Byzantium and Prince Charles
I know that it was all in the family, but until yesterday I hadn't been to the Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy. This was partly because I had been in the US when it opened, partly because I had an invitation to an evening opening yesterday, which seemed a way of making sure I went.
Now, the first thing to say -- but I'm biased, given that my husband is one of the curators -- is that the show is stunning. From the greatest hits of late Roman sculpture to the icons of the Sinai monastery, you get an array of art (and art engaged with religion) that beats almost anything you can see anywhere. No contest. I was silenced (more or less).
But I hadn't quite expected the kind of evening opening of the show that I found. Frankly, I think, I squeezed in as the wife of a curator. The other guests were much more exclusive than me: including some of the monks of the Sinai monastery, senior members of the Church of England,and Prince Charles.
We had been alerted to his resence beforehand and told to bring ID. So it wasn't entirely a surprise -- but other things were.
I've been to other occasions where HRH was on parade. But it has been a crowd of hundreds, within which it was easy to merge into the background. On this occasion it was a group of 40 or so, and HRH talked to everyone. He was more interested, I'm pleased to say, in the son than in me. And, in fact, the son did him a good spiel about reading classics at Balliol.
But the other guests were fascinating. Unlike the husband, I've never been to Sinai, but it was wonderful to talk to the monks from there. I embraced the abbot enthusiastically and Father Justin (from Sinai via Texas) told me about life in what is effectively a sixth century world, and he gave some discrete hints about the tourism which now defines the monastery.
We were allowed into the show only after HRH had gone in (with husband and co-curator Maria Vassiliki). But it was beautiful. I'd lived through this exhibition, with all the negotiations about what objects would or would not come. I hadn't reckoned on the visual impact and (OK cliche coming -- but a sincere one) the sheer beauty and emotional charge of the display.
By the end of the evening the stragglers ended up looking at a brilliant icon from Sinai, the
Ladder of St John Klimakos - showing the faithful reaching heaven and other falling into hell. I drunkenly opined that this was deeply depressing to the likes of me, as I could only think of myself as one who was going to fall into hell.
The Archbishop of York, who overheard this and who'd also been enjoying the show, tried to persuade me to be a bit more optimistic about my chances.
But I wasn't sure.