At the Royal Academy

Mark Whittow

The first thing you see in the Byzantium 330-1453 exhibition at the Royal Academy (until 22 March 2009) is one of the last of the objects on display to have been made, a huge 13th or 14th-century chandelier that brilliantly conjures up a sense of an ecclesiastical space. The room full of ivories, rich manuscripts and precious vessels, on the other hand, makes you feel as if you’ve been invited into the most private apartments of the imperial court. The icons that have been brought to London from museums in Ohrid, Belgrade, Mytilene and Athens are all magnificent. Even the fact that most of them have been plated over with a job-lot of utilitarian silver revetment, paid for by later donors, seems less a disfigurement than a reminder that these are working objects, tools for salvation. Nearby, in contrast to the icons, is a child’s woollen hooded top from seventh-century Egypt: the only place in the Byzantine world where climatic conditions could have preserved such an ordinary object, and its presence suggests an everyday world that might otherwise be hard to imagine. The show culminates with the icons from the Monastery of St Catherine at Sinai (such as the one below); the best are those painted in the late 12th century for the monastery’s iconostasis, the screen that separates the sanctuary from the body of the church. They’re worth seeing in London because you can get closer to them, and they are better lit, than they are on the monastery walls.

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[*] Byzantium 330-1453 edited by Robin Cormack and Maria Vassilaki. Royal Academy, 496 pp., £55, November, 978 1 905711 26 0