Paris is a city with a lasting connection to the art and culture of the Eastern medieval empire, Byzantium. From the construction in the 13th century of Sainte-Chapelle to hold the relics Louis IX acquired from Constantinople to Chanel’s Pre-Fall 2011 Paris-Byzance collection inspired by the Empress Theodora, Byzantium is woven into the historical fabric of the city. The prolific publication of Byzantine texts translated into French, the enormous contribution of modern French scholarship on Byzantium, and the outstanding collections homed in Paris of objects from the empire – these have all long established France and its capital city as centres for the study of Byzantium. In Paris, the presence of Byzantine art is not just an expectation; it is a cultural requirement that demands visibility.
In the past few months, the temporary exhibition ‘Chrétiens d’Orient: 2000 ans d’histoire’ (Christians of the East: 2000 years of history; closed 14 January) at the Institute of the Arab World and the inauguration in November of a room in the permanent collection of the Petit Palais to display Roger Cabal’s gift of Orthodox Christian art to the museum have brought much excitement to the city. Visitors filled the spaces to the point of overcrowding, elbows nudging their way in for glimpses of artefacts amidst the throngs. The fervour produced by the thousands of visitors who attended ‘Chrétiens d’Orient’ throughout its four-month run (155,000 in total), in particular, was reminiscent of the eager anticipation generated by then President Nicolas Sarkozy’s announcement in 2010 of plans to open a section in the Louvre dedicated to the art of the Eastern Christians, the Byzantine Empire and the Slavs, following the successful installation of the museum’s Islamic art galleries.
This plan, however, was abandoned in 2014 under the supervision of François Hollande’s ministry of culture and the current director of the Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez. According to Martinez at the time, the plan was halted in order to focus on visitor access to the museum and the Byzantine project would have to be shelved until at least 2017. Now that 2017 has passed and other notable productions by the museum have come to fruition, such as the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in November, it’s time to ask, again: what is the plan for the Byzantine section at the Louvre in Paris? Currently, works of late Roman and Byzantine art at the Louvre are scattered among a number of departments, including the department of Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities, the department of decorative arts, and the department of Egyptian antiquities. In essence, if you are seeking Byzantine art at the Louvre, bonne chasse!
It’s a hopeful sign that President Emmanuel Macron inaugurated ‘Chrétiens d’Orient’, and different perspectives on the interpretation of Byzantium’s material culture and its influence on the arts of the East and the West are always helpful. But a temporary exhibition should not have to stand in for sustained, dedicated attention to the legacy of Byzantine art in Paris. The objects from both the exhibition and the display at the Petit Palais attest to the survival and transformation of Byzantine art outside the borders of the empire as well as after the political dissolution of the empire. They underscore the cultural complexity and non-uniformity of Byzantine influence across time and space, and require a more complete engagement than either exhibition could address without first examining the role of Byzantium itself in the production of this art.
What is needed in Paris is a permanent exhibition space devoted to the socio-historical production of Byzantine and ‘Post-Byzantine’ objects, together with their devotional roles. This would enhance interest in the Byzantine cultural milieu, providing a foundation through which the empire’s influence would be better understood. What would it take to bring renewed attention to Byzantine programming at the principal museum of France?
The Roger Cabal Collection is permanently on display in Paris at the Petit Palais in the Sisley-d’Ornano Foundation room.
‘Chrétiens d’Orient: 2,000 ans d’histoire’ was at the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris from 26 September 2017 to 14 January 2018. A touring version of the exhibition will be at MUba Eugène Leroy, Tourcoing, from 22 February to 11 June.