Monday 23 February 2009

Byzantium: Queuing for the Ladder

Yesterday I finally made it to Byzantium - the Royal Academy exhibition,
that is (no crossing of dolphin-torn or gong-tormented seas was involved).
I'd been putting it off because I knew it was the kind of exhibition I enjoy
least - i.e. a blockbuster - but it is a true once-in-a-lifetime event, as
many of the exhibits will almost certainly never be lent out again. So I
went, paid the stiff ticket price (roll on the pensioner years - Bryan of
course would have been nodded through at the concessionary rate) and 'did'
Byzantium, and, as expected, it was a pretty gruelling form of pleasure.
There's an awful lot of stuff to see, and there were an awful lot of people
jostling to see it - which is not easy when so many of the exhibits are
pretty small and are displayed in glass cases, each one surrounded by a
mini-scrum of attentive grey heads. Not ideal conditions for what is anyway
a somewhat artificial experience - looking at objects completely out of
context. I mean, these things were not made to be displayed in an art
gallery (there was no such thing at the time); they were designed either for private use
(practical, devotional, aesthetic) or, for the most part, for display
in churches and palaces, as elements of an all-embracing symbolic structure
of power and worship, and of a theology most of us have little notion of. It
is one thing to walk around the glorious basilica of Torcello; it's quite
another to stare at a mosaic fragment from Torcello, beautiful though it is,
in a case at the Royal Academy. Still, there was much there that I was glad
to see (when I'd fought my way to it) and to have seen.
The last exhibit, and in effect the climax of the exhibition, is the extraordinary Heavenly
Ladder pictured (I hope) above. This was proving so popular that a permanent
queue - yes an orderly British queue - had formed, with each viewer moving
to the front, getting his or her 30 seconds or so (much more would have been
rude), then peeling off and strolling out, sated, to the Gift Shop. Ah


  1. I love art galleries (mostly) but nearly always find museums a chore. Something to do with objects being out of context, as you say.

    But crowded art galleries are a misery, the ultimate being the zombie-style nightmare that is the Mona Lisa room at the Louvre.

    (Odd formatting here, Nige. Is it a free-form poem?)

  2. Good grief yes - I don't know why it's done that. Let's call it a free-form poem then...

  3. I went not long after Christmas. Not too crowded either. Plenty I enjoyed but overall it was more of a collection of objects, an expo without a story, than something about "Byzantium". Tant pis since this is one of the world's great stories, I feel. Even so, some of the things in the first few rooms were knock-outs for me and it made me think that a long weekend in the real place or what's left of it would be just the ticket. I was beginning to flag - a man can only take so much holiness - by the time the Heavenly Ladder (sans queue) hove into view.