03 December 2007

Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art

This past weekend I (along with a few others from my class on the history of Byzantine Art) had the opportunity to visit the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. We had come, thanks to the generosity of the Dean of Students and the Art department of the University of Puget Sound, to view their special exhibition, entitled Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art. It was well worth the trip.

Though the selection of items on display was not huge, their quality was quite exquisite (thanks in part to the restoration work which had been done to some of the pieces). The variety of mediums represented in the collection was equally impressive as samples of silver, glassware, sarcophagi and carved ivory were all available for viewing. The remarkable craftsmanship that must have gone into producing such artifacts was plain to see, particularly in the ivories and precious stones, which pieces exhibited an incredible degree of detail.

Among the finest items present were the exquisite Maskell Ivories, a selection from the Sinope Gospels, surviving fragments of the nearly-destroyed Cotton Genesis and the manuscript of the fifth century Rabbula Gospels (pictured above), one of the finest--and most important--extant illuminated manuscripts. High-resolution scans of these works are available online, and while these are of good quality, they really don't do justice to the originals, and are really no substitute.

In addition to the special exhibition, the Kimbell Museum's permanent collection is also worth a visit. Being a would-be classicist, I found two items particularly interesting. The first was a red-figure bowl which showed in fairly grisly detail the dismemberment of Pentheus at the hands of the maenads, an episode which is best remembered from Euripides's Bacchae. My favorite item, however, would have to be the exquisite Hellenistic bronze head of a nameless athlete (pictured below). The head, which is supposed to be a copy of an original by the Greek master sculptor Lysippos, survives in absolutely fantastic condition, and is a testament to the skill of its sculptor.

Anyone who is (or will be) in the Fort Worth area should leap at the chance to visit the Kimbell Art Museum.

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