Byzantium and Islam

Age of Transition

Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition

Edited by Helen C. Evans with Brandie Ratliff
(New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012), xx + 332 pp., $35 (paperback)
Reviewed by Steven Werlin

The Byzantine Empire—the vestig es of the Roman world in the East—brought antiquity to a close with both the triumph of Christianity and the internal religious conflicts that would come to characterize the medieval period. The arrival of Islam, the third Abrahamic tradition from the fringes of the Byzantine world, ushered in a new religion and way of life in the seventh–ninth centuries.

In Byzantium and Islam and its accompanying catalog of the same name, the editors and exhibit organizers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art illustrate and complicate this narrative. The exhibit brings together an impressive array of Christian, Islamic, Jewish and Samaritan pieces from over 50 collections in more than a dozen countries. The book is divided into three sections: “Byzantium,” “Commerce” and “Islam,” each laden with contextual essays by 40-some scholars from around the world. The catalog includes a variety of objects—from floor mosaics, ceramics and sculpture to manuscripts, textiles and bone inlay.

The collection tells a fascinating story of delicate imperial politics, religious discourse and zealotry, and the transmission of peoples and ideas along the interface of the Christian and Islamic worlds. The artifacts and essays demonstrate, however, that amid the uncertain tumult, daily life at all levels of society went on. The 200 objects of the exhibit give voice to the countless faces of the Late Antique and Early Islamic worlds, where inspiration and enlightenment were found in both the classical past and in waves of innovation. Indeed, one of the strengths of the catalog is its emphasis on multiplicity over orthodoxy. Nevertheless, the occasional inclusion of pieces that straddle this “age of transition”— in their geometric patterns, inscriptional languages and even religious symbols—underscore the surprising continuity in the art of these supposedly distinct cultures. As a result, Byzantium and Islam is a thorough, beautifully illustrated, and timely contribution to our increasingly complex understanding of East-and- West and the cultural transitions of that ancient world.

Steven H. Werlin, New Haven, Connecticut

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