The Road to Byzantium: Luxury Arts in Antiquity Hermitage Rooms, until 3 September

Dish with Silenus and Maenad
Dish with Silenus and Maenad 613-629/630 AD The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The latest exhibition in the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House is the product of a very intense year of collaboration between staff at the Courtauld and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. But few visitors will realize that the roots of this collaboration lie in generations of Courtauld scholarship.

The Road to Byzantium: Luxury Arts of Antiquity tells an extraordinary story of artistic continuity. The exhibition traces classical styles and iconography from their origins in the fifth century BC, through Greek and Roman antiquity, and far into the Byzantine Middle Ages. This is a story that can only be told by concentrating on the luxury arts. For it is objects like engraved gems, cameos, and decorated silver vessels which display the longevity of the ancient classical tradition most dramatically.

At the heart of the exhibition are examples of two collections from the famous treasuries of the Hermitage. The first consists of early archaeological finds from burial mounds in the region to the north of the Black Sea. Most of these barrows were the graves of the semi-nomadic Scythians who dominated this area in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, but they contained beautiful works of classical Greek craftsmanship in gold and silver, no doubt the products of Greek colonies around the Crimea.

The second series of treasures comes a thousand years later. These are silver vessels made in the Byzantine Empire in the sixth and seventh centuries AD. Some of the most important pieces in the Hermitage have come to Somerset House, including the ‘Herdsman Dish’ with its sixth-century pastoral scene and a seventh-century silver gilt plate showing a dancing maenad and Silenus. The astonishing classical style of these works and their traditional, often pagan, iconography would have dated them to the Roman Empire but for the study of control stamps on their bases, which were first fully explained in a 1958 Courtauld PhD thesis by Erica Cruickshank Dodd. These stamps, which are similar to modern assay marks, proved that the objects were much later, and that heritage of classical silverwork lasted far into an era usually associated with abstract Christian icons.

The Courtauld association with these remarkable works has continued. One of the foremost experts in Byzantine silverware, Marlia Mundell Mango, took her PhD at the Institute in 1985. More recently Ruth Leader-Newby devoted much of her thesis on late Roman silver to the Hermitage material. Both scholars have contributed to the lavish catalogue of The Road to Byzantium along with the Courtauld curators, Robin Cormack, Antony Eastmond, and Peter Stewart.

Dish with Herdsman and Goats

Dish with Herdsman and Goats, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The current exhibition is, in fact, Robin Cormack’s brainchild, and was designed in part to correspond to the 21st International Byzantine Congress, which will bring a thousand delegates to London in summer 2006. But such is the pace of the Courtauld’s developing relationship with the Hermitage, that this, the first fully collaborative exhibition between the two institutions, has been conceived, planned, mounted, published and publicized in less than twelve months. Much of the organization and negotiation (not to say friendly arguments) between the British and Russian curators have been conducted by fax and email, but the substantive discussions took place during two visits to St. Petersburg last spring. It became clear then to the Courtauld curators what any visitor to the Hermitage will recognize: that there the most remarkable works of art are often overwhelmed by the sheer wealth of the collections, and artificially separated in different departments of the vast museum. The Road to Byzantium is therefore more than just an opportunity to bring such works to the attention of the British public. The Hermitage Rooms offer a unique opportunity to bring exhibits together and to tell stories about the history of art which cannot even be told in the Hermitage itself.

Dr Peter Stewart