30th March 2006 - 3rd September 2006
This major exhibition brings to
London for the first time an extraordinary collection of classical
Greek, Roman and Byzantine luxury artworks from The State Hermitage
Museum in St Petersburg, including finely decorated silver and gold,
Athenian red-figure vases and exquisite cameos.
These objects, which have seldom been seen
outside Russia before, tell a little-known story of the development
of art and civilisation over more than a thousand years, from 6th
century BC Greece to the Middle Ages, and they overturn familiar
assumptions about the period.
The Road to Byzantium: Luxury
Arts of Antiquity challenges the conventional idea
that the new Christian art of the Byzantine Empire, usually represented
by icon painting, rejected completely the artistic styles and themes
of classical Greece and Rome. By looking at objects of luxury art
from this period, rather than icons, the exhibition demonstrates
the remarkable continuity of these classical traditions notably
in precious metalwork, jewellery, and ivory, at a time when classical
art is usually thought to have died out completely.
The State Hermitage Museum's collections
of this material, much of which was excavated from tombs and burials
in the Crimea and its Russian hinterland in the 19th and 20th centuries,
are unique and this exhibition will be the first to explore the
implications of these discoveries in detail.
The exhibition begins around 500 BC in
ancient Greece when artists perfected a way of representing the
world which combined extraordinary fidelity to nature with ideals
of harmony and beauty. This breakthrough in naturalistic art has
become known as the 'Greek Revolution' and it is epitomised in this
exhibition by the depictions of figures in Athenian vase painting,
most beautifully expressed in the famous 'First
Swallow of Spring' vase from the late 6th century BC.
These vases were exported far and wide and a number of the examples
displayed in The Road to Byzantium were
recovered from the area of Greek colonies on the north of the Black
Other exhibits demonstrate the appeal of
Greek craftsmanship to the nomadic Scythians who dominated that
region, and the exhibition displays astonishing examples of goldwork
made for Scythian patrons, including a quiver
cover with scenes from the life of Achilles.
Classical artistic values were inherited
by the Romans from the 2nd century BC onwards. Roman artists continued
to draw on Greek conventions and to develop the classical language
of art in representations of traditional subject matter, as illustrated
by delicately engraved gems and cameos. Included in this exhibition
is a cameo decorated with a lively scene
of Alexander the Great hunting wild boar.
In time they also adapted Greek styles
to the representation of distinctively Roman subjects as in portraits
of emperors and their relatives, such as the serene marble
bust of the Emperor Augustus's wife Livia. Even after
Christianity had become the dominant religion of the Empire in the
4th century AD, classical styles and imagery endured as the exquisite
Roman cameo depicting Constantine
the Great crowned by Constantinople powerfully attests.
This cameo also provides an important
link with the second part of the exhibition which explores the continuation
of the classical legacy in the Byzantine world after Constantine
the Great moved the heart of the Roman Empire from Italy to Constantinople
(modern-day Istanbul). A rarely exhibited group of remarkably well
preserved textiles, including a portrait
of the goddess Ge, introduce the continuing interest
in 'pagan' mythological themes long after the rise of Christianity.
However, the survival of classicism in
the Byzantine world became most clearly apparent to scholars in
the 20th century from extraordinary examples of gold and silver
and other treasures discovered through excavations in Russian lands
- sometimes far beyond the edges of the Eastern Roman Empire. These
rich collections entered the Hermitage and have been subject to
study by an international community of scholars in recent decades.
A highlight of this part of the London
exhibition will be an incredible group of silver and silver-gilt
dishes which can be dated accurately from control stamps on their
bases to the 6th and 7th centuries AD. This proves that they are
the creation of Medieval art despite their classical style, quality
and imagery. These pieces demonstrate more eloquently than any of
the exhibits how the traditions of ancient classicism were preserved
centuries after the establishment of Christianity and the dwindling
of prominent art forms like monumental sculpture.
dish from the age of Justinian (527-65 AD) depicts
a stunning pastoral scene of a goatherd with his animals that harks
back to the art of Hellenistic Greece. Later pieces show stories
of the Greek heroes: Ajax quarrelling with Odysseus; the doomed
lovers Meleager and Atalanta. On a silver
dish from the 7th century AD Silenus and Maenad - the
exuberant followers of the wine-god Dionysus (Bacchus) - dance against
a gilt field.
By bringing together over 160 selected
treasures from the Hermitage, as well as objects from the British
Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Road
to Byzantium explores the remarkable phenomenon of
the longevity of ancient classicism. Rarely have such objects been
brought together, even in the Hermitage Museum itself, to tell this
story of artistic survival. The exhibition promises to make a profound
impact upon our understanding of the period and is timed to coincide
with the International Byzantine Conference being held in London
in August 2006.
The exhibition has been curated jointly
by Professor Robin Cormack, Dr Antony Eastmond and Dr Peter Stewart
from the Courtauld Institute of Art, and Dr Anna Trofimova and Dr
Vera Zalesskaya from The State Hermitage Museum. It will be accompanied
by a fully illustrated colour catalogue published by Fontanka which
will include essays by leading international scholars.
The exhibition is organised by The
State Hermitage Museum and the Courtauld Institute of Art and supported
by Alpha Bank London, The Blavatnik Family Foundation, The J.F.
Costopoulos Foundation, Cycladic Capital LLP, The Sir Joseph Hotung
Charitable Settlement, The A.G. Leventis Foundation, and SETE S.A.
Exhibition Guide (474KB .pdf file)
left-click to open, right-click
to the exhibitions page