Dumbarton Oaks brings Byzantine art treasures to Georgetown

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A visit to the Dumbarton Oaks museum in Georgetown is an inspiring experience, especially for persons of faith. Newly reopened in April after the Federal-era mansion underwent renovation, the Byzantine collection sparkles in the new three-dimensional cases that show off jewels, oil lamps, ivory carvings and other treasures.

Imagery from the then-recent pagan past lives side by side with the new faith of Christianity legalized by the Emperor Constantine in 313: oil lamps are shaped as griffins, peacocks or crosses, and a double sarcophagus for a Christian couple juxtaposes their shadowy portraits with nude figures of the four seasons.

The former owners of Dumbarton Oaks, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss (a U.S. diplomat), fell in love with Byzantine art in the 1930s when few were collecting it. They gave the house and grounds to Harvard University in 1940.

“Byzantine” refers to the Eastern Roman Empire with its capital in Constantinople — now Istanbul — from the fourth century until 1453. While the Greek Orthodox Church split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century, in the early centuries Christendom was one.

The question that pops into one’s mind while viewing these artworks, many of them unique, is: Where did they come from and how did they end up here? And for some, how can they deepen our Christian faith?

Eucharist in Syrian Art

As the feast of Corpus Christi nears, a good place to start is in front of a display case that gathers silver-gilt vessels for celebrating the Eucharist from the sixth and seventh centuries. These altar fragments, fans, patens, chalices and censors had been buried for a millennium, possibly because their owners feared invaders. The most stunning is a sixth-century silver-gilt paten, the shallow dish that held leavened bread for the Eucharist. (Orthodox faithful dispute the use of unleavened bread in the western Church, believing that the yeast symbolizes the “rising” of Christ from the dead.)

As recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus instituted the Eucharist to foreshadow the sacrifice of His Body and Blood. The paten illustrates the cross-haloed Christ twice behind the altar, officiating as a priest and a deacon. He gives out wine and bread to the apostles standing on either side of the altar. A shell-shaped niche behind Him and lamps burning atop columns evoke the setting of an actual liturgy. Around the paten’s border, niello (black inlay) letters inscribe a heartfelt prayer by the donors. Every time the paten was used, that prayer would have been repeated. The repoussé technique (hammering the metal surface from the back) enhances the vividness of the gilded images.

lr paten 1

This intricately engraved silver paten from the Early Byzantine era is on display at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown. COURTESY DUMBARTON OAKS, BYZANTINE COLLECTION, WASHINGTON, D.C.



The paten was unearthed around 1900 at Riha, a village near Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and once again today the scene of violence. It testifies to the vibrancy of Christianity in Syria at a time when Western Europe had fallen into darkness.

An object for more private worship is the rare micro-mosaic made of thousands of minuscule cubes of stone and glass embedded in glass. Dating around 1300 AD, it depicts 40 Roman soldiers who were martyred on a frozen lake in Sebasteia (Asia Minor) when they refused to recant their Christian faith. How it got here is almost as intriguing as this tiny picture (8 ½ inches high). The Blisses just missed the chance to buy it in 1931; but 16 years later, the rival collector’s widow willed it to Dumbarton Oaks.

lr st peter iconA great icon

The museum’s most important icon is the life-sized bust portrait of St. Peter (13th century). It once hung on an iconostasis, the screen of images that divides clergy from laity in an Orthodox church. The saint, wearing the keys of St. Peter on a chain around his neck, does not look out at the viewer, but turns slightly to his left and holds a scroll and a staff topped by the cross of his martyrdom.

The life-sized bust portrait of St. Peter at Dumbarton Oaks was discovered at an Amsterdam art market in 1982. COURTESY DUMBARTON OAKS, BYZANTINE COLLECTION, WASHINGTON, D.C.

Gary Vikan’s spellbinding memoir, Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director (2016), tells the story of its acquisition. A distinguished icon expert, Vikan gets credit for the unique collection of Ethiopian Christian art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, among other things.

In 1982, while a Dumbarton Oaks curator, Vikan found the St. Peter on the Amsterdam art market. Then it was a question of making sure this icon was not stolen from a known church in Greece or Yugoslavia. Once those two governments made assurances they knew of no such theft, the sale went ahead.

Describing his first look, the scholar writes: “I was overwhelmed by the panel’s size and by the power of its image, which seemed to capture the intensity and grittiness of this fisherman turned Disciple. … I felt as if I were in the presence of the sacred.”

Hamerman is a freelance writer from Reston.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017