LONDON (Reuters) - A major London exhibition on the Byzantine Empire gathers more than 340 priceless artifacts from around the world, many of them so rare and fragile that they are unlikely ever to travel again.
"Byzantium 330-1453" is the latest blockbuster show at the Royal Academy of Arts, and hundreds of thousands of people are expected to pour through the show's thematically arranged rooms between October 25 and March 22 next year.
At a press preview on Tuesday, some of the most treasured artifacts had yet to arrive ahead of Saturday's opening, including icons from the Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai and pieces from Russian collections.
Charles Saumarez Smith, chief executive and secretary of the Royal Academy, said he was confident most of the missing works would be in their display cases in time for the opening.
"It's probably inevitable that one or two end up not being quite as straightforward as we would have liked," he said.
Adrian Locke, acting head of exhibitions at the academy, called "Byzantium" "one of the most complicated exhibitions we've put together in recent years," describing the task of collecting treasures from 85 lenders as a "monumental task."
The Royal Academy was still waiting for the signature of the Egyptian minister of culture needed to release the icons from the Monastery at Sinai, a delay that reflects concern over the fragility of the works.
Academy officials said they doubted whether the icons, and two priceless pieces from the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, would ever be allowed to travel again.
They include a 12th century silver perfume brazier in the form of a domed building and a bejeweled 12th century icon of Archangel Michael which was believed to have been brought to Italy with other booty from the fourth crusade of 1204.
The exhibition aims to show the artistic sophistication of the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire that was concentrated around the Mediterranean Sea, as well as its domestic life, court grandeur and religious practices.
Dimly-lit display cases contain old, rare and beautifully illustrated psalters and Bibles, mosaics, carvings, chalices, icons, crucifixes, coins and stunning jewelry.
But there are also intimate objects from home like a hooded child's tunic from around the 7th century and an even earlier pair of leather sandals.
It explores the threat to art posed by iconoclasm, when emperors banned Christian figurative art, and the post-iconoclast revival.
There is also evidence of the multicultural atmosphere that flourished under some emperors, including Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos in the 10th century.
A delicate painted and gilded glass bowl from Constantinople combines classical mythology, Byzantine ornament and imitation Arabic kufic script.
Among the other highlights on display are the Antioch Chalice, dated between 500 and 550, which was believed by some to be the Holy Grail, or the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, when it was discovered in around 1911. It is now believed by scholars to be a standing lamp.
The Royal Academy focuses on the period between the foundation of Constantinople in 330 AD to the time when the city, now Istanbul, fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
Editing by Paul Casciato