“Vaults of Heaven: Visions of Byzantium” is the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s equivalent of a crash course in Byzantine history and culture. The exhibit features 24 large photographs by world-renowned Turkish photographer Ahmet Ertug and four cases of the museum’s Byzantine artifacts.

“Vaults of Heaven: Visions of Byzantium”

Through May 9, 2011
Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Ertug first got in touch with the Kelsey four years ago when he corresponded with a Byzantine specialist at the museum. At the time, the museum didn’t have anywhere to put his extremely large photographs, some of which are six-by-five feet.

“He had done these enormous, ultra-large photographs of several Christian churches in Turkey and they were things that were in what’s now Istanbul, what was once known as Constantinople,” said curator Lauren Talaylay, who compiled the exhibition, “and there were also a series of photographs in the interior of churches that had been hewn out of these enormous volcanic spires that were laid down hundreds of thousands of years ago when Christians had retreated to the area.”

With Ertug’s consent, the Kelsey held onto the photographs in storage until the museum opened its new wing last November.

“It’s actually quite different because it is almost exclusively a photographic show,” Talaylay said.

The change seems to be a welcome one, because the size and quality of Ertug’s pictures are considered quite a technical feat. Few photographers are able to enlarge their work while maintaining its clear quality.

“(He) has colossal printing presses and he’s very particular about the color and the size and the print,” Talaylay said. “They’re really crisp for something that’s that big.”

To bring visitors a broader sense of Byzantine culture, Talaylay chose to supplement the photographs with some of the Kelsey’s Byzantine artifacts and informational panels outlining the history of the empire. The setup, with huge, vibrant photographs dominating the wall space and ancient artifacts sitting in the center of the room in sparkling glass cases, takes the viewer “inside” an ancient Byzantine church. Detailed depictions of Christ, saints and other Biblical figures are displayed in their entirety, some accompanied by photographs that zoom in on the picture’s more significant aspects.

Talaylay commented that, while most people have at least a basic knowledge of some ancient civilizations, the Byzantines are almost completely unknown.

“They know the Greeks, the Romans, the Near East and the Egyptians, but Byzantine means nothing to them,” she said.

With the help of two student volunteers, Talaylay rooted through the roughly 100,000 items in storage at the Kelsey to create four display cases of artifacts, including Byzantine coins, textiles and liturgical items, as well as some Islamic pieces. Her favorite piece in the exhibit is a red textile depicting Byzantine women.

“Some of them were dictated just by getting together myself (and) the students and looking at each object, saying, ‘Does it make sense intellectually to be in a case? Is it pretty? Is it something that would be interesting to the public?’ ” Talaylay said.

The artifacts are characterized by opulent, saturated color, a heavy emphasis on symbolism and intricate design in even the most humble objects. One of the Islamic water strainers, an ancient, artistic stone version of a Brita pitcher, for example, has a filter that depicts a peacock, flaunting its feathers against a delicate filigree background.

Talaylay hopes that visitors to the exhibit will enjoy the art’s beauty as well as gain a new understanding of the Byzantine Empire and its importance to world history.

“This was a really important chapter of over 1,100 years of cultural history,” Talaylay said. “It’s not like you’re going to bring it up at a party, but it would be nice (to understand the culture in) a larger context of the importance of all these ancient cultures.”

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