Advance ticket sales suggest there is massive interest in Byzantium, an exhibition spanning the centuries from the founding of Constantinople by Emperor Constantine in 330 to its capture by the Turks – who renamed it Istanbul – in 1453.
It has been more than 50 years since the last major British exhibition of Byzantine art, and the current show brings together an almost unprecedented haul of masterpieces from collections as far afield as Venice, Ukraine, Egypt and Jerusalem.
Robin Cormack, who played a leading role in putting the exhibition together, revealed that he had been told by several museums that this was the last time they would be willing to lend their treasures.
He said: “This is an extraordinary event. It is truly incredible, the things that we have been lent. Take the collections of the monastery of St Catherine in Sinai, which must count as the greatest Byzantine rediscovery of the entire 20th century: they’ve lent no fewer than nine large icons, which date from the 11th to the 13th centuries. They’re so rare, so beautiful, it’s just an act of such generosity.”
He added that the aim of the exhibition, which opens on Saturday, was “to unwrap the myth of Byzantium, the tired idea that it was a decadent culture producing static, repetitive works of art, and to show Byzantine culture in all its dynamism and beauty – to give a sense of what it was actually like to live in the world of Constantinople in the Middle Ages”.