Early Christian art on display at the Onassis Cultural Center, NYC

early Christian art, David plate
It’s often called the Dark Ages, a time when barbarian hordes overran Rome and that great civilization’s art, culture, and learning disappeared. A time when there were no great achievements.

It’s a misnomer.

Rome did not fall in the fifth century with the usurpation of the last emperor in Rome in 476. To the east, at the new capital of Constantinople, modern Istanbul, the Eastern Roman Empire was starting a new renaissance in art and administration that would become known as Byzantium.

An exhibition in New York City’s Onassis Cultural Center explores the place of early Christianity in these often misunderstood years. Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd to 7th Century AD opened yesterday and runs until May 14, 2012.

The exhibition brings together more than 170 objects from collections in Greece, Cyprus, and the US. There are a wide range of objects including mosaics, paintings, sculptures, architectural elements, inscriptions, coins, liturgical objects, jewelry, and domestic items. The timeline spans the last years of paganism and the rise of Christianity as a tolerated and eventually the official religion.

Early Christian art took on many of the forms and styles of earlier Roman art, as you can see from this 7th century silver plate, shown here in a Wikimedia Commons image. This is one of the nine so-called David Plates, commissioned by the Emperor Heraklios (ruled 610-641), whose victory over the Persians was compared to David’s defeat of Goliath. In this plate David is being presented to Saul (1 Samuel 17:32–34). The figures are dressed like Roman aristocracy.

The exhibition looks at many facets of late Antiquity including the interaction of paganism and Christianity, daily life, the importance of cities, and funerary art.

Of course the “barbarians” had art of their own. While that’s beyond the scope of this exhibition, many museums have collections of the Germanic tribes’ unique styles of jewelry, glasswork, and carving. The British Museum has an especially good collection.