Hermitage Rooms Archive

The Road to Byzantium: Luxury Arts of Antiquity


Photo: Cover plate of quiver
Cover plate of quiver

Photo: Dish with herdsman and goats
Dish with herdsman and goats

Photo: Dish with Silenus and Maenad
Dish with Silenus and Maenad

Photo: Cameo, Alexander hunting boar
Cameo, Alexander hunting boar

Photo: Bracelet

Photo: Sardonyx cameo
Sardonyx cameo

Photo: Textile representing goddess
Textile representing goddess

Photo: Portrait of Livia
Portrait of Livia

Photo: Attic red-figure pelike
Attic red-figure pelike

Photo: Pendant on a relief disc
Pendant on a relief disc

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 Sea.

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.

One silver 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.

The Exhibition Guide (474KB .pdf file)
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