Byzantium - the very word conjures up images of a culture that was mystical and the mysterious, cultured, sophisticated and intimately doomed. Constantinople, the city located where the East meets the West was founded by Constantine in A.D. 330 and became the new capital of the Roman Empire.
Now Byzantium - or it's artistic heritage - is now on display at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles. The show is drawn from 34 national collections in Greece and spans more than 1,300 years from the very pagan beginnings of Byzantium, through the synthesis of pagan and Christian art portraying both the decades of glory and the grief of decline.
The empire spread and receded throughout its 1000-year history, but remained famous for the grandeur of its art and architecture. The ancient name, Byzantium, now came to signify the empire and the culture of the second Rome.
With around 170 objects — icons, mosaics, frescoes, jewelry and embroideries, illuminated books — all on loan, the show takes a magisterial look at Byzantine art from its Greco-Roman beginnings to its multicultural late phase in the 15th century. In some cases, the translation from pagan to Christian was crude and brutal as witnessed by a head of the goddess Aphrodite, disfigured by a cross gouged into her forehead.
The later treasures of Christian art shimmer with gold - a 13th-century icon of the Virgin and Child, pieced together from glass, silver and gold; a 17-foot-long parchment scroll packed with chirping birds and secret prayers; a exquisite silk embroidery, found hidden away in a Thessaloniki church, depicting the body of the dead Christ surrounded by fan-wielding seraphs and a stitched chant, “Holy, holy, holy.”
In 1204, internal Byzantine politics and the expansionist West, effectively ended the imperial Byzantine state. The Fourth Crusade  succeeded in conquering Constantinople and making it a Latin principality for half a century. The Greek political leadership, under the Palaiologan Dynasty regained Constantinople in 1261, but the "empire" was just one state among many in the area for the final 200 years of its existence. Strangely, this period was among the most culturally productive, in art, in theology, and in literature.
But all was not religious and devotion - Byzantium had enormous wealth and loved to spend it on luxury items - gilded tableware, blown-glass goblets, perfume flasks, silver spoons, ivory combs, designer ceramics, and jewelry. The most utilitarian pieces in the exhibition are five two-pronged bronze forks that are 900 to 1,000 years old.
"It's a rather old trope that Byzantine art looks the same, but it doesn't," said Mary Louise Hart, a Getty curator of antiquities who's overseeing the exhibition at the Villa. "It's a goal of this exhibition to communicate their great diversity of artistic expression over this amount of time."
The Ottoman Turks proved to be the nemesis of the Byzantine Empire. In 1453, Mehmed the Conquer and his troops captured Constantinople after a long siege. Toward the end, the city's beleaguered residents paraded their most holy icons around the walls, hoping for divine intervention. Alas, it was to no avail. The Turks entered the city, sacked it for three days and proclaimed the official religion was now Islam. Those who could fled the city, bringing Greek culture with them and possibly jump-started the Renaissance. Those who could not flee, stayed and made what accommodation they could with their new masters. The beautiful mosaics of Hagia Sophia were plastered over and the cathedral turned into a mosque. It would be 600 years before they would be seen again.
The exhibit celebrates a great civilization that stretched from Novgorod to southern Egypt, and from Spain to the Euphrates. The Byzantines held back the Turkish menace when the West was militarily weak and gave us breathing space. They preserved the Greek heritage in literature and brought it to the West after the fall of Constantinople. The millennium of Byzantine civilization profoundly influenced our modern world in ways that become clearer with every major exhibition sympathetic to its complex character.