Tucked away into the heart of the Georgetown neighbourhood of Washington D.C. is a gem of a museum. Built in 1801, Dumbarton Oaks began life as a house on its own extensive property before being bought by the couple Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss in the 1920s. Their influence on the property lasted until the 1960s, as they expanded the building to house their extensive personal collection of artefacts. Today, the museum is an internationally known centre for the study of Pre-colombian art, Garden and Landscape studies, and Byzantine culture.
Their Byzantine collection is particularly magical. As one enters, the gleam of silver catches the eye, testifying to the splendid adornments that Byzantine churches once bore. Further into the gallery, a number of manuscript pages carry the theme of religious artwork forward, showcasing the bright, careful illuminations on gospel books and psalms. The exhibit’s enamel-ware straddles the divide between religious and secular, creating portraits of saints while also decorating a range of lavish jewellery. Finally, the gallery culminates in a presentation of imperial images, some on coins, some in stone, that sought to portray the Byzantine emperor as the supreme Christian ruler.
The collection is a wonderful introduction to the culture of a mediaeval super-power. Built on the foundations of the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium centred upon its capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul). A highly stratified society, Byzantium was ruled by a powerful noble elite whose material culture impresses us even today.
Byzantium fascinates because it presents a fusion of antique and mediaeval culturla traits. Rather than spending on monumental urban structures, like their Roman predecessors, the Byzantine elites poured money into the silver platters, candle-holders, and alter-coverings so prominently on display at Dumbarton Oaks. At the same time, their functional objects preserved references to the myths and legends of the Greco-Roman period.
The Dumbarton Oaks collection brings this synthesis–of ancient and mediaeval, of secular and religious–to life, evoking the magnificence of Byzantium in the middle of a modern city.