Throughout the more than 1,000 years of culture surveyed in the National Gallery of Art exhibition “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections,” Western Europe was a provincial backwater, a land of grubby kings, shifting borders and fractious states. Byzantium, the empire that dominated what was once the East of the Roman world, enjoyed by contrast relatively high literacy, a stable political, religious and bureaucratic culture, and, for those at the top, great luxury, articulated in glass, metal, stone and fine parchment.

The exhibition, organized in conjunction with the Greek government and destined to visit the Getty Villa in Los Angeles after its five-month stay in Washington, borrows from Greek archaeological and art museums, including the magnificent Benaki Museum in Athens. Casual visitors to Greece, determined to exhaust their appetite for classical culture, may not spend much time with this later, less familiar material, but it is everywhere, and it is fascinating.

It is also too complex and diffuse to be covered in anything like the relatively small, synoptic show at the National Gallery. This is a highlights treatment, beginning with the lingering devotion to Roman and ancient Greek aesthetics, and ending with a room of magnificent icons from the 14th and 15th centuries, including a ruddy-cheeked image of the Archangel Michael that may convert anyone temperamentally resistant to the cool, stylized lines of Orthodox religious imagery.

The challenge of the exhibition is the perennial challenge of making sense of Eastern culture within a Western context: It requires first of all humility, then self-discipline and finally an acceptance of confusion, bafflement and wonder. Byzantium roughly corresponds to what students in the West grow up to believe were the Dark Ages, the long millennium and more between the decay of an aesthetic we can appreciate, derived from Rome and Greece, and the emergence of another aesthetic we adore, called the Renaissance. This in-between time seems static, naïve, unpolished, even inept.

If you bring a pencil and paper with you, it won’t be hard to produce a satisfying facsimile of the dancing figure incised through the glaze of a 13th-century bowl made in Cyprus. The face of this crudely made figure is a childlike formula, with a rounded “t” shape forming the nose and brows, two large dots for eyes, and three parallel lines to indicate the mouth and chin. Even the gender is uncertain, and its lower garment, or skirt, is rendered in parallel lines, with no effort to suggest the flowing contours of fabric.

Compared with a marble bust of a young woman, probably made around 410 A.D., when Alaric was sacking Rome far to the West, the bowl from Cyprus suggests an excruciating loss of artistic skill and subtlety. The bust has elegantly rendered drapery and a face of haunting beauty. Both the bust, and the woman it represents, would compel attention in the most sophisticated setting, and the sense that we are seeing a real woman in all her youthful radiance makes everything that is stylized about it (the hair, the ears, the missing arms and torso) disappear. This woman wouldn’t allow that bowl in her house, unless she condescended to accept it as a gift from a child.

It does us no good, however, to condescend to anything in this exhibition. And the power of its art and craft is felt only when you can unmoor yourself from both the classical world and the intimations of 15th-century Italy felt in its later chapters. Although condensed, and limited to material borrowed from Greece, the show hews to the general lines of contemporary scholarship about Byzantium, noting the long persistence of classical cultural (and occasional revivals) throughout the centuries of Byzantine rule; and the permeable lines between the Islamic world, the Latin or Western world, and rule of the emperors and patriarchs in Constantinople.

Paganism wasn’t so much banished as it was incorporated and repurposed. A carved stone table leg, made sometime in the mid-4th century, shows a boy holding a ram over his shoulders, an image that had as much currency among pagan elites as it did among Christians, although the latter would see it as a representation of the Good Shepherd. A carved frieze, found on the Acropolis at Athens, may be from a basilica that was once fitted into the Parthenon, a cohabitation that feels like desecration even today, especially for those who love the flawed deities of Olympus more than the dour monotheism of the past two millennia.

That monotheism took a long time to form, and one might see the profusion of saints and angels in Byzantine culture as sign that its formation was never quite finished. One of the oldest pieces in the exhibition is a head of Aphrodite, made in the 1st century, with a crude cross chiseled on its forehead and damage to its eyes and mouth, a “deliberate effort to ‘close’ the former and ‘silence’ the latter,” according to the exhibition catalogue. But that is also a tacit acknowledgment of the old goddess’s lingering supernatural power.

The defacing of Aphrodite by Christian ideologues was part of a long process of shutting down religious diversity and plurality, a move from a culture of dialogue to a culture of preaching and dogma. The fusion of political and religious leadership became all but absolute under the powerful Byzantine emperors, who appointed the patriarch. Heresy was derived from the word “hairesis,” or choice, and it became a crime.

If it takes humility to see Byzantine art not as exotic or peripheral to the “authentic” tradition of Western art, it requires self-discipline to explore its riches without latter-day prejudice against theocracy and superstition. An icon of the Crucifixion, made in the latter half of the 15th century, qualifies as beautiful without reference to its religious content. It is orderly, a map of the spiritual world, well designed in a purely formal way, like a slick graphic representation of a complicated subway system, or an effective flowchart. Never mind the sadism in its top register, where Roman soldiers crush the legs of the two thieves crucified with Christ; never mind the stifling fear of hell promulgated in the lower register, where demons cavort beneath a skull at the base of the cross. Even without engaging with its religious particulars, one senses the presence of something calm and essential in a sea of details and a riot of activity, and even without reference to the particular religious meaning of Mary, one senses a crushing and exhausting grief in the woman who collapses into the arms of Christ’s followers.

This icon was made in Crete, after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. Crete was artistically polyglot, and Latin and Byzantine influences fueled its art, sometimes in fascinating fusion styles, and often in delicious, unresolved juxtaposition. So this icon is already bringing the viewer to a dangerous place, the tempting retrospective vantage point from which late Byzantine art feels like a curtain raiser for early Western art.

There may be no avoiding the temptation. Byzantium remains and will long remain very strange to Western viewers, until its authors are as familiar to us as Augustine and Aquinas and its art and icons are integrated into our medieval galleries (or better, our medieval galleries subordinated to a vastly expanded display of art from the East). At the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Byzantine art, including spectacular silverware, is relegated to what are effectively below-stairs passageways. The same holds true at other major museums, and in Washington, Byzantine art is to be found in quantity only at Dumbarton Oaks, a small and snobby little museum where art always seems more foreign than it needs to be.

So the problem is deeply ingrained in Western culture. It is intellectual, emotional, spiritual and architectural. The last of these is the best metaphor for our resistance. We would need to unbuild our thinking to appreciate what is on display at the National Gallery. Which makes one wish that more was included, especially a better sense of the provincial outliers during the long reign of Constantinople. But this is a start, or at least a reminder, of how interesting and severe the challenge is, and it is worth serious attention.

Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections

is on view at the National Gallery of Art through March 2. For more information visit