A group of senior Greek officials left Washington for home Thursday, deeply disappointed that a major art exhibition from their country had just become one of the latest casualties of the federal government shutdown.
Headed by Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and Minister of Culture and Sports Panos Panagiotopoulos, the group had traveled to Washington to attend the formal National Gallery of Art inauguration Wednesday of “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections,” a visual narrative on a grand scale of cultural life and artistic endeavor in the Byzantine Empire told through 107 rare and important icons and other works of art on loan from Greek museums.
But this week’s shutdown closed the National Gallery, and seems likely to postpone the opening of the exhibition to the public, scheduled for Sunday.
The prime minister had made a stopover from the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York to address Wednesday’s inaugural, but he had other meetings in Washington, including talks with Vice President Joseph R. Biden.
Mr. Panagiotopoulos “made the trip specifically, and has left without even seeing the exhibition as it was finally displayed,” said Zoe Kosmidou, the cultural counselor at the Greek Embassy. “You can understand what the feelings are.”
A large group of scholars and officials who had flown over for the exhibition are still in Washington hoping for a quick resolution to the shutdown.
“We are trying to overcome the feeling of disappointment,” Ms. Kosmidou said, “and looking for the best way possible once the exhibition can be opened. Shall we have a press showing or a formal opening?”
The political wrangling in Washington must be familiar to the Greek visitors, given debt-ridden Greece’s own recent history of economic crisis, which has provoked protests at home, caused concern in the European Union and earned lectures on fiscal discipline from Germany.
In part, the Greeks are chagrined because the exhibition represented an attempt at cultural diplomacy to project their country as something other than a beleaguered country on the edge of a financial precipice. The subliminal message from the wealth of recognized religious and secular masterpieces on display — if anyone can see them — is that the Byzantine Empire flourished while the Germans were still daubing themselves with war paint.
The capital of Byzantium was Constantinople, now Istanbul in Turkey, but the Greeks can claim ownership of the Byzantine heritage by virtue of the fact that Byzantine icons are objects of devotion in the Eastern Orthodox Communion, of which the Greek Orthodox Church is an important component.
Some would find it ironic that the exhibition somehow reflects — not to say symbolizes — developments both in Athens and Washington because Byzantium also gave us the word “byzantine,” which means devious or incomprehensible action.
The exhibition will be in place until March 2, which suggests that time is on its side. After Washington, the show goes to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Religious icons, mostly painted in tempera on wood, were worshipped at home and in church, and carried in public processions along the streets and into battle. Icons in the exhibition include the double-sided image from the 12th century, with one side the Virgin Hodegetria, which holds a privileged place in the iconography of the Mother of Christ. In the icon, she is pointing to the child Jesus on her lap.
On the other side is the so-called Man of Sorrows, the earliest known work depicting the dead Christ lying in repose.
But the exhibition also includes mosaics (a quintessentially Byzantine art form), jewelry and manuscripts of ancient Greek writers and philosophers, testifying to the fact that “most of what survives of ancient Greek learning and literature is known from copies commissioned by Byzantine intellectuals,” according to a wall caption in the exhibition.