Africa and Byzantium Lecture and Exhibition

By Megan Coates

In the final lecture of the Fall semester’s Art and Archaeology 502 lecture series, Andrea Myers Achi, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Mary and Michael Jaharis Associate Curator of Byzantine Art, presented a guided walk-through of her groundbreaking exhibition, Africa and Byzantium.

The exhibition, which opened on November 19, explores the expansive relationships between medieval Africa and the Byzantine world from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries, weaving together art, religion, literature, history, and archaeology to investigate and interrogate the familiar traditions of Byzantine and African Art. “My work seeks to draw a new and critical geography that shifts preconceived conceptions of Africa and Byzantium… The exhibition's focus shifts new light on the staggering artistic achievements of medieval Africa, and I hope it brings a more complete history of the vibrant, multi-ethnic societies of North and East Africa that helped shape the artistic, economic, and cultural life of Byzantium,” said Achi.

Icon painting with Jesus, Mary and four other figures
Virgin (Theotokos) and Child between Saints Theodore and George, sixth or early seventh century, encaustic on wood, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, Egypt (Photo/Megan Coates)

The exhibition traces three artistic arcs which divide the exhibition into three sections: Africa in Late Antiquity, Bright As the Sun, and Legacy. The exhibition closes with installations by contemporary artists, bringing the exhibition’s themes into the present day. Throughout the lecture, Achi reflected on themes of identity, authority, and diversity through fascinating overviews of a few of the unique and rare objects in the collection, as well as her experiences while gathering the objects.

For example, an icon made of encaustic wax, on loan from the St. Catherine’s Monastery of Mount Sinai in Egypt, features the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child, flanked by saints and angels, wearing red shoes, an iconographic display of imperial authority. The work is considered one of the earliest Christian icons in existence and is a valuable and rare addition to the exhibition. Achi reported how she enjoyed working closely with the monastery’s librarian Father Justin. The icon is a testament of how similar images remained popular for centuries from Constantinople to Ethiopia.

Panel painting in golds and reds showing Mary, Jesus and 12 apostles

Panel Painting with Nursing Virgin and Twelve Apostles, 15th century (Photo/Megan Coates)

The exhibition also features a number of striking Ethiopian icons from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, artworks which Achi describes as, “creating a new framework for understanding issues such as identity, authority, ethnicity, and belonging, and they highlight the importance of the long durée between the arts of Northeast Africa and Byzantium.” Achi’s lecture provided a beautiful and inspiring narrative of her journey through her formative and informative research, as well as the journeys of many of the objects featured in the exhibition across lands, oceans, and time.  

Having had the privilege to visit the exhibition, I can testify to the amazing range of rare and unique works on display. As I walked through Africa and Byzantium, what became clear was how sculpture, pottery, paintings, manuscripts, textiles, and mosaics have come together to tell a new and complex story of medieval Africa’s relationship with Byzantium from perspectives that have been long overdue, and the themes in the exhibition are relevant to topics that are important to all of today.