Friday, December 23, 2011

Restitution Fears, or Lost Opportunity? "Transition to Christianity" at the Onassis Cultural Center and the Absent "David Plates"

Head of Aphrodite, with eyes gouged out and a cross carved into her forehead
Is it fear of a claim for restitution, or just a lost opportunity?

All nine parts of a seminal, 7th-century work -- a masterpiece of Byzantine art -- are now on view in New York, but for reasons unknown they are being displayed at two separate institutions.

The David Plates, a set of nine, various-sized silver plates – magisterially made with a sophisticated understanding of classical sculpture and an intricate attention to detail – cry out to be shown together, as they were some 1,400 years ago.

Detail, David and Goliath plate, at the Met
They depict scenes from the life of the biblical David, and were probably made for the Byzantine emperor Heraclius.  They are commonly included in surveys of what used to be called the “Dark Ages.”

Six of the plates, including the largest (19.5 inches across) and most magnificent, are displayed in a nondescript corridor of the Metropolitan Museum. The other three are now on temporary loan from the Cyprus Museum, and can be seen through May 14 at the Onassis Cultural Center, where they are the culmination of its “Transition to Christianity” exhibit.

Marriage of David, at the Onassis Center
Scholars think the plates were originally displayed in the shape of a symbol that refers to Christ, with the medium and small plates placed around the large one. But for some as-yet-undisclosed reason, this configuration will not be recreated here.

Goodness knows when, if ever, all nine plates be in the same city again.

The plates were discovered in 1902 by laborers looking for building stone in the ruins of the Byzantine town of Lambousa, Cyprus.  The Cypriot authorities confiscated three of them but, the story goes, the others were smuggled out of the country, sold to a Paris dealer, and bought by J.P. Morgan.  Morgan’s heirs donated them to the Met in 1917.

Why aren’t all the pieces of what the Met describes as “exceptionally important” and "a masterwork of Byzantine art" being shown together?  The Met loaned several other items to the Onassis Center show, but the plates didn’t make the 30-block trip south.  The Onassis exhibit’s curator did not respond to inquiries, and no one at the Met was available for comment.

Six David Plates on view in a corridor at the Met
The word from an art history veteran is that Cyprus would like the Met’s plates returned to Cyprus, and it even made some fuss about it in the 1970s.

Derek Fincham, an expert in cultural heritage law, said that Cyprus “probably would not have success on a legal claim” – it would fail on statute of limitations grounds alone, he said -- but it might have an ethical claim to the plates “as an important piece of Cypriot heritage” that it could pursue as a public relations matter.

The Met might not want to loan the plates to the Onassis Center, Fincham suggested, because “the Met wouldn’t want people to make the connection.”

(How and when the plates got to Cyprus is unknown -- because of their high quality, it is thought that they were made in Constantinople -- and if Cyprus were to claim that the Met plates are part of its heritage, further evidence might be needed.)

Personification of April
The David Plates, in any event, could well be Exhibit A in any argument that “dark ages” is a misnomer for describing the 3rd through 7th centuries, and this is one of the themes of “Transition to Christianity.”  It presents this period, under the rubic “late antiquity,” as a time of innovation and change from paganism to Christianity.  The process took centuries, during which the two both coexisted and were in tension, and were sometimes at war.

The crucial figure, of course, was Constantine -- in 313 he established tolerance for Christianity with the Edict of Milan, and in 324-330 he moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople.  Much activity in the visual arts followed the emperors to the East, and in this exhibition it is in the art from the East, mainly Greece, that we follow the cultural changes.

A direct effect of the emperors’ adoption of Christianity -- only one emperor after Constantine was not Christian – is shown in a display of gold coinage.  An image of the emperor consistently appears on the front, but the mythological or historical scenes on the back gradually give way to a cross or an angel.

Mummy portrait, 1st century
Conflict between ideologies is made vivid with the Christianizing of classical sculpture:  a first century head of Aphrodite has her eyes gouged out and a cross carved on her forehead, for example.  Still, the beauty of this sculpture (the photo at the top doesn't do it justice) and a defaced portrait of a Roman boy is breathtaking.

The exhibition is particularly effective in demonstrating that even after Christianity became dominant, its imagery was deeply rooted in Greek and Roman art.  Whether Christian or pagan, the motifs are often the same.  Philosophers of classical art are models for Christian apostles. A man carrying a lamb, a standard motif in pagan bucolic scenes, is the basis of the Good Shepherd trope of Christianity.  The forms of Egyptian mummy portraiture produced under Roman rule, facing front with overlarge eyes, reappear as an icon of Christ’s face.

Icon fragment
The three mummy portraits and the icon are highlights of the show – the former for their beauty and the latter for its rarity.  Most icons on panel, like this one, were destroyed in the 8th-century iconoclastic movement against visual art.

“Transition to Christianity” is an engaging exhibit.  It could have been historic had the David Plates been reunited.

“Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd-7th Century A.D.,” Onassis Cultural Center, 645 Fifth Ave. at 51st St., through May 14.

Addendum:  Four days after my initial inquiry to the Met, asking why all nine David weren't being shown together, its vice president of communications, Elyse Topalian, chose to respond by email.

It stated:  "The six David Plates in the Met's collection have long been scheduled to be highlights of the upcoming exhibition 'Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition (7th-9th Century),' which will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum from March 14 through July 8, 2012.  Because the exhibitions will overlap for two months, the works of art can't be on view together in a single location.  But these exhibitions do provide a terrific opportunity to see the nine plates, all during one period of time, in New York City."  (Emphasis is mine.)

This seemed to beg the question:  Why couldn't there be a short-term loan between institutions during the two-and-a-half months before the Met show opens?  That's what happened recently at the Bode Museum, which showed Leonardo's "Lady with an Ermine" (as part of the Renaissance portrait show now at the Met) for some weeks before sending it to London to hang in the National Gallery's Leonardo exhibition.

After the holidays, I asked the Onassis Cultural Center's director, Amalia Cosmetatou, if it had asked the Met to lend the plates to its "Transition to Christianity" exhibition.  While not answering the question directly, she said the Met's David Plates were on permanent display there, and that "because of the two exhibits, perhaps it wouldn't have been possible anyway."

(They are on permanent display, except when the Met loans them out.)

But why not a short-term loan so we could see them as they were intended to be viewed?

Cosmetatou paused and then said, "That would have been a good idea."

Had the institutions tried to work something out so all the plates could be seen together?

"I don't know," she said, but promised to get back to me.

Perhaps there's no one to admonish here unless a request by one or the other institution was made and turned down.  Could neither one have thought of it?

Photo of six David Plates at the Met, © 2011 Laura Gilbert

Other Photos: Head of Aphrodite and Personification of April, © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism; Marriage of David, © Cyprus Museum; icon fragment, © Benaki Museum; detail of David and Goliath from Metropolitan Museum website; mummy portrait from Walters Art Museum website.

Text © 2011 Laura Gilbert.