There are at least three good reasons not to miss the latest mega-exhibition, “Architecture as Icon: Genesis of an Idea,” at the Princeton University Art Museum. To begin with, the groundbreaking display of undeniably gorgeous Byzantine icons and related devotional objects functions as an easy-to-take introduction to a complex subject. More important for the world of art scholarship, “Architecture as Icon,” the first exhibition to address this subject, is served up as a significant breakthrough in the understanding of the genre. Most important for the rest of us is the fact the some of the world’s most remarkable art — including works seldom if ever seen in this country — is on view close to home. Even though the sumptuous array of compelling imagery is staged within a scholarly context, it provides a rare — perhaps unique — opportunity to enjoy a generous sampling of this opulent ancient art form.

“Architecture as Icon” was organized as a scholarly collaboration between the museum and the European Center for Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Monuments, a leading center for scholarship in the field, in Thessaloniki, Greece. A decade in the making, it opened in Princeton following its premier showing in Thessaloniki last year. It remains on view through Sunday, June 6.

The premise on which the exhibition rests challenges long-held assumptions in Western art history and provides new ways of thinking about, looking at, and understanding Byzantine art.

“Byzantine art has long been judged by Western standards, a perspective which diminished its value as both icon and fine art,” says Michael Padgett, museum coordinator for the exhibition at Princeton. He explains that scholarship dealing with Byzantine icons has previously been largely focused on depictions of holy figures, dismissing representations of architecture as irrelevant space-filling background.

As such, the assembled works provide a graphic platform for new ways of thinking about the genre. Central to its thesis is a reconsideration of the symbolic role played by architecture in the icon, an approach that moves the architectural image into a position of religious significance.

Guest curator Slobodan Curcic, professor of Early Christian Byzantine Architecture and Monumental Decoration in the department of art and archaeology at Princeton, who organized the exhibition in partnership with Evangelia Hadjitryphonos, honorary department head of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and former deputy director of EKBMM, says that the structures shown in these works were intended to function as objects of veneration. “Architecture is used as a symbol. In these works it enjoyed a meaning and status equivalent to those of the saints.” Curcic describes the graphic architectural presence as “a church made in two dimensions.”

The research that supports the exhibition indicates that, like the saints, the architectural presence functioned in ritual as a spiritual bridge; a means of connecting the worshipper with the holy spirit. Padgett describes the buildings in these works as “vehicles of spiritual communication between worshipper and the divine containers of the uncontainable…symbols of divine presence among humans.”

“Man-made architecture, despite its material presence, has been transformed into a symbol,” he says. “It’s not a barrier but a window. It plays a role integral to the message just like the saints.”

To support their conclusions, the curators have assembled a breathtaking array of images and objects spanning more than 1,000 years. Some 70 works including icons, manuscripts, ivories, metal sculptures, stone models, and sacred objects in gold, silver, and bronze are on loan from a global list of distinguished institutions that include the State History Museum in Erevan, Armenia; the Benaki Museum in Athens, Greece; the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia; the Procuratoria della Basilica di San Marco in Venice, Italy; and the National Museum of Art in Bucharest, Romania. Objects range in size from small coins and delicate rings to heroically scaled paintings.

Drawn from 34 public and private collections in seven countries and from the Museum’s holdings, the featured works are remarkable for the quality and, in some, cases, their rarity. Some, including several from the museum’s holdings, have never been displayed in public before. Notable among them is the emblematic 18th century Russian polyptych, which takes center stage in the introductory gallery and in the instructive video.

The exhibition has been staged in a manner that helps the viewer make his or her way through the complexities of the subject and to “read” the included symbols. Padgett says that setting the proper stage is essential to the understanding of the subject. “We as Westerners look at these works with different eyes,” he says. He explains that Renaissance scholars often considered icons such as these to be lesser works but, in fact, they were not well understood because they employed a different graphic vocabulary, a more symbolic approach. The 16th century artist Giorgio Vasari, for example, attributed the style to a decline in artistic skills and standards.

“Westerners were not used to looking at Eastern iconography,” says Padgett. “Instead, art (for Renaissance artists) was a means of representing reality and at times even bettering it, while for Byzantines, two-dimensional art facilitated a means of access to the spiritual world. It was no less sophisticated. Just different.”

To help tell the story, the introductory gallery is staged to materially define the icon. Labels, exemplary objects, and a short video combine to illustrate the essential icon and clarify function and form. A pierced wall at the entrance sets the stage with a hint of the air of mystery long associated with the icon, by opening the display with a partially obscured view of one of the best examples if the genre. If you peer through the narrow opening you are treated to a heroically scaled photo-rendering of the iconostasis from the Annunciation Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin, a work Padgett describes as the oldest preserved and one of the greatest.

The main body of the exhibition is divided into four sections. It opens with generic representations, icons showing church architecture rendered using conventional characteristics. To help define the genre, the introductory label cautions viewers to approach the mix of icons and objects “with expectations very different from those we are accustomed to, searching for clues that reveal (the buildings’) compositional, narrative and symbolic roles.”

The generic icons are followed by a gathering of specific representations — works that depict known places, often presented in a setting that tells a story and offer a good deal of interesting geographic information. The diversity of style over time and place can be seen in various artists’ translations of the scene in such places as in Thessaloniki, Constantinople, and the Solovetsk Monastery, isolated on a rugged island.

The exhibition installation also makes particular note of the importance of symbolism in these works, stressing the fact that images and objects carry a range of meanings that exceeds the conventional. Columns and ladders for example, represent bridges to the divine. And scale is often disregarded to intensify meaning. A label notes that scale, in these works, was often as meaningful as form and again reminds the viewer that “architecture WAS icon.”

A diverse array of objects also documents the strong presence of the of architectural form. Church-form serves as the design base for a wide range of objects — small and large — used in ritual that includes censers, reliquaries, and cross-bases, as well as carved ivories, seals, and coins — each a work of art in its own right.

Much like a proper pilgrimage, the exhibition concludes in Jerusalem. And, as in times gone by, the occasion is marked with enlightenment, this time in the form of more intense illumination and gallery walls that have been painted a lighter hue. The pilgrim experience becomes even more vivid with the inclusion of a late-17th century proskenetarion — an illustrated pilgrim’s guidebook with painted images of the Holy Land.

Also evocative and instructive is a Greek 17th century icon centering around the Church of the Sepulchre and charting the topography of the city. Equally vivid is a large, richly detailed egg-tempera proskynetarion — a painting this time — that was intended as the graphic equivalent of a guidebook and, most likely, sold to a wealthy pilgrim as a souvenir of the journey.

A fully illustrated, 356-page catalog, the first publication to investigate Byzantine architectural representation, accompanies the display. In the catalogue Curcic writes “…we hope that modern viewers will better understand the legacy of Byzantine culture.”

A visit to the exhibition will go a long way to that end.

“Architecture as Icon: Perception and Representation of Architecture in Byzantine Art,” through June 6, Princeton University Art Museum The first of its kind devoted to the topic of Byzantine architectural representation. 609-258-3788 or http://artmuseum.princeton.edu.

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