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Byzantium and Africa: Ground-Breaking Exhibition Opens at the MET

Byzantium Africa Exhibition
This painting from Egypt features a woman wearing a great deal of jewelry; earrings, three necklaces, six twisted gold bracelets, and three rings can be seen. Credit: MET

A new exhibition on Byzantium’s influence in Africa opens at the Metropolitan Museum of New York on Sunday, November 19.

On view through March 3, 2024, Africa & Byzantium will shed light on an underrepresented area of art history and showcase a burgeoning new field of interdisciplinary scholarship on medieval Africa.

Even though Byzantium was a vast empire that spanned parts of Africa, Europe, and Asia, its extensive connections to Africa have previously been understudied. Bringing together art, religion, literature, history, and archaeology, this innovative exhibition will highlight artworks from the multicultural communities of northern and eastern Africa.

The Christian Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople was also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, which continued for almost a millennium after the fall of the empire’s western part.

The exhibition focuses on the art from the centuries when much of North Africa was ruled by the Byzantine Empire from its capital in Constantinople and when early Christianity developed in kingdoms on the horn of Africa (the fourth to the seventh century CE).

It also addresses the distinctive religious and artistic traditions that flourished in Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia (the 8th to the 15th century CE).

Faith, politics, and commerce across land and sea linked these traditions to Byzantium, resulting in a lively interchange of arts and beliefs. Objects in the exhibition span almost two thousand years with a range of media, from monumental frescoes, mosaics, panel paintings, and metalwork, to jewelry, ceramics, and illuminated manuscripts.

The exhibition expands knowledge of Byzantium and Africa

“This stunning exhibition brings new focus and scholarship to an understudied field, expanding our knowledge of Byzantine and Early Christian Art within an expansive worldview,” said Max Hollein, The Met’s Marina Kellen French Director and CEO.

“Through spectacular and widely unknown works of art, Africa & Byzantium illuminates the development, continuity, and adaptation of Byzantine art and culture in North Africa and the Horn of Africa, recentering African artistic contributions to the pre-modern period.”

Andrea Achi, Mary and Michael Jaharis Associate Curator of Byzantine Art at The Met, said: “Africa & Byzantium builds upon the long legacy of The Met’s award-winning Byzantine exhibitions. Bringing together new research from over forty scholars worldwide, the exhibition addresses how diverse communities connected to Byzantium flourished in African empires and kingdoms for over a thousand years.

“It will broaden public understanding of the Byzantine world, its reach, and transcultural authority and examine the critical role of early African Christian civilizations in this creative sphere.”

The exhibition will foreground the critical role played by early African Christianity and its heritage, traditions, and history in the Byzantine world, while challenging common preconceptions about the arts of both Africa and Byzantium.

In presenting Africa as central to the world of late antique and Byzantine worlds, the exhibition considers the global impact of ideas and arts made in northern and eastern Africa.

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