It really made a big impression for me that the notations were so detailed. It helped me to put together my artistic knowledge with what I experienced during the tour. I enjoyed myself and I look forward to future in depth study of Art History exhibition. This exhibit opened my eyes to the fact that there is so much more historical artistic expression out there with tiny details that have a profound meaning.

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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Byzantine Art

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