Sunday, December 28, 2008

Byzantium 330-1453 at the Royal Academy

The Byzantines were heavy-handed with the golf leaf, as seen in the familiar icons, sacred figures emblazoned on wood panels. There were plenty of them at the excellent RA exhibition I visited with son D on Saturday. The show rooms were quiet so I assume potential customers were taking advantage of the post-Christmas sales, like R, who’d gone to buy an electric blanket. He’d seen the Byzantium exhibition with a crony before Christmas.

The £100 annual entry fee for two members plus two guests seems a lot, but since just one visit with pals could cost £40 it’s good value. Out-of-town friends really appreciate it. I like to make a few visits on my own to these big shows, one using a £3 audio guide. Maps and charts at the start show the size of the Byzantine Empire at different dates and explanatory notices are in all the rooms, but I’m too impatient to look at these on a first visit.

Gold was the signature motif, sometimes overlaying silver on jewelled necklaces, plates, bowls and boxes. Elaborate bas-relief figures covered chalices, some endearingly battered as if trodden into the mud of many an ancient battle-field. One was even said to be the original Holy Grail.

D raved on about techniques and materials. I remembered that he studied Art History before being sucked in by Computer Science.

My favourites were the ivory artefacts, small hinged pieces called triptych, depicting saints in little arched doorways. It was Jane Austen who said her writing was as if carved on pieces of ivory, but these reminded me she was thinking of detail. I like carvings anyway; usually jade so hard it has to be ground, or the crude lines of woodcuts. Ivory’s qualities permit exquisite detail, as in a bishop’s frown with lines scrunching his face as if his mitre was too tight.

The Friend’s Room at the RA is a treat, and a kind of extension of the experience, with well-heeled members making Bohemian fashion statements.

R joined us, miffed from having to unpack the ‘heated mattress protector’ so it would fit the dimensions of the cloakroom cubby-holes. D expressed shock at the price of £6.50 for a miniature quiche and tiny salad, but an accompanying glass of wine at £2 made it a bargain compared with the stand-alone price of £5 for the wine. The water's free.

After that we saw a small exhibition in the Sackler Wing D was keen on, a collection by modern artists. The main interest there was a wall of front covers of an art magazine but the extenuated statuary was agreeable, particularly one of a hound.

This page has some great links, including one to an article about icons, written by the Archbishop of Canterbury

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