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Africa & Byzantium

Spectacular treasures from diverse lands joined by deserts, seas, and rivers
Kristen Windmuller-Luna, Curator of African Arts
February 15, 2024
Two women in front of ancient building

Saint Simeon’s Monastery Curator Kristen Windmuller-Luna (right) and predoctoral fellow Helina Gebremedhen at the 10th-century Coptic Orthodox site, June 2023

It’s 110 degrees, and I’m riding a camel through the Egyptian desert. In just minutes, the land had swiftly transitioned from the Nile River’s lush green banks into a tan sandscape. As I rode on, the dunes revealed the stone mass of a 10th-century Coptic Orthodox monastery. The heat and bumpy journey were quickly forgotten after stepping into Saint Simeon’s painted ruins. There, colorful images of saints and the Virgin Mary waited, punctuated by prayerful graffiti written in Coptic by pilgrims centuries earlier. 

I had traveled to Egypt with Helina Gebremedhen, the Leigh and Mary Carter Director’s Research Fellow. The ruins offered no souvenirs, but centuries earlier we might have purchased ceramic vials impressed with saintly images. Found from Egypt to England to Central Asia, several such containers depicting Saint Minas—appropriately flanked by camels—are featured in the CMA’s upcoming exhibition Africa & Byzantium. These mass-produced objects carried by everyday people speak of how far humans, faith, and art traveled during an early moment of global interconnectivity.

Three centuries after ancient Egypt’s pharaohs ended their rule, new African rulers built empires in the continent’s north and east. Spanning from the Empire of Aksum in present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea to Nubia’s Christian kingdoms in present-day Sudan, these complex civilizations cultivated economic, political, and cultural relationships with one another. The Byzantine Empire (Byzantium)—inheritor of the Roman Empire—also participated in these artistic and cultural networks as it briefly expanded into northern Africa (present-day Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt). Together, these great civilizations created unique local arts while also building a shared visual culture across regions linked by the Mediterranean and Red Seas, Nile River, and Sahara Desert.

A column with heiroglyphs
Philae Temple Detail of a Byzantine-era cross (c. 6th or 7th century) overlaid on pharaonic-era carvings (c. 3rd century BCE to 6th century). Photo: Kristen Windmuller-Luna, June 2023

Africa & Byzantium considers the intertwined artistic relationships between northern and eastern African Christian kingdoms and the Byzantine Empire from the fourth century CE and beyond.1

The show will include spectacular examples of secular and sacred art from across geographies and faiths, mostly made by African artists or imported onto the continent at the request of powerful rulers of precolonial kingdoms and empires. The arts and faiths of these historical kingdoms—including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—resonate with many worldwide today.

This once-in-a-lifetime international loan exhibition appeared this past fall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In Cleveland, it builds on our proud legacy of nearly a century of exhibitions about arts from important African civilizations and cultures. It reflects institutional efforts since 2020 to present a broader view of African creativity, including the debut of northern African art in the permanent collection galleries and the museum’s first pan-continental presentation of African textiles in Stories from Storage in 2021.

While only recently spotlighted in our galleries, northern African arts have been part of the CMA’s collection since 1914. Perhaps best known are pharaonic-era Egyptian objects, among Africa’s most celebrated arts. Our northern African holdings also include fine textiles and jewelry that Jeptha H. Wade II and his family purchased in Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia. Austin Chinn, Wade’s great-grandson, inspired by his family’s history as early collectors of African arts, chose to provide major exhibition support for Africa & Byzantium. He invited other members of the Wade family to add their support to enable the CMA to bring the most compelling version of this groundbreaking exhibition to our audiences. While in Aswan, Egypt, we retraced the Wades’ journey to Philae Temple in the 1890s. Swathed in heavy skirts and suits, they must have endured a far hotter journey than ours! It was at Philae where the overlapping histories and arts presented in Africa & Byzantium were most vivid. The building bears traces of its nine centuries of life as first a temple for the goddess Isis and later a Byzantine Christian church.

A stunning crown from Cairo’s Egyptian Museum similarly exemplifies how distinctive arts and cultures blended across centuries. Made around the fifth or sixth century, when Nubian leaders chose to become Christian, the crown incorporates symbols from ancient Egypt (feathers, pharaoh masks), imagery from the 11th through fourth century BCE Nubian kingdom of Kush (ram’s head), and gemstones set using Byzantine techniques. It demonstrates how its African wearer knew the power of both his artistic legacy and his contemporary cosmopolitanism.

a silver crown with jewels
Man’s Crown, 400s–500s CE. Nubia, Qustul (Sudan), X-Group or Ballana culture, unknown jeweler. Silver, gemstones (including garnet and carnelian), and paste stones (glass); 20 x 15 cm. Egyptian Museum, Cairo, 70455. © DeA Picture Library / S. Vannini / Art Resource, NY

Many artworks in this exhibition are directly linked with African leaders, patrons, and artists. Unique to Cleveland’s presentation is a recently acquired Ethiopian Orthodox Christian diptych painted by Wäldä Maryam or his workshop around 1700 (see page 24). There, each saint’s name is written in Ge’ez, an Ethiopian language with fifth century BCE roots. Ethiopian church paintings from the 17th century attributed to Wäldä Maryam will be on view in the US for the first time. Also making their US debut are larger-than-life medieval frescoes from Sudan’s Faras Cathedral depicting Nubians protected by saints and Christ himself. We can read their names in Coptic, an Egyptian language written with Greek letters: Aaron, Bishop Petros. Old Nubian and Arabic round out the African languages found in masterpieces throughout the exhibition. 

Integral features of the CMA’s presentation include loans from Northeast Ohio collections and the incorporation of Greater Clevelanders’ perspectives in Community Voice labels. This people-forward approach to historical artworks will help visitors appreciate their contemporary relevance. “We are excited to incorporate the voices of community members who have strong connections to the subject of this exhibition,” says Erin Fletcher, director of interpretation and adult programs, “so we can show audiences that these cultures are still vital and vibrant today.” Alongside loans of actively venerated 6th- and 13th-century icons from Sinai’s Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, they powerfully express the legacies of visual cultures born of earlier times.

When you visit Africa & Byzantium, I hope you experience the same wonder as I did while in Egypt. A trip through the exhibition will take you across time and place to a visual feast of more than 160 paintings, manuscripts, mosaics, jewelry items, frescoes, and other pieces borrowed from African, European, and North American institutions. Much has changed since work on this exhibition began in 2019. To unite so many artworks in an international loan exhibition during warfare and a global pandemic testifies to the hard work, creativity, and generosity of hundreds. We thank our CMA team and members of the local heritage communities who contributed to Cleveland’s presentation of Africa & Byzantium.  

1. Africa is a big continent; curious why this show considers just part of it? Historically, the Romans and later the Byzantines called only a small portion of the continent along the northern coast “Africa.” This exhibition and its title reflect that historical understanding of geography.