The Metropolitan Museum of Art will be the first museum to host the upcoming exhibition ‘Africa & Byzantium’, which will showcase nearly 200 works of art.
On view from November 19, 2023, through March 3, 2024, the exhibition will explore the tradition of Byzantine art and culture in Africa from the 4th through the 15th century, and will feature many works of art that have never before been exhibited in the United States. Following the exhibition’s debut at The Met, it will travel to The Cleveland Museum of Art.
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 African kingdoms (the fourth to the seventh century CE). It also addresses the subsequent afterlife of 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 date from the Roman to the early modern periods and span a range of media, from monumental frescoes, mosaics, panel paintings, and metalwork, to jewelry, ceramics, and illuminated manuscripts.
Africa & Byzantium sheds light on an underrepresented area of art history and represents 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 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 Roman late antiquity and Byzantium, the exhibition considers the global impact of ideas and arts made in northern and eastern Africa.
North African artisans produced some of the most exquisite mosaics in the Roman Empire using the richly colored limestones and marbles of the region to produce complex polychromy designs. Remarkable Tunisian mosaics from the Carthage Museum and the Louvre will exemplify the virtuosic achievements of North African mosaicists.
An anchor of the exhibition is an Egyptian tapestry from the British Museum. The work depicts Artemis and Actaeon—a theme from Ovid’s Metamorphoses—and will join other late antique textiles depicting Black figures drawn from Greco-Roman mythologies. In addition to highlighting issues of race, these works help explore the lasting impact of the classical past in the arts of late antique Africa.
Medieval Nubians moved in multiple cultural worlds; in addition to their indigenous language, many of the elites were fluent in Greek, Coptic (Egyptian), and, later, Arabic. Nubian material and visual culture were equally complex. The exhibition will feature numerous representations of Nubian bishops and dignitaries from the National Museum of Khartoum and the National Museum of Warsaw. The liturgical dress of the Nubian figures parallels trends in religious fashion from Constantinople.
The exhibition will also feature art that represents medieval Ethiopian activity in importing foreign Christian religious material, such as icons, from the Mediterranean and Western Europe. For example, a painting of “Our Lady Mary with the Child,” from the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, depicts a theme of a nursing Mary that became popular in Egypt and then spread across the Mediterranean and down the Nile.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue distributed by Yale University Press. The publication reconsiders the continent’s contributions to the development of the premodern world and offers a more complete history of Africa as a vibrant, multiethnic society of diverse languages and faiths that played a key role in the artistic, economic, and cultural life of Byzantium and beyond. The path-breaking book features contributions from an international team of 40 scholars from Tunisia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Lebanon, France, Poland, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Please visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art website for more details.