Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy

By Martin Revis
January 9, 2009

The Antioch chalice, regarded by some as the Holy Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, is attracting the attention of about 6000 visitors each day at an exhibition in London depicting 1000 years of the Byzantine Empire. "Byzantium 330-1453" runs at Britain's Royal Academy of Arts until 22 March 2009.

It displays icons, ivories, gold and silver metalwork, wall paintings and other artefacts brought to London from across Europe, the United States, Russia, Ukraine and Egypt.

They tell the story of the Byzantine Empire from the founding of Constantinople in 330 by Constantine, the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity, to the capture of the city by the forces of Mehmed II in 1453. This was during the period of the Ottoman Empire that preceded the modern state of Turkey and was in many aspects an Islamic successor to the Byzantine Empire.

"Fifty years ago an exhibition like this would have attracted historians concerned with dating and provenance, but today there is a much wider interest by the public in faith cultures and how art is used to support faiths," Professor Robin Cormack, the exhibition's curator, told Ecumenical News International.

The Antioch chalice, an undated plain silver cup discovered in 1911, is encased in a holder bearing images of Christ and 10 disciples dated by the decorative style of 6th century silver work. Cormack said an argument made in favour of the cup being the Holy Grail was that it was discovered at Antioch, a city associated with Christian relics.

Among the exhibits publicly displayed for the first time is a 9th century screen from the sanctuary of the Church of the Virgin at Skripou near Thebes.

One room at the exhibition is devoted to icons, where five of them, among treasures on display from the monastery of St Catherine in the Sinai desert, are reunited with two others that left the monastery 150 years ago with a visiting Russian priest, possibly as a gift. They are now owned by a Kiev museum.

These early examples from Kiev are believed to be part of a treasure given to the monastery by the 6th-century Roman Emperor Justinian in memory of his wife.

The exhibition website can be found at:

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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