Across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 52nd Street in Manhattan stands a tall, black-glass high-rise. Enter the glitzy atrium lobby, descend a flight of stairs, and quite suddenly you are enveloped by a miniature bubble of the ancient world. You have walked into the Olympic Tower’s Onassis Cultural Center, dedicated to exhibitions about the Hellenic world. Despite having been open since 2000, the center has the air of a pleasantly well-kept secret frequented by dapper elderly scholars and New Yorkers of Greek descent. It’s an ideal lunchtime escape from the nearby Fifth Avenue shopping crowds, especially with the current show. “Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd – 7th Century A.D.” offers a corrective to the rampant consumerism of our day with a condign lesson in Christianity’s classical roots and intense devotions while also reminding us that a trade in objects flourished from its earliest times.

To be sure, the show’s overarching message is scarcely intended to focus on holiday shopping habits. After all, it stays open until May 14. Ancient mosaics, busts, coins, jewelry, glassware, building fragments and the like—some 170 objects in 2,500 square feet of space—have been pooled mostly (but not entirely) from Greek museums to tell us about a critical phase in our collective Western consciousness. From the Greek viewpoint (two of the three curators hail from Greece), these four centuries were not the Dark Ages, despite the Euro-centric conventional wisdom. In recent decades, scholars have used the less pejorative term “Late Antiquity” because, while Rome declined, the eastern Roman Empire known as Byzantium increasingly gathered strength. As the show’s catalog points out, “for much of this time events in Western Europe could be regarded as a sideshow. The east stood out as the more peaceful and prosperous region.”

Continue Reading on