Sunday, February 22, 2009

Byzantium comes to London

One of the advantages of not working is that you have the opportunity to do things that you'd normally not have time for, like go to exhibitions, museums and matinees. I've not made it to a matinee yet, but last Friday my friend Lucy and I went to our first exhibition.

The Byzantium exhibition is organised by the Royal Academy of Arts in collaboration with the Benaki Museum in Athens, and showcases important Byzantium treasures. It is the first major exhibition on Byzantine art in the UK for 50 years and has become so popular since it opened in October 2008 that weekend tickets sell out weeks in advance. Lucky we could visit during the week then ;-)

Burlington House, Royal Academy of Arts, London

The exhibition is held in Burlington House, a magnificent listed building on Piccadilly, in the centre of London, opposite Fortnum & Mason. It was originally a private Palladian mansion, and was expanded in the mid 19th century after being purchased by the British government. I'd been past Burlington House several times and had even made it into the courtyard once or twice, but never actually seen the inside of the building, which I have to say is just as impressive as the outside.

Considering it was 10 AM on a Friday morning, the place was pretty packed. I hate to think what it'd be like on a Saturday or Sunday!

The exhibition begins with the foundation of Constantinople in 330 AD by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great and concludes with the capture of the city by the Ottoman forces of Sultan Mehmed II in 1453. It explores the origins of Byzantium; the rise of Constantinople; the threat of iconoclasm when emperors banned Christian figurative art; the post-iconoclast revival; the remarkable crescendo in the Middle Ages and the close connections between Byzantine and early Renaissance art in Italy in the 13th and early 14th centuries. The first item you see as you enter the exhibition is a large copper chandelier from the 13th or 14th century, which is decorated with sphinxes and double-headed eagles. You can just about make it out through the double doors in the previous photo. You can also see a close up below - it's the only photograph I took, before Lucy saw the "no photography" sign.

It was a shame that photography wasn't allowed, because there were lots of interesting objects that I'd have loved to take pictures of, and hardly any of them were available as postcards in the museum shop. As you would expect there were a lot of icons, but also wall paintings, micro-mosaics, ivories, enamels, jewellery and metalwork, some of which have never been displayed in public before. One of the most impressive exhibits was the silver perfume brazier in the form of a domed building that appears on all the exhibition banners. All the icons were beautiful too.

We spent a good two hours at the exhibition which felt more like twenty minutes. That's a huge compliment coming from me, as I'm not really a museum person and tend to get bored easily when I'm in semi-darkness, esp. when there's nothing to take pictures of. However, in this case, the two hours went past in a flash.

British Museum, London

By the time we left Burlington House the sun had come out, so we wandered round Soho and ended up at the British Museum - but that's a topic for another post.


Shionge said...

I know I would love to be there if I visit London :D

Eirene H said...

After reading your comments there's no way I am missng it! I'll definitely visit by the end of March. Regarding taking photographs, it is a good thing they are not allowed. From an art restorer's point of view flash photography can contribute greatly to a painting's damage so it's good to know the organisers are looking after the works. I know how frustrating it is from the photographer's point of view though ;-)

Mediterranean kiwi said...

lovely post tinsie - and i cant wait to see what you got up to in soho and the british museum

enjoy your time away from work whenever you can

Tinsie said...

@ Shionge: Unfortunately it's a temporary exhibition, but there's always something of this magnitude happening in London - you won't have trouble finding a worthwhile exhibition to visit.

And if you're ever in Athens, check out the Byzantine and Benaki museums.

@ Eirene: I totally understand the need to ban flash photography, but what's wrong with taking photos without flash?

You definitely have to visit the exhibition, you'll love it! Keep in mind that it finishes on 22 March so you have to come soon.

@ Mediterranean Kiwi: Thanks! I'll say more about Soho and the British Museum in my next post :-)

JM said...

It must be a fantastic exhibition! And I've never been at Burlington House...

Ropi said...

Cool I would love to attend this exhibition. A sidenote: the 2 parts were finally separated in 396 after the death of Theodosius but we can count Byzantion from 330 as well.

Tinsie said...

@ JM: Both the exhibition and the venue were pretty impressive.

@ Ropi: I'm sure you'd enjoy it!

Kate said...

I've been to the Benaki Museum and the artwork is breath-taking. Definitley work a visit to the exhibition there while it lasts.

ShadowFalcon said...

Need to go see that on my next day off. I love the royal academy and the British museum.

Tinsie said...

I promise you, you won't be disappointed :-)