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When art began to tell stories

· The precious fifth-century ivories preserved in the Byzantine Museum, Berlin ·

In the northern part of the small island in the River Sprea that flows through Berlin, where the first medieval settlement of the city has been identified, King Frederick William IV of Prussia (1795-1861) conceived of a first “shelter for art and science”, in other words, the nucleus of the Altes Museum that was to be built round the state buildings and those of the local Church. In time, the Neues Museum came into being on the same island – which was to become known as “Museum Island” – as well as the Alte Nationalgalerie, the Pergamon Museum and the Bode Museum.

The real designer of “Museum Island” was Wilhelm von Bode, who was active between 1872 and 1920, focusing his energy in particular on the Bode Museum. It was conceived in the Neo-Baroque style by Ernst Eberhard von Ihne with full respect for the wishes of King William II who commissioned the Kaiser Freiderich Museum – as the Bode was then called – on the very tip of the island, like the prow of a boat on the Spree. The museum, inaugurated in 1904, was seriously damaged in the last war. Work therefore began on its restoration in the 1950s and was completed in the 1990s.

While the Bode Museum is famous for its 750,000 exhibits which constitute one of the richest numismatic collections in the world, the Museum of Byzantine Art was also founded here and was reorganized and reopened several years ago. This museum, which occupies a few rooms on the ground floor, contains important Palaeo-Christian material from Rome, Constantinople, Greece, Egypt and the Near East. Among the most precious finds, in addition to the rich collection of Coptic fabrics should be mentioned the Constantinopolitan reliefs that make the Byzantine Museum one of the most valuable art collections from the “new Rome”, on a par with the collection of the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul. Particularly sought after are the “fake sarcophagi” with Old Testament scenes that are true jewels of Theodosian art.

Other artefacts come from Rome, such as the precious relief showing a throne solemnly prepared for the Last Judgement, that is, the throne of the hetoimasia, which reproduces in stone the mosaic depiction commissioned by Sixtus III, after the Council of Ephesus in 432, for the triumphal arch in St Mary Major. Yet for a reconstruction of the process of Christianization in the Mediterranean Basin and in the Near East the most eloquent and representative iconographical pieces are two ancient fifth-century ivories, presumably made in Rome or in Milan, and which reached the Byzantine Museum in Berlin through the antique market.

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