Iconography at HMNS
Byzantine or bust: Exploring the Houston Museum of Natural Science's AncientUkraine exhibition
When you think of ancient civilizations, Ukraine isn't usually on the radar. There's Rome, of course, and Greece and the Persians before that, plus Babylon and ancient China.
But the Eastern European region that makes up present-day Ukraine had large settlements at least 1,000 years before the better-known Mesopotamian civilizations arose, and later was the center of a Slavic empire in the middle ages known as the Kyivan Rus’. It's this history that's being explored in "Ancient Ukraine: Golden Treasures and Lost Civilizations," currently on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
The Ancient Ukraine exhibit is actually organized into two exhibits in one. In one section, visitors take an archeological tour through thousands of years worth of Ukraine's history, via found objects from the Stone Age through the period of Greek and Roman influence. In part two, Sacred Images from the 11th to 19th centuries focuses on religious iconography and treasures from the Middle Ages through the 19th century.
Pottery and animal sculptures dating back to the Trypilians in 5,000 B.C.E. leads to tools from the Bronze Age, jewelry with Greek and Roman influences, chalices from the Byzantine era and relics from the height of the Kyivan Rus’ civilizations at the turn of the last millennium. I'm not one to spend too much time on pottery or tools, but the the beauty and quality of the metalwork, particularly the delicate diadems and jewelry, was truly amazing to see.
In the second part of the exhibition, the space I refer to as HMNS's "fancy room" (you might remember it from the Fabergé exhibit) is decked out with religious icons and their exquisite accessories, from silver altar gospels to a patterned silk bishop's robe, to ancient blessing crosses and chalices. The crosses are of particular interest. The cross of Mark the Cave Dweller, dating to the 11th century, is made of heavy copper, and so ancient and well-worn that the inscriptions on the bottom of the cross have completely rubbed off. Like another cross and two works of art in the exhibit, it was once a reliquary, or an object that held a holy relic, such as a piece of bone or strand of hair from a saint, or perhaps a piece of the original cross. What each held has been lost to history.
The icons — which are referred to as being "written" and not painted, as they were drawn to tell biblical stories in an age of illiteracy — show several scenes and more than a few saints, but there's mostly just a lot of Jesus. There's a Jesus for everyone: Bearded Jesus, cute baby Jesus, abs Jesus, dreadlocks Jesus, awkward baby Jesus and black Jesus.
The artistic element is interesting to watch, changing from a folksy style to the fluid baroque movement of the later centuries. I'm partial to the Byzantine style, which had a heavy and lasting influence on Ukrainian art, for its use of color and the flat way each figure or element in the work seems to be layered together, almost like a collage.
This is an exhibit where it pays to asks questions of the volunteer curators, who can point out what makes each work different or special. In several places, icons that tell the same story are placed together to compare and contrast. Of two images that include a scene of Jesus with his disciples, one contains 13 disciples (and mountains that look strangely like feet) and another contains only nine.
The icons aren't the most natural fit for a museum of "natural science," and the exhibit does feel a little more like something one would find in an art museum. But for those with an interest in history, anthropology, archeology or religious history, there's plenty to take in.
"Ancient Ukraine: Golden Treasures & Lost Civilizations" is on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science through September 6.