Byzantine art and artifacts make up the most significant pre-20th-century holdings within the Menil Collection. In 1964, the Menil Foundation acquired a carefully assembled collection of more than 800 small objects of the sort commonly found in the everyday commerce and piety of medieval Byzantium—such as, stamps, seals, rings, keys, and buckles—from a noted dealer of antiquities and African and Asian art, J.J. Klejman.
Today the Byzantine collection includes over 1,000 such everyday items, along with objects such as a 7th-century silver paten showing the Communion of Paul and Peter, a gold reliquary from about 500 probably from Macedonia, and a 7th-to-10th-century bronze censer depicting scenes from the New Testament. The collection has been studied extensively and its value and distinctive character noted by such specialists as Gary Vikan, who wrote, “Because it is so strictly focused and yet well-selected and numerically extensive, the Menil Collection [of Byzantine artifacts] affords unique insights into that important, yet hitherto substantially ignored stratum of Byzantine society.”
The Menil’s collection of icons is widely regarded by scholars in the field as one of the most important in the United States. The group of more than 60 works was assembled with the advice of Bertrand Davezac, an expert in early medieval art who would become the chief curator of the Menil Collection upon its opening. The core of the group was acquired by Davezac and Dominique de Menil in 1985 from the noted English collector Eric Bradley. The Menil’s icon holdings span 1200 years, from the 6th to the 18th centuries, and encompass a number of distinct cultures: Greek, Balkan, and Russian. The icons at the Menil represent the history and reach of the Orthodox Church. Ranging from a 7th-century Byzantine icon of a soldier saint to examples from the “Golden Age” of Russian icon painting (15th–17th centuries), the breadth and quality of the collection embody the ambitions and the values, both aesthetic and spiritual, that guided Dominique and John de Menil throughout their lives as collectors.