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February 2024

Vol. 166 / No. 1451

Africa & Byzantium

Reviewed by Charles Barber

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 19th November 2023–3rd March 2024 

Over recent decades the Metropolitan Museum of Art has presented a series of exhibitions that have addressed both Byzantium and its neighbouring cultures: The Glory of Byzantium (1997), Byzantium: Faith and Power (2004) and Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition (2012).[1] This exhibition, which has been developed in partnership with the Cleveland Museum of Art, adds an important dimension to this continuing conversation by inviting the visitor to look south and to contemplate the visual culture of the Africa that fell under the sway of first Roman and then Byzantine cultural practices. The curator, Andrea Myers Achi, has brought together almost two hundred works from many collections to create an important, scholarly and visually exciting event. The exhibits range from the second century AD to the present day and encompass the north-eastern section of the African continent, from the Mediterranean coast to modern-day Ethiopia. Yet despite this breadth, the exhibition is not overwhelming. Clusters of works open differing perspectives, providing glimpses of a complex history. The forty-six contributors to the catalogue present a learned introduction to this material.[2] The quality of the essays and of the production of the volume will leave an important record, even though the organisation of the exhibition and the book differ. The catalogue is particularly notable for the questions it raises about definitions and their temporal value. These include terms relating to place (for example, whether one uses Byzacena or Ifriqiya for what would now be called Tunisia), the limits of nationalistic and religious categorisations such as ‘Jewish art’, the implications of placing value on local facture, and the realities of cultural horizons, such as the effective separation of medieval and early modern Africa from Byzantium. Put simply, the catalogue encourages readers to bring the shifting possibilities inherent in the terms Africa and Byzantium to bear upon the material on display. 

The galleries are arranged chronologically in three sections. In the first, ‘From Carthage to Aksum: Africa in Late Antiquity’, are objects that relate to mythological, quotidian and luxurious aspects of this culture, mediated by local centres of production. The widespread dissemination of African red slip ware, of which vessels are on display (290–320; Musée du Louvre, Paris; cat. nos.42–46), is a familiar example of the local articulation of broader cultural themes. More striking, however, are the wooden boxes with ivory inlays – such as a bridal chest (4th–6th century; Egyptian Museum, Cairo; no.61) – which scholars have reassigned from Egyptian to Nubian centres of production. These convey an image of the good life through local materials and craft. As one approaches the galleries devoted to the second section, ‘Bright as the Sun: Africa after Byzantium’, the works on display become increasingly shaped by a Christian account of the region. Icons from the monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai (6th–14th century; nos.4, 103 and 105–107), Coptic manuscripts from the Morgan Library and Museum, New York (9th–10th century; nos.92–96), and Nubian wall paintings from the National Museum, Warsaw (8th–12th century; nos.117–19), present startlingly different views of this world. The Sinaitic icons are profoundly Byzantine, the manuscripts introduce us to a world of intense local production, whereas the Nubian paintings commemorate a local African hierarchy in conversation with their saints. The third section, ‘Legacies: Black Byzantium’, brings the visitor to the Early Modern world and is focused on Ethiopian materials. Devotion to the cult of Mary the Mother of God is foregrounded. Included at the end of this section are works by such contemporary Ethiopian artists as Theo Eshetu (b.1958) and Tsedaye Makonnen (b.1984), which offer accounts of the continuing power of the past in the present. The exhibition cases, lighting and design are exemplary, and the international lenders have been remarkably generous in sending some spectacular objects. But the exhibition is also remarkable for the number of works, particularly Ethiopian manuscripts, from private collections, in particular from the United States. This aspect of the show invites further consideration of past and present collecting habits and reflection on the values that have been placed upon this African material. 

The dialogue between Africa and Byzantium proffered in this exhibition raises many issues. The precise valences of these terms require consideration. The Africa presented here reflects Mediterranean and Nilotic perspectives that belonged to the Roman and then Islamic worlds and is therefore only a portion of what might be deemed Africa today. Byzantium is more complicated still. It could be argued that it is an inadequate descriptor for the world of Late Antiquity with which this exhibition begins; there, it is the continuities with the Roman world, rather than the distinctively medieval culture of Byzantium, that appear more prevalent (see, for example the mythological subject matter of no.79; Fig.6). But in the second section of the show the medieval period is defined as being ‘after Byzantium’. And rightly so, for by the seventh century that empire had become a distant and disconnected entity, remote from the local traditions that developed in this region. A Pentaglot Psalter, now in the Vatican Library, is particularly compelling in this regard (no.102; Fig.5). The manuscript dates from between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries and came from the centre of Coptic monasticism at Wadi al- Natrun. It comprises the text of the Psalter in five languages: Ethiopian, Syriac, Coptic, Arabic and Armenian. Byzantine Greek is notably absent. Clearly, that language did not belong to the world in which this polyglot community lived. In the third section of the exhibition further issues raised by the pairing of Africa and Byzantium are exemplified by a small diptych (no.147; Fig.7). Its right panel bears an image of the Mother of God painted in a Cretan manner. The left panel is a depiction of St George by an Ethiopian painter. When brought together, these distinct works present a popular Ethiopian iconography. But it is worth pausing to consider the parts in the pairing. The Cretan panel is important as a witness both to the eminence of the cult of Mary in Ethiopia and to the role that it played in the development of the icon in that society. The image also points to the importance of the Catholic world for these developments. The icon may have its origins in Venetian Crete. In its time, the manner of this icon would have suggested it was made for an Italian and Catholic market. This in turn might lead us to consider the role of the Venetian painter Nicolò Brancaleon (active c.1480–1520) at the Ethiopian court and the great reverence for the Roman icon of the Virgin of S. Maria Maggiore. The point is that, when we look from Africa seeking Byzantium, we may fail to pay due attention to the importance of the reception of Catholic Christianity in the early modern period; a topic that is, however, addressed in the catalogue. The image of St George serves as a reminder of the distinctiveness of Ethiopian art and of its active response to this Mediterranean ‘other’. 

This is an important exhibition that deserves serious consideration and that, together with its catalogue, will continue to be a point of departure for those seeking to describe the arts of the Christian communities of the Nile. 

[1] Glory of Byzantium was reviewed by David Buckton in this Magazine, 139 (1997), pp.425– 27; and Byzantium: Faith and Power was reviewed by Anthony Cutler in this Magazine, 146 (2004), pp. 596–97. 

[2] Catalogue: Africa and Byzantium. Edited by Andrea Myers Achi. 352 pp. incl. 346 ills. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2023). $65. ISBN 978–1–58839–771–3.