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Lasting Impressions: New Byzantine exhibition at Dumbarton Oaks

For over 1,100 years, Byzantines from every walk of life used seals to guard and authenticate valuables and as a means of identifying themselves and presenting their credentials to the world. Lasting Impressions: People, Power, Piety, now on view at the Dumbarton Oaks Museum, explores individual stories and family histories, the concept of status, developments in popular piety, and the inner workings of the state as shown through the intricate impressions on seals.

This exhibition, curated by Jonathan Shea, Associate Curator of Coins and Seals, demonstrates that each seal is more than just a record of now-lost communications, documents, or actions—it is the record of a person, and one usually not known from any other source. Seals are decorated with a great variety of religious and secular imagery and intricate inscriptions. Whether to make their owner stand out, fit in, or both, the images used on seals were an important part of projecting self-identity. Each seal is a testament to someone living in the Byzantine Empire and no other single source provides so much information about such a broad range of individual Byzantines.

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“In the small space available on a seal—a single image and half a tweet—the Byzantines had to communicate everything that they felt mattered about themselves,” says Jonathan Shea. “They are wonderful expressions of how Byzantines from all parts of society interacted with one another and viewed themselves and their world. Because seals were used by such a broad swathe of Byzantines from across the entire span of the empire’s history, they offer a unique insight into Byzantium, its people, culture, art, and faith.”

From the gold seals that were attached only to the most prestigious imperial documents and communications to the lead seals of merchants, craftsmen, and bathhouse attendants, Dumbarton Oaks is home to 17,000 Byzantine seals, the largest collection in the world. Since the arrival of the first seals at Dumbarton Oaks in 1947, five generations of scholars have worked to understand and catalogue these objects and apply the data gained to enhance our understanding of the Byzantine Empire. Seal designs were not static over Byzantium’s long history. Lasting Impressions leads audiences through the evolving iconography and inscriptions on seals, highlighting changing devotional practices, cultural shifts, and revealing the mechanics of the imperial state.

Lasting Impressions: People, Power, Piety opened on November 23rd and will run until next November. Click here for more details. For those who cannot make it to see the exhibition in person, they can traverse Byzantine history through the seals in their online catalogue.

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